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A Step in the Right Direction: The RAF and the SDSR

Elizabeth Quintana
Commentary, 27 November 2015
Aerospace, Air Power and Technology, Defence Spending, Equipment and Acquisitions, UK Defence Policy, Military Sciences, Defence Policy, UK, UK Defence, Europe
The RAF is set to acquire new platforms as it is called upon to deliver a variety of missions in complex situations.

Media coverage has pointed out that the RAF has done particularly well out of this year’s review, but joint air power has also benefited. The extension of the C-130J tactical-lift fleet and extended-range Chinook transport helicopters will benefit the special forces, while the army will see a new Apache attack-helicopter fleet and will also finally see three batteries of Watchkeeper remotely piloted air systems stand up. However, scratching below the surface reveals some tough decisions and innovative ideas to extract maximum benefits from shrinking fleets.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

The RAF’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet was heavily cut in the last Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), only for the government to realise that this was one of the military’s greatest contribution to allies and partners on current operations. Platforms such as Sentinel and Shadow saw their out-of-service dates slipped again and again as they were deployed on operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Iraq, causing maintenance problems as RAF and industry struggled to maintain the necessary personnel. The Reaper fleet has never stopped working and is now operating at three times the rate outlined in planning assumptions. Long-term investment in the ISR fleet is therefore very welcome and a testament to the work byof the RAF and Joint Forces Command to protect and enhance these joint enablers. As a consequence, the RAF has also announced a doubling of its armed remotely piloted air systems by 2020, and extensions to its Sentinel, Sentry and Rivet joint fleets out to the 2030s. There are also rumours of investment in the UK-designed Zephyr near-space remotely piloted air system, which would have the ability to remain aloft for weeks at a time.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the review was the announcement of nine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to replace the Nimrod MRA4s that were axed in the previous review. While this is a critical national capability, particularly given recent patrols around the northern coast by Russian submarines, the decision to single-source this capability rather than run a competition is interesting, especially as the UK will not now receive these aircraft until at least 2019. Indeed, the P-8 might have been bought on several occasions in the past five years, but the cost of the P-8 and the departmental preference to procure its platforms through competition prevented this from happening.

Combat Aircraft

The RAF is increasing the number of its front-line Typhoon squadrons from five to seven. Crucially, this does not mean greater numbers of more platforms (indeed, the announcement that each squadron will have twelve combat aircraft indicates a drop from the 20–24 aircraft currently assigned to each squadron). However, the RAF is relying on a greater use of synthetic training to complement live-flying training for its personnel (moving to a 50/50 mix), which should allow each squadron to maintain similar numbers of personnel per squadron. The increase in squadrons will therefore increase the overall numbers of trained operators, which will in turn increase the overall readiness of the fleet. The Typhoon is also to be extended by ten years to 2040, which will require careful husbanding of the fleet particularly given the current tempo of commitments.

There has been no decision taken to date on whether Tranche 1 will be extended (despite earlier rumours), which may mean the overall Typhoon numbers will drop from 156 to 108 in 2019, around the same time that the Tornado fleet of seventy-six aircraft will also retire (meaning a 50 per cent reduction in overall combat-aircraft numbers). Most importantly, the Typhoon’s air-to-ground capability will be developed, allowing it eventually to take on some of the tasks currently undertaken by the Tornado.

The prime minister and chancellor also announced a commitment to fielding twenty-four F-35s (twelve on each Queen Elizabeth-class carrier) within a total of forty-two aircraft by 2023 – a slight increase on the previous commitment of thirty-seven in a similar timeframe. On Sunday, the chancellor recommitted the UK to a total buy of 138 F-35s over the life of the programme (a commitment the UK made when it became a Tier 1 partner), although it remains to be seen whether or not the additional aircraft will also consist of the short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs – which would allow the RAF to operate more easily alongside the US and European air forces –, or whether the cheaper, conventional take-off and landing F-35As will be purchased instead, which would allow the RAF to operate more easily alongside the US and European air forces.

Transport Aircraft

The MoD’s air-transport and air-to-air refuelling fleet remains exceptionally busy supporting current operations, pan-governmental disaster-relief efforts and exercises. The fleet – comprisinged of fourteen A330 Voyagers, twenty-two A400M Atlases, eight C-17 Globemasters and twenty-four C-130J Hercules – will provide a range of options to the joint force. In addition, the MoD will convert one of its Voyager transport aircraft into a secure VIP platform for transport of the prime minister, senior ministers and royal family. This refurbishment represents a cost saving compared with the current policy of using chartered aircraft.

The RAF has worked hard to recapitalise its fleet and to enhance its readiness, recognising that the government will often require the air force to be the first response to emerging crises overseas. Numbers will remain small, particularly in combat air, which might become problematic given the number of concurrent commitments; there may also be challenges for retention of personnel if all fleets are more or less permanently deployed. There is a lot more hard work to do, but this is certainly a more positive position than in 2010.

Elizabeth Quintana is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of Military Sciences at RUSI.

*Header image: Crown copyright 2014


Elizabeth Quintana
Associate Fellow

Elizabeth is a RUSI Associate Fellow specialising in Futures and Technology. Her research considers the doctrinal, strategic and ethical... read more

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