Royal Air Force – 2017 and Beyond into its Second Century


Royal Air Force – 2017 and Beyond into its Second Century

This short DefenceSynergia brief looks at the Royal Air Force (RAF) today with some references to the past but looking to the future and is deliberately concise. It opens with a spot brief and concludes with a short written summary of what this means in practice including, surprisingly, references to the Royal Navy and British Army.


Spot Brief

1. In 1997 Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) agreed to 52,200 Royal Air Force (RAF) uniformed personnel to meet expeditionary warfare requirements – today HMG says this can be done with 33,000.

2. In 1997 the RAF was expected to be capable of deploying up to 72 fast jets (6 squadrons) on an enduring operation – today (according to a former Chief of the Air Staff (CAS)) the RAF would be hard pushed to field 24 fast jets (2 squadrons) from a Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR 2015) declared total establishment of 7 RAF fast jet squadrons.

3. In the 1990s and early 21st Century the RAF could provide a broad range of capabilities using a wide range of aircraft, including: Air Supremacy and superiority; Strategic and tactical Air Transport (AT); air-to-air refuelling (AAR) and buddy-buddy AAR refuelling between combat aircraft types; Vertical and Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) for both land and maritime operations; Air Defence (AD); Battlefield tactical reconnaissance; Close Air Support (CAS); Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD); Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI); airborne Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR); Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMPA); maritime Strike; maritime airborne ASW; Short Range Air Defence/Anti-Aircraft Artillery (SHORAD/AAA); medium range Ground Based Air Defence (GDAD); Airborne Early Warning (AEW/AWACS); Signals, Electronic and communications Intelligence (SIGINT/ELINT/COMINT); Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR).

4. Following the retirement of a range of tailored but adaptable aircraft over the last 20 years (Harrier GR7/9, Sea Harrier, Buccaneer; Jaguar; Vulcan; Phantom, Tornado F2/F3/GR1, the RAF is expected to provide a limited combat role/function spectrum with just two highly expensive and limited number of Typhoon FGR4/T3 (107 total) and F35-B Lightning II (total yet to be announced, 48 assumed) with limited weapons capability or adaptability.

5. The RAF used to be able to deliver a wide range of weapons: 30mm, 27mm and 20mm gun systems, BL755 Cluster Munitions, JP233 runway denial weapon, SNEB rockets, ALARM air launched anti radiation missile, Sidewinder Aim-9L, Sparrow Aim-7, AGM-86 Harpoon and Sea Eagle anti-shipping missiles, Paveway II and free fall retarded 1000lb bombs and WE.177 nuclear bomb. For GBAD, the RAF employed medium-range Bloodhound Mk II until 1991 and Rapier 2000 until a 2006 MOD study recommended the RAF system be transferred to the Royal Artillery (RA) to preserve RA units.

6. The RAF’s weapons inventory has been up dated in some areas but is now more limited: AIM 120 AMRAAM; AIM 132 ASRAAM; METEOR Air-to-Air missile; BRIMSTONE Ground Attack missile; guided Paveway II, Paveway III, Paveway IV bombs; various General purpose free-fall bombs; STORMSHADOW cruise missile; Mauser gun system. Guided systems are supported by Litening III laser targeting and reconnaissance pods, and Raptor stand-off electro-optical and infrared (IR), long-range oblique-photography pod.

7. Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability is agreed by all chiefs of staff to be essential to compensate for lower deployable numbers in both asymmetric and conventional warfare terms. However, a full tier of capability has been gapped by loss of Nimrod long range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) and the system’s overall ability degraded by a failure to fund E-3D Sentry open system architecture upgrade or to implement Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). By procuring RC135 Air Seeker aircraft and P8-Poseidon LRMPA without a UK AAR capability the extensive AAR fleet has limited UK/NATO utility. As F35-B Lightning II has no carrier based AAR support, and is unable to do ‘buddy’ AAR , the F35-Bs combat range and endurance limits the Carrier Strike Capability.

8. The RAF’s AT and AAR fleets are being upgraded but funding restrictions are affecting total numbers thereby limiting strategic reach – 22 x A400M, 14 x A330-200 AT/AAR Voyager and 8 x C17 Globe Master (Total 44) are replacing circa 70 C130, VC10 and Tri-star.

9. The net effect of Future Force 2025 (FF2025) on the RAF is to emasculate its ability to deploy fast jets overseas in the air defence, interdiction and ground support roles and to reduce AT/AAR reaction times and reach other than in small unit formations. Until the new buy of P8 Poseidon LRMPA is made the RAF will have no dedicated LRMPA ISTAR capability and the serviceability and retention of 6 x E3-D AWACS and 5 x Sentinel (ASTOR), originally to be scrapped under SDSR2010, is questionable.

10. The RAF has been enhanced with the Reaper Unmanned Air System (UAS), but it has limited ISTAR and weapons delivery capability, and its use is not integrated with the Army’s Watchkeeper or other UAS, thus, undermining any effective UAS Air Power capability through Single Service stove piped use and doctrines for this emerging technology.

11. However, despite a reduced training burden for single seat combat pilots the RAF and RN retain a fleet of over 100 Hawk advanced trainers across T1/T1A/T1W/T2 variants.

12. Sustainment and maintenance support is so underfunded that all aircraft fleets are constrained to operate at around 60% total availability. That is 4 out of every 10 aircraft are unavailable, not combat ready or being used as spares providers (Hangar Queens).

13. Crucially, the UK does not have an integrated land based or deployable ground based anti-aircraft/anti-missile defence GBAD system beyond short range hand held weapons and close range Rapier. The UK does not have any defences against hypersonic cruise missiles.

