Sir John Slessor Memorial Lecture


The following lecture was given by Howard Wheeldon FRAeS, House of Commons on the 24th February 2015.

2015 SDSR – The Last Chance for UK Defence?

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am both honoured and proud to stand before you this afternoon to present the 2015 Slessor Lecture.

This is not only because I am naturally bound to be humbled when reminded of the list of eminent senior military officers that have presented this lecture in the past, including many former Air Staff Chiefs, but also because this event provides an opportunity to stand up for air power and to present our immediate concerns.

It also presents an opportunity to remember an extraordinary military airman and commander, a man whose brilliance and intellectual skills, who’s lateral thinking and whose authority on the tactical use and concept of air power remain the mantra of the Royal Air Force today.

It is exactly one hundred years since John Cotesworth Slessor began his career in military aviation and no less than 63 years since he retired as Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1952.

Whether involved in planning the strategic bomber offensive against Germany in the second-world–war, command of RAF Coastal Command or his later instrumental work promoting the development of an independent British nuclear deterrent, the work of John Slessor has ever present relevance to the ongoing story of air power.

A thinker, writer and tireless advocate of air power and particularly of its integration with Land operations.

So it was that over the past Christmas break and over forty years since the late Air Chief Marshal Sir Ruthven Wade ‘instructed’ me that, to enhance my understanding and knowledge of air power, I should read ‘Air Power and Armies’ plus other writings from the hand of Sir John Slessor that I chose to read the latter work once again.

In doing so I have been reminded of why this great work remains the most relevant of those that John Slessor left us. “An air force”, he said “is not committed to any one course of action”. “An air force can switch, literally, almost at a moment’s notice from one objective to another several hundred miles away from the same base “.

It was Slessor who also said “if there is one attitude more dangerous than to assume that a future war will be just like the last one, it is to imagine that it will be so utterly different we can afford to ignore all the lessons of the last one”

And it was he who questioned and then properly defined what air superiority should be – a state of moral, physical, and material superiority which enables its possessor to conduct operations against an enemy and at the same time, deprive the enemy of the ability to interfere effectively by the use of his own air forces” – in more simple words, the capacity to achieve our own object in the air and to stop the enemy from achieving his.

Air superiority is also about securing control of air communications and there are parallels in this in terms of achieving sea and land supremacy as well.

The Royal Air Force is today configured around four pillars of air power – Control of the Air, Attack, Air Mobility and ISR.

And while the air power construct may have changed it is just as much about what Slessor in his day would have called reconnaissance and observation and what we call today Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance – ISTAR and in the more relevant architecture – Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – C4ISR.

I have called this lecture 2015 SDSR – The Last Chance for UK Defence and I did not choose these words lightly. So as not to confuse, I will concentrate primarily although not completely on the air power aspect of fast jet capability. I will also touch on the history of how we got to this particularly uncomfortable place.

The title suggests that with our capacity already constrained we have good reason to be very concerned about the future of the defence construct in the UK and I will not shy away from that thought.

In terms of air power advocacy for which I am after all a considered champion, perhaps I might better have called this lecture the need to ensure that we maintain sufficient ‘Boots in-the Air’.

In raising serious concerns about the future I equally well recognise that despite the devastation that we have been forced to witness since 1997, and particularly as a direct result of SDSR 2010, the irony is that the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have or will soon have some of the most modern defence equipment in the world.

That of course does not mean that obsolescence is no longer a problem – far from it.

Not only do we have too small numbers of fast jet squadrons we are also running on empty in terms of ISTAR capability.

The Royal Air Force lacks necessary resilience and in terms of both air and maritime capability, it seems that we no longer have critical mass.

The bottom line today is that we can no longer punch our weight let alone punch above it.

And while the United Kingdom loves to be heard on the world stage sadly it has become quite obvious that it is no longer prepared to invest in the muscle behind all the brave talk.

The increased level of UK armed forces engagement in recent years is a timely reminder that there is in geo-politics no room for complacency.

While some of course may choose to believe that the cold-war ended THAT view is not shared by those who oppose us and that are to be considered potential enemies.

