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Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture: Building the Next Generation Royal Air Force – Beyond the Integrated Review
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The Integrated Review sets out to define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and its long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy. The UK needs Armed Forces which are radically forward-looking, integrate seamlessly and are ready and able to embrace new technologies in the face of fast-evolving threats.
Looking ahead to 2040, Air Chief Marshal Wigston outlined his vision for the Royal Air Force of the future, and his strategy to secure its success on operations today and in decades to follow.
Logged-in Members can watch the video of the full speech below.
Malcolm, many thanks for that introduction and to you and the members for inviting me to speak today.
I'm delighted to be able to join you for the 2020 Trenchard Memorial Lecture, albeit a few weeks into 2021. I don't think any of us will forget 2020 in a hurry. It was an extraordinarily challenging year and while those challenges continue across the nation, I'm sure I speak for everyone in saying that we look forward to things returning to more normal times in 2021. We have all been very proud of the way the UK Armed Forces have stepped up to support the national battle against COVID19 on top of continuing operations around the world. The RAF has been there and ready throughout, alongside all of Defence, protecting our nation and giving our government operational choice, 24/7, at home and abroad.
As CDS said in his own address to RUSI just prior to Christmas: even before we were hit by COVID-19, the strategic context was uncertain, complex and dynamic; with the defining condition being one of chronic instability. While that instability brings strategic risk, its uncertain nature also drives innovation and necessitates evolution. It underpins the transformation required to build the next generation Royal Air Force so that our successors - in 20 years and beyond - can compete and win in an era defined by a digital information and technology revolution that is in reality already fundamentally changing air and space power; and the character of warfare; and the tenets of statecraft.
The ongoing Integrated Review gives us that opportunity for a strategic reset. On 19 November last year, the Prime Minister announced a multi-year settlement for Defence, framing it as ‘the biggest programme of investment in British defence since the end of the Cold War’. Given everything we are facing as a nation, the announcement of what amounts to a £24.1 billion uplift over four years is strategic recognition of a change in global context, and a reaffirmation of the integral role that UK Defence plays within UK national power. It will underpin the essential modernisation of the Armed Forces, and help bring jobs and prosperity to every part of the UK. The four year settlement gives us the financial certainty we need to turn our ambitious, once-in-a-generation transformation programme for the Armed Forces into a reality.
As part of that, the Royal Air Force must seize this moment and be radically forward looking, accelerating towards our vision for an Air and Space Force of the future and acutely aware that we are building the Next Generation Royal Air Force for our next generation to operate, to fight and to win with, in 10, 20 or 30 years time.
Astra is our campaign plan to build the Next Generation Royal Air Force, and as part of that we been developing ‘Stories from the Future’ – true fiction to bring our vision for the future to life. We're releasing them later today. I hope you read and enjoy them for entertainment, but take some value from them nonetheless. And today, I am going to ask you to imagine it is 2040. The Chief of the Air Staff – or perhaps Chief of the Air and Space Staff - has been asked to deliver the 2040 RUSI Trenchard Memorial Lecture. Let's assume – hope even – that Malcolm is still in the chair in 2040; his introduction might go something like this:
Appointed in 2039 as the 35th Chief, CAS' early career was deeply immersed in network operations before leaving the RAF to establish a successful start-up technology company, where contracts included ground-breaking work on Tempest and the second generation of Mosquito uncrewed combat aircraft. On rejoining the RAF, CAS served in a series of appointments at the forefront of UK Defence operations and rapid capability insertion, including hypersonic missile defence and space-based non-kinetic effects, along with operational command of a multi-domain NATO contingent engaged in active deterrence operations. CAS' most recent appointment in the RAF was as Deputy Commander Operations. This was followed by a remarkable period outside the MOD again, as CEO of a leading UK quantum computing company before selection as CAS in open competition last year.
And this is what we might hear from the 35th Chief:
This year we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and 50 years since the start of the first Gulf War. The decades following the Gulf War shaped our generation: increasing strategic ambiguity, ever-evolving threats and unceasing demands on our people, our data and our equipment. I joined the RAF in 2010, the year of the ‘Arab Spring.’ In the years that followed, we led a significant contribution in the fight against Da’esh and responded to international emergencies and crises across the world and in space. As ever, Air and Space power gave the government the choice to act at speed, at range and precisely.
The tremendous strategic reach of the Carrier Strike Group since the early 2020s has played a vital role in NATO and allied operations around the world, reforging the UK's place in the world. Our embarked F35s, and supporting uncrewed air platforms, together with our ever-increasing array of space-based systems have been critical to that success from the outset. When we look back at 2021, we can say that Carrier Strike heralded the start of truly integrated operations across multiple domains for UK Defence. Alongside dynamic forward-basing in the land environment, it brought the 2020 Integrated Operating Concept to life physically, and conceptually, driving a change of mindset across the Armed Forces.
The integrated operating concept set us for success in other ways too, as recent events have made all too clear. We've seen an increase in humanitarian tasks and military aid to civil authorities enabled by the engaged and forward deployed footprint of our Armed Forces. These, as well as our warfighting operations, have reaped the benefits of leaps in technology, like the pivotal shift from crewed to uncrewed systems over the last 20 years. When you look at the totality of our Lightning, Tempest, Mosquito, Alvina, Protector and the last of our Typhoon squadrons, it's quite remarkable to think that the Royal Air Force combat air force is now more than 80% uncrewed or remotely crewed; and we are on the threshold of the same with air mobility and our few remaining non-space based ISR platforms.