RAF helo capabilities have generally been handed to the Joint Helicopter Command which is understandably Army focussed, thus, the RAF’s helo capability is much reduced to ‘battlefield logistics’ functions.

14. The RAF has not had dedicated SEAD, Maritime Strike, BAI, tactical reconnaissance, or CSAR capabilities for a decade. Since 2006, the RAF has not had the ability to defend its airfields since the handover of Rapier GBAD to the Army which focuses the reduced ‘Joint’ capability with which it was entrusted, on GBAD and SHORAD primarily on single Service Army needs.

DS Summary of What This Means in Practice

15. Expeditionary warfare is complex and resource intensive. It requires all UK forces – Naval, Land and Air – to be ready to operate, at short notice, in unfamiliar environments often from bare base or austere facilities against a foe that is on home ground. In the case of air power, the force protection and logistic enablers required must not only be available at the highest readiness and in sufficient numbers and quality to ensure success at a distance from the home base but supported and defended along the lines of communication.

16. From an RAF perspective FF2025 only allows HMG’s expeditionary world-wide aspiration to be achieved in very limited circumstances. With the total number of combat ready assets and personnel available the RAF will be hard pushed to rapidly deploy and support more than a single army brigade with all its impedimenta overseas on a medium intensity war fighting operation. The RAF’s ability to air-transport the Army’s heavy armour, artillery, personnel carriers and Royal Engineer heavy equipment is seriously limited and in some cases non-existent. Which is where the Royal Navy must step in, yet, she herself is severely constrained through an inadequate number of hulls available to meet her operational commitments.

17. Whilst RAF limited aircraft AD assets are available to defend small volumes of UK airspace from intruder aircraft, the UK home base and deployed British forces have no medium or long range anti-missile/AAA or Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (TBMD) beyond those limited capabilities developed for the Type 45 destroyer. The UK currently has no AD or TBMD capability against emerging hypersonic stand off missiles – Chinese DF-21D and Russian Zircon. This leaves UK bases, establishments, vessels and deploying or deployed forces wide open to stand-off interdiction by an enemy prior to and during mobilisation, in transit or once in-theatre.

18. DS acknowledges that the defence budget is stretched and that in such circumstances Front Line Commanders (FLC’s) must prioritise. The question is how and where to focus money to ensure that UK air power plays its part in the overarching SDSR 2015 FF2025 order of battle (ORBAT)? Arguably to meet the most demanding priority – Expeditionary Warfare in a NATO Article V response.

19. What is desperately needed is Air Power leadership, innovation and imagination to truly ‘sweat the assets’ and standardise air weapons and ISTAR capabilities across all fixed wing and rotary wing platforms. For example: Why are Apache Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, Wildcat Stingray torpedoes or Sea Venom anti-ship missiles not interchangeable on all helos, and why not useable on Hawk or Reaper? Why can’t a C130-J or a C-17 Globemaster have a LRMPA ISTAR and sonar buoy and depth-charge/torpedo dropping capability? Why can’t a Voyager have a AWACS or SENTINEL capability? Why can’t a Hawk, A Reaper, Watchkeeper, Apache or Wildcat have a Litening III/Raptor capability? With such limited airframes and Capability, true multi-role capabilities across all air system types must be a priority.

20. DS would argue that in an expeditionary age where rapid deployment and force protection are paramount that this is where the RAF should focus. However, to provide rapid reach in contested air space requires the correct mix of AT, AAR, AD, ABM and strike capability in an ISTAR enabled environment. But to maximise aircraft availability and utility – up from 60% to 90% – and to introduce more AT/AAR/ISTAR within the mix will require the Air Staff to make some hard nosed decisions. Not least that sustainability of such an air-fleet must take priority over fast jet numbers. There is little point in having 100 plus Typhoons (any aircraft) in the inventory if the manpower and sustainment resources available can only support 60 of them at any one time.

21. The RAF’s and Royal Navy’s role in enabling, supporting and protecting the Army on expeditionary operations must be acknowledged as a Joint funding responsibility. For example, there is little utility to the Chief of the General Staff’s new ‘Strike Brigades’ if, based in UK, they are unable to deploy in good time or be protected during deployment and in theatre by adequate air and sea power. It is time for a ‘system of systems’ Capability approach to funding when standing up Forces. Having just part of a capability funded and procured, such as Astute submarines without dry docks, or network-centric ship without CEC, or airfields and Strike Brigades without layered GBAD, SHORAD and AAA wrapping, is not procuring and delivering combat capability – it is just ‘buying stove-piped military stuff’. Whilst the Army will largely take the lead in ground warfare their ability to get to the fight and be defended against the inevitable air power attack of any adversary, is a Joint matter and this logistic capability must be funded alongside the combat elements, but led and provided by the ‘environment specialist Service’ if full utility of Force is to be attained to deliver battle winning combat effect.

22. There seems little true integrated Air Power thinking, doctrine, tactics or pan-Service cooperation. Air Power doctrine in reality is limited to RAF thinking and focus on fast and large fixed wing aircraft. Evolving Air Power capabilities in the Army Air Corps (AAC) and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) – F35-B, Apache, Wild Cat, Watchkeeper, et al are seemingly sidelined and ignored. The time for a fully integrated approach to air power is now. Later this year the Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carrier will arrive in Portsmouth, within two years it is planned for the initial air group to be embarked – a mix of FAA, Army and RAF aircraft. The first F35-Bs will be flown by 617 Squadron RAF. If there was ever a case for joint Naval, Army and Air Staff cooperation this is surely it.

23. Necessity is the mother of innovation – as the RAF plans its 100th anniversary celebrations in 2018, is it again time for the RAF to innovate and evolve to meet its operational Air Power challenges by exploiting the available limited pan-Service MOD Air Power assets and resources to the full as it did over 77 years ago.