Just last week following the increased number of incursions by Russian Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber aircraft close to UK airspace requiring RAF Typhoon aircraft to be scrambled a very senior retired Royal Air Force Officer who is I believe in this room today, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon was rightly cautioning that having only half the capabilities that we had a few years ago “I very much doubt” he said “whether the UK could sustain a shooting war with Russia”.

He is right. We are in a different type of ‘cold war’ today.

But don’t blame all this and the failure to sell defence to the public on the present Government. It has been going on for years.

In fact the whole process of diminution started during Gulf War One – Royal Air Force squadrons in action then already knew that they were to be disbanded on returning home as the Government of the day greedily grabbed at the so called defence dividend.

What a shambles.

Following ‘Options for Change’ and the ‘Defence Costs Study’ under the Major Conservative government spending on defence actually fell from £34.5bn in in 1992/3 to £28.7bn in 1996/7.

At 2% of GDP or thereabouts today one may observe that in terms of defence spending we have now fallen well below previous low point of 2.6% set in 1930.

By 1980, when Defence was at £13 billion this was still £1bn more than was being spent on the NHS although slightly less than we spent on Social Security.

By 1990 Defence had fallen well down the league table of public expenditure and at £23bn this was not only well below that spent on Social Security but also on Public Pensions, Education and the NHS.

Race forward another ten years to 2000 and you will find that the £28bn that was being spent on Defence represented just over a third of the amount being spent on Pensions and just about half that spent by the nation on Social Security.

Indeed, by then spending on Defence had fallen well below the individual amounts then being spent on the NHS and Education. Note too that spending on the NHS has doubled since 1997.

Now let me observe on some recent history of both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in terms of capability dismissal over the past nine years.

Having withdrawn over 100 Royal Navy Sea Harriers between 2004 and 2006, in 2007 we took out the remaining worked up squadron of Jaguar fast jet aircraft capability and worse, we did this on the promise and belief of a one for one basis of Typhoon replacement and the promise of better things to come.

Well, it did not get any better did it – it got worse. Future students of UK combat air numbers will observe that we then chose to reduce numbers of Tornado F3 ADV aircraft, leasing some of these aircraft to Italy, to the extent that by 2011 they too had all gone.

We then chose to get rid of Harrier GR9 capability early in 2011 in favour of retaining Tornado GR4 for the multi role capability mission.

I am not arguing the choice but in doing so we left ourselves with not one single aircraft that could land on a carrier until F-35 is commissioned into service.

Then, a little later and after huge expenditure and politically induced programme delays, in our infinite wisdom we chose to send immature Typhoon aircraft to Libya with just 8 qualified pilots deemed capable of flying the aircraft in the multi-role mission.

We scrapped Nimrod in both original and developing form, removing at a stroke the ability to detect the submarine threat posed by our would-be aggressors.

We removed any remaining wide area search and rescue capability that we had and, not withstanding managing through a gap process, we chose to put nothing in its place.

We had already cut the number of E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft by one and then year after year we compounded that problem by failing to invest in capability modernisation.

And we also decided that Sentinel capability would be scrapped following the end of our involvement in Afghanistan and although this excellent capability was later extended out to 2018, we chose to cut the number of highly specialist crews available to man the aircraft and reduce the already small number of aircraft by one.

Yes, we have placed the first of three planned Rivet Joint aircraft in service with 51 Squadron and after 6 months deployment out of Al Udeid, which with one aircraft means you are either 100% or 0% serviceable, how pleasing it is to be able to say that this capability has proved to be a resounding success.

I might add that it was a shame that there was no mention of this success or indeed, of Rivet Joint itself, in the Chief’s Christmas message.

But if you think what has occurred has been bad for the Royal Air Force remind yourself of how the Royal Navy suffered. With HMS Invincible already gone, in 2010 we made the crass decision to scrap the only other member of this class capable of carrying fast jet capability, HMS Ark Royal; and we mothballed other capability without changing any part of the overall mission.

At the same time we withdrew all four of the excellent Type 22 Frigates well before their time was due and as we bade a final farewell to HMS Ark Royal in early 2011. We then withdrew the remaining 67 Harrier GR9 VSTOL aircraft and gave them away to the US.

These aircraft alone delivered the full effect of three squadrons of nine aircraft in front line service.

By April 2012 the actual numbers of Tornado GR4 aircraft had fallen from 117 to 94 and today I would estimate that GR4 capability stands at something above 70 aircraft.

Yes, during that time we completed Type 45 Destroyer commissioning and seen the new aircraft carrier programme move to a position of new strength.

We have moved ahead with an SDSR 2010 strategy based on the Royal Air Force eventually disposing of all Tranche 1 Typhoon aircraft and working up to retention of 107 Tranche 2 and 3 multi-role variants  that will all be in service by 2018 and that amazingly have an out of service date of 2030.

Something is very wrong with this particularly given that Typhoon capability is unlikely to be fully mature before 2020.

Today the RAF lacks the mass of Fast Jet Combat Air required to meet even its agreed defence requirements and concurrency in full. It is a fundamental weakness which undermines the ability to deter and coerce.

Think of it – from 30 fast jet combat air squadrons at the time of the first Gulf war in 1990 to 12 immediately prior to SDSR 2010. Today there are eight front line squadrons but this number is planned to decline to just 7 in March 2016 and six by the time Future Force 2020 is complete. The RAF needs a minimum of 12 fast jet squadrons.

And something else has been forgotten by our politicians too. In this 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain they appear to have forgotten that should any large conflict occur, that we cannot generate Typhoon aircraft in a month, or train new pilots in a year as they did with the aircraft and pilots that fought in that great conflict.

Regeneration of Air Power capability comes with comparatively long lead times measured in years not months.

Today when we acquire a new aircraft in the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy we acquire far more than just an aircraft – we acquire capability.

The lead time for building Typhoon is five years and the pilots take around 4 years to become fully conversant with the capability from their initial joining.

The point is that if we become even smaller we will remain small, regardless of whatever external threats that we might face.

We have of course made great inroads in training and I can vouch for the great success of 1V Squadron at RAF Valley and that part of the MFTS concept.

But what a pity that we have failed to properly embrace the wonderful opportunity that Valley presents to train pilots of other international air forces.

And so far, apart from four F-35 test aircraft that have either been delivered or on order, we have only just chosen to order the first four squadron aircraft from a combined and much reduced total of forty-eight aircraft that we are still led to believe might eventually be acquired.

I fear trouble and great dangers in terms of air power capability ahead.

I listen to the perfectly logical warning remarks from the Secretary of State for Defence last week in respect of Russia and I also listen to the Prime Minister telling us that the Royal Air Force has more than adequate capacity to defend UK air-space.

Maybe it has but not much else.

Far worse though is that as I look across UK defence today I am aware that our politicians, no matter what political party they represent, have absolutely no desire to push defence back up the agenda or priority list.

They just don’t’ believe the public is interested in defence – how wrong could they be.

There can in my view be no holiday from history in terms of ensuring that we maintain proper defence capability and I am bound to wonder why it is that they believe history can be so blatantly ignored.

We have now engaged in approximately 22 external conflicts since the end of WW2 and I can tell you that in at least nineteen of them we had no idea that we would be involved until a couple of weeks before we actually engaged.

The RAF has in fact been involved in circa 57 conventional operations since 1989 and has been continuously engaged in the Middle East since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

In fact, our armed forces have been in almost continuous engagement since the end of WW2 and yet, in the so-called modern era, having watched military capability be so drastically reduced since 1997 and as I again watch the flow of defence politics driven hard in a negative direction, I am bound to fear that the already likely half composed SDSR 2015 White Paper, due for delivery towards the end of this year or early next, will see a further serious weakening of overall defence capability.

Air power is often the only military response and perhaps the sole national contribution we make. Embracing the Whole Force philosophy as it does while the Royal Air Force offers highly responsive and rapid intervention capability to support other members of our armed forces in tasking and right through the Joint Operating Environment it is worth remembering that the RAF is most usually first in and last out of Joint Operations.

Whitehall chatter is for another £1bn to £1.5bn to be taken out of the annual defence budget. How wrong is this and I will also say when it comes to UK defence, beware false rhetoric to the contrary on the part of our politicians.

To further cut defence would place the UK in a highly vulnerable position in terms of meeting current commitments to NATO and worse, it would further adversely impact the overall trajectory for UK defence diplomacy.

Nevertheless, the world is constantly changing and a vital lesson in defence is that we have to plan for tomorrow’s wars just as much as we do today’s.

That in part reasons why greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles – UAV’s – or to give them the more correct term, remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) is rightly planned to be increasingly used in benign or none contested airspace. This can help compensate but it does not provide the underlying answers to the lack of critical mass.

I have nothing against this policy of course believing that technology will in any event win or lose the next war that we engage in and also, that even in the short time since the last round of defence devastation was thrust upon us we have to recognise that much has changed since SDSR 2010.

I am then of the belief that the whole concept of Future Force 2020 should be seriously re-examined.

Of course, in the wider defence construct, I accept that we have a permanent duty to ensure that when financial resource is limited, what we spend on defence is both cost effective and relevant to our needs.

We are told that we have balanced the defence budget books and this is seemingly backed up by evidence that allows us to push such large amounts of defence budget underspend back into Treasury coffers as opposed to rolling it over.

Our industry is doing its bit of course and yet sadly, it gets little if any praise for so doing.

Defence procurement, so long the Achilles-heel of the Treasury, is being sorted and while there is still a very long way to go I do believe that the relationship between all parties involved with DE&S is now improving. In this case change has been positive.

Can the same be said of and within the administration of Ministry of Defence? I rather doubt that it can yet.

I am reminded of a story of fiction built around the French Revolution as those sentenced to the guillotine queued up awaiting their fate. After the role of drums they all marched forward and one by one prepared to lay their heads down. The handle was pulled and, lo and behold, the guillotine failed to fall all the way down.

It was said that this was determined by the will of God and each of the poor victim’s lives was thus spared. This occurred several times until the BAE Systems representative ended up at the front of the queue. He looked fearfully at the dreaded machine as he was marched forward peering upwards said, wait a minute, “I think I can see what the problem is! All you need to do is……..!

To achieve any form of change of course there needs to be both strategy and policy. That means we first need to know from government what it is and where it is that Britain wants to be in the world and of course, why?

Many of us in this room recognise that Defence has been allowed to go far too far down the political agenda and that this requires that all of us MUST work harder to raise it in terms of warnings and hopefully pushing it back up the list of political priorities.

And that also means raising the need for strong defence in the eyes of the public.

Ukraine is a constant reminder of what occurs when we take an eye off the ball or we become complacent. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and others are also constant reminders that the world in terms of geo-politics is a very dangerous place.

And they also remind us that however much we love the concept of democracy – that is something that can only evolve. Democracy cannot be implanted on any nation by the will of others.

Some of us in this room will remember observing the bizarre final days in October 2010 that led to what we have been forced to call ever since the ‘strategic’ review of defence and security, SDSR 2010.

In the eyes of many SDSR 2010 boiled down to observing the service chiefs being forced to bargain to retain vital force elements of capability and being forced to give way on others.

That is not a strategy.

We grimaced at the cut in the defence budget that we quickly worked out would be around 8% between 2010 and 2015 and that this would include the planned loss of around 30,000 armed forces personnel and a further slashing of equipment capability.

We must never allow such a bizarre set of circumstances to occur again and we must ensure that alongside the academics are contained the voices of those whose defence views really do matter including the senior military and industry.

In 2010 in order to sweeten the devastating news the Prime Minister pledged that defence equipment spend would rise by 1% in real terms annually from 2015/16 or was it 2016/17 and in each of the five years that followed.

So much for that promise. Beware what you might wish for.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup who as CDS at the time had the awful responsibility of signing up to the Coalition Government cuts in SDSR 2010.

I am far from sure that in terms of air power Stirrup thought at that time what he was signing up for was just seven, later adjusted to eight, front line squadrons that we have today and that are planned to fall to six by Future Force 2020.

In January 2013 the Prime Minister said that he would not ‘resile’ from what he had said back in 2010 in terms of increasing the defence budget from 2016 and as if to back this up, eighteen months later, he worked very hard in Wales to push all NATO members to commit to working toward spending 2% of their individual GDP on defence.

Of course, it has been a matter of debate for some time whether we spend more than 2% of our GDP on defence even now and I would ask those that keep telling us that we are the worlds’ fifth or is it sixth largest spender on defence to stop saying this unless they also say that outside of the US we carry the largest burden of responsibility of any western nation.

Defence as a percentage of GDP by the way peaked at 7.2% in 1955. GDP

I digress, but as a direct result of SDSR 2010 and its forebears none of us are in any doubt that the pips of air power have been so squeaked that today we find ourselves lacking capacity and resilience to the point of this now being dangerous?

Maritime lacks resilience too and it is increasingly hard to see how the Royal Navy, on an already restricted budget, can both man and support the much reduced number of ships that it currently has, let alone those that will be commissioned in a few more years’ time.

But is it too late to halt what appears to be the seemingly relentless downward spiral of UK defence capability?

How better can we get the message across to our politicians and remind them that while it is the duty of the military to do the shooting it is their job to provide the military with sufficient capability, sufficient resilience and capacity to do the job and also to provide strong leadership.

When it comes to defence, our politicians must stop hiding under a belief that there are no votes in defence. They must rise above that and understand the duty of care that they all have as elected members of the House to ensure we are properly defended and that as a wealthy nation we can play our part across the world.

That also means understanding the true meaning of deterrence in all its various forms and what possession of deterrent capability provides, what defence diplomacy achieves and also, of what a truly fantastic job that our military personnel do protecting our seas, shores and skies, our trade routes, our dependent territories and also, in the hugely important role that we play in NATO with our allies, and in defence exports.

Yes, we do now need to make defence an election issue.

Another fact that we ignore at our peril is our failure to understand that relying on our allies to fill our capability gaps will not always be a safe assumption.

We cannot allow defence to be further weakened. We must raise the spectacle of current defence weakness and attempt to place it on the higher pedestal it deserves.

I think that one of the problems that we have is that so far whatever the military has been asked to do the answer has always been yes.

But for how much longer can they keep doing that?

I cannot provide an answer but lacking resilience, lacking capacity and trajectory that will further limit our ability to play the more significant role against threats and future conflicts on this I can at least conclude that our ability to support our NATO allies today has never been weaker.

Our leaders must also realise that conflict prevention, through deterrence and or diplomacy, is only made possible when you can show that you have credible military capability.

We do still have credible military capability in the UK of course but just not enough of it.

The same concerns apply within the military itself. We are losing some of the best people that we need to stay in the armed forces in part because they are demoralised at what they see and they fear for their own future and that of their families.

They are poorly rewarded, their pensions are less attractive than they were and the scope for promotion has through budget cuts also been reduced. There is a lack incentive, a lack of trust and too often parts of the military feel that they are ignored by their superiors.

The first duty of Government to its people is National security – protecting the people of United Kingdom and those of our dependent overseas territories and fulfilling our obligations to NATO and making a meaningful contribution to the upholding of international law.

As a wealthy nation, the seventh largest economy in the world, we have a responsibility to use our expertise assisting and supporting those that are less well-off and also in providing humanitarian and disaster relief.

The military do their part well but lacking critical mass and resilience there are now sections of our armed forces, particularly in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, that are so stretched that we have no choice but to recognise that we may no longer be able to deploy at a moments’ notice.

And we know too that in future we will no longer be able to engage in more than one theatre of conflict at any one time.

Who will replace us I wonder?

Sure, SDSR 2010 assumptions had been decided well before the so-called Arab Spring, before Libya, before ISIL, before Syria, before Ukraine. The lessons of history were ignored and SDSR 2010 appear to have been built on the perception that as conflict in Afghanistan would end in 2014 requirement would shrink.

In terms of a future trajectory defence deserves better than this. Our people deserve to know that they have a strong Army able to meet demands that may be placed on them with immediate effect.

They need to know that the Royal Navy has a sufficient number of surface ships, submarines and trained Royal Marines able to meet whatever military objectives are set.

And as the custodian of UK air power and guardian of the nation, we must ensure that the Royal Air Force has sufficient capability to fully exploit the applications demanded from it within the air environment.

And I might add here that that also includes Force Protection effect.

Being an advocate of air power you would expect me to stand up for this vital segment of defence capability foremost. You would be right but I would never do so at the expense of the Royal Navy or indeed, of the Army.

We do need a strong Army and we need to know that the Royal Navy can operate with sufficient manpower resources including engineers.

I have already mentioned that Royal Navy manning is a constant source of concern and that this must be properly addressed in SDSR 2015.

And while the Army must now adapt and change and buy into, which I believe that it is, what affordability really means in the rather different world that we live in today this does not mean that it too should not be given sufficient resource.

The Army must always have sufficient front line capability and resource to engage in whatever future conflict arises. That surely means that the balance of front line forces in relation to the planned number of Army reserves also needs to be seriously rethought in SDSR 2015.

But, although I may not wear light blue, the Royal Air Force has and always will be my first loyalty in defence. After all, air power and control of the air remains as important today as it did in Slessor’s time.

I need not repeat the key messages that John Slessor and indeed, that Winston Churchill said of air power to this particular audience.

But I am also an absolute believer in ‘jointery’ to the point of flagging that if there has been one positive aspect of change in defence that came out of SDSR 2010 it is the success of Joint Forces Command.

Thus I will always accept the need for our armed forces to work closer together and I will never play one over the other.

Be in no doubt though that the Royal Air Force today is but a shadow of the size that it was when Lord Robertson’s Strategic Defence Review was published in 1998.

For 36 front line squadrons back then read just 8 now.

I recall from my notes at that time that a few months before publication of that reasonably well founded document back in 1998 another research paper – 97/106 – looking at the origins of what was then the forthcoming review had been made available through the House of Commons Library to Members of Parliament.

This research, following substantial criticism of the previous Conservative administrations ‘Options for Change’ plan, examined the strategic options that might need to be addressed in the forthcoming SDR.

Why do I mention this now? Because it is very interesting document to look back on and it proved to be close to what would actually emerge in the actual SDR in the early part of 1998.

It recognised that Options for Change which had been followed by the ‘Defence Costs Study’ and the rapidity in which the latter’s recommendations had been implemented “may have proved to be a bruising experience for the Royal Air Force”.

That was something of an understatement of course. The direct result of ‘Options for Change’ had meant that Royal Air Force personnel numbers that in 1990 stood at 90,000 had by 1994 fallen to 76,000.

While it was perfectly right to recognise that the Berlin Wall had come down, that the empire created as the Soviet Union had been broken up and that the ‘Cold War’ as we knew it then had seemingly passed there was it seems much worse to come for the RAF as the Defence Costs Study decided that personnel numbers should be further reduced to 52,500 by 1999.

Put together that meant that within the short space of ten years Royal Air Force personnel numbers had shrunk by 40%.

Now, by the time that Future Force 2020 is fully implemented Royal Air Force personnel numbers will be down to just 31,500 regulars – a decline of 23% from the SDSR 10 figure of 40,700.

The result of all this change was that NATO evaluations had to be cancelled, that non-essential training was suspended and that the operational effectiveness of Britain’s air power component was seriously damaged to the point that the Defence Select Committee said in 1996 that the Royal Air Force was barely meeting its commitments.

By 2013, when the Secretary of State for Defence was telling us that post Afghanistan Britain would not be engaging in another conflict anytime soon, the HCDC was also telling us that it couldn’t find any ‘strategy’ in SDSR 2010.

One important point made back in 1998 was that of all three of our armed services the Royal Air Force was in a unique position of being able to justify much of its equipment both in terms of national defence and for the overseas offensive role.

That of course is still very much the case today.

Yes, we must accept that warfare methods have changed and that the need to retain the numbers of front line aircraft that we had back then is neither viable nor required.

Royal Air Force multi-role combat jet capability is currently provided by three squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft. Five squadrons of Typhoon aircraft provide the remainder of our front line fast jet air to air and air to ground capability.

Typhoon capability has already proved to be perfect for the Quick Reaction Alert mission role both here at home and also in the Falklands.

I am in no doubt that when Typhoon multi-role capability is replete with Brimstone, Paveway 1V, Storm Shadow, Meteor and hopefully AESA Radar capability in 2018/19 we will then be in a position to retire the remainder of the brilliant Panavia Tornado GR4 fleet and say thank you for the perfect job that they have done.

But given the transition risk of capability integration on Typhoon we dare not in my opinion reduce Tornado numbers before then. Indeed, it was absolutely right that the Government backed the need to retain the existing third Tornado GR4 squadron at Marham for another year. But I fear that one year is far from enough.

If we are to retain GR4’s for longer it assumes that we can find and retain enough whizzo’s. I realise too that this could pose problems for the infrastructure upgrade requirement at RAF Marham and which is crucial to allow what I imagine will be two squadrons of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft capability to be built up. To that difficult issue I say simply that where there is a will there is a way.

But if resilience is a problem in fast jet capability it has nothing on the lack of critical mass available in our ISTAR and C4ISR component and which we also find the Royal Air Force struggling with obsolescence.

Even worse is the problem of coping with small numbers of individual aircraft types and the high cost of maintaining small fleets.

Of course, we are not alone amongst western nations cutting back spending on defence at a time when those that we would perceive to pose the greatest threat to our peace, security and stability are increasing theirs.

I like it no more than any of you but I am realistic enough to know that in the political climate that we live in today and in having allowed defence to go so far down the agenda the most likely scenario is that our situation will only change when the enemy is finally at the door and it is already too late.

Have we learned nothing from the past? To those that lead us now and that would lead us in the future I would remind that affordability in defence is and can only ever be a political choice.

SDSR 2015 will need to decide not only on the various options for future combat air and the need to increase the number squadrons but also ISTAR/C4ISR capability transition and modernisation. It will need to look at the combinations of obsolescence and complete capability absence. By the former I refer to options for Sentry, Sentinel, Reaper and Scavenger and Air Seeker and by the latter, to the complete absence of Maritime Air Patrol Capability.

It will also need to look at how we should generate and sustain an effective ability to project combat airpower capability from our two new aircraft carriers.

I will not endeavour to get too deeply involved on carrier power projection at this stage for the simple enough reason that we remain a very long way from both carrier and F-35 maturity.

Can we extract more capability out of what we have and still maintain our edge? I doubt that we can.

We need to seriously question not just the number of squadrons but actual aircraft numbers too and that despite accepting that the fewer platform types now in service have greater capability spans recognise that the need is to increase as opposed to further decrease fast jet numbers.

Received wisdom in forward planning has tended to base front line fast jet numbers on Force Elements at Readiness.

But with a much smaller air force of today perhaps the better option may be to base consideration on squadron numbers.

In the forward battle lines ahead of SDSR 2010 the Royal Air Force had rightly pushed for twelve front line squadrons that it believed it then required. In the event SDSR 2010 planned for just seven.

Today Royal Air Force fast jet capability not only has the task of securing the skies of the UK and the Falkland Islands but also engaging in conflict zones against ISIL in Iraq.

It is a truism that at least one and sometimes two fast jet squadrons have at any one time over the past twenty-five years been involved on continuous deployment in theatre somewhere. Today we only have eight.

That has been a remarkable achievement and the enduring ability to so quickly respond when required is the hallmark of the Royal Air Force.

Sustaining combat air capability on a long term basis of commitment such as in Afghanistan proved that five front line squadrons were required in order to provide proper levels of relief and through life aircraft maintenance.

The Royal Air Force does not act alone of course but alongside the land and maritime piece and with coalition partners and allies.

Deemed to be the absolute minimum required to deliver credible intervention capability there are currently three front line combat air squadrons allocated to what is called the Responsive Force.

We need to remember too that there is a requirement of combat air assets to support Defence Operational Training. It is clear to me that that having just eight front line squadrons today falls far short of what should be considered risk acceptance.

We had entered into the intense bargaining that surrounded SDSR 2010 with a request for twelve squadron. It was believed that we would in the end get nine and yet that belief ended up being just seven on an accepted basis that this would grow to nine.

Be in no doubt that given the challenging geo-political environment and a strong belief that the enduring task and burden that the Royal Air Force carries requires that twelve squadrons of front line capability are an absolute necessity today if we are to ensure that combat jet has sufficient resilience.

For boots on the ground let’s translate this to having sufficient ‘boots in the air’.

But for my final thought, an observation made by Sir John Slessor himself back in the late 1930’s when that generation had to face up to the mortal peril of the thirties but was in a very bad frame of mind to so do.

Slessor, then head of Plans Branch at the Air Ministry observed “there was among the people none of the proud, confident morale of pre 1914 Britain and nothing of the spirit”.

Yes, we have been here before. The world is a circle and it returns to itself; eighty years later let us hope that it is not the point that we have returned to now.


Howard Wheeldon FRAeS  – February 2015

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