The integrated operating concept was announced alongside the 2020 Integrated Review, at what we now recognise was an inflexion point for Global Britain. When the Prime Minister in 2020 announced a £1.5Bn ring-fenced investment in cutting-edge research and development, it began to position us as a global leader in new technologies, and secured the UK's place as the world-leading science superpower we remain to this day. That integrated review also laid the foundations for the Future Combat Air System, the fully integrated system of systems we now operate. As you know, in 2037 we faced the first tactical test of Tempest on live operations. Fielded with the 10th generation of Alvina swarming drones and 5th generation of Mosquito combat drones, the RAF's Combat Air Force was essential to our national and NATO defences, able to respond at the pace and lethality necessary to defeat the threats we faced.
Prominent among those threats is the proliferation of hypersonic technologies since the hypersonic glide missiles of the 2020s. Daunting as they are, the advent of those threat systems was the catalyst to drive change and investment in our defensive systems that began in a meaningful way in 2020. We've also seen the highly significant and swift disruption of quantum technologies over the last 20 years and we are on the threshold of some ground-breaking developments, particularly in space – improving our reaction, and the accuracy and effectiveness of our defensive measures even further. The UK’s National Cyber Force has gone from strength to strength, now in its 20th year it is on operations every minute of every day, tackling and deterring our adversaries and protecting our most vital national asset - our data.
In the 2020s, we finally learnt to think differently about procurement too – system thinking not platform thinking - and tapping into the wealth of expertise in the UK's small and medium enterprises and academia. And we learnt to deliver faster and upgrade faster, better equipped to retain our position as an air and space force that maintains the operational advantage.
The impact of climate change has touched us all, these last few years especially; few people could have imagined the speed at which things deteriorated in the late twenties, and the incredibly destabilising impact this had on a handful of already-fragile states. I first re-joined the RAF as Defence began to really focus and fix its response to the climate crisis. We developed a sustainable building plan to replace the legacy estate, we invested in renewables across our bases. From small initiatives, like committing to a plastic-free estate in 2030, to major change programmes, such as R&D in renewable aviation and rocket fuels, Defence has led the way. In 2020 the then CAS challenged all RAF stations to achieve net-zero by 2040; I’m very proud to announce today that we are the first independent air force in the world to achieve that. This is testament to the continuing strong relationship between the RAF and industry as members of the UK Government's Jet Zero Council (now in its 20th year) alongside Ministers, officials and industry partners together driving new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions. For example, synthetic training is now so ingrained in our business that for aircrew, almost all training and non-operational currency flying is completed in Artificial Reality simulators. It reduces fuel consumption, reduces aircraft hours expended on training, and frankly the training is more effective and away from prying eyes too.
The UK Space Command has gone from strength to strength since the Prime Minister announced it in 2020. I'm proud to be part of the new space generation, a journey we've shared with our closest allies, redefining what it is to be a space and air force of the 21st century. Space continues to dominate every aspect of our lives. Tens of thousands of satellites orbit our earth. It is a trillion-dollar economy and space tourism is fast-becoming affordable reality, not just for the super-rich as it was in 2021. We will never forget that grim day in 2030 when space was rendered unusable after a low-earth orbit satellite collision and the chain reaction collisions that followed. I remain immensely proud of the part we were able to play in UK Space Command, thanks to the foundations that were laid in 2021. Our AI-driven Aurora software the first version of which was first fielded in 2021 predicted the collision enough to give the world a few hours notice; the warning transmitted through the international network of Space Operations Centres; our responsive launches from Scotland and Cornwall restoring critical services within 24hrs using the Artemis Small Satellite Constellation; and our superb UK space industry leading the debris clean-up operations that continue to this day. If ever there was any doubt, that day in 2030 made it crystal clear that the safety and security of the space domain matters to every one of us.
I know my limits and I'm going to leave CAS 2040 there, before we get to briefing bots and cranial implants, but I hope you found that excursion entertaining and valuable too, not least for spicing up the Q&A in a few moments.
You'll understand that I can't yet discuss the detail of the Integrated Review, but it will cement our place as a leader in NATO and on the global stage. It will drive investment in cutting-edge R&D, so that our Armed Forces can adapt to the threat with advanced technology, deter effectively, and fight decisively when needed. The Future Combat Air System epitomises this leap forward, blending crewed and un-crewed elements with the next generation of sensors and weapons and harnessing the leading edge of R&D into AI, engine design and so much more. And all of this will require a workforce fit for the information age, equipped with the right digital skills to succeed as part of an ever more diverse air and space force. That will be as true in 2040 as it is today where our remarkable people are doing remarkable things day in day out in these remarkably difficult times.
Achieving this ambitious future will be not be easy but we are convinced that it isn’t a choice … we change and quickly, or risk losing. As an audience, you will know many of the challenges already but, for me, it will require innovative thinking from all of us, Defence, government, industry, and academia; a more agile and tailored approach to procurement, incorporating major players and small and medium enterprises and a shared commitment to see all this through.
So whether it is 2040, or 2021, air and space power will continue to give our government the choice to act worldwide, integrated across all warfighting domains, land, sea, air, space and cyber; protecting the UK and our interests; engaging with allies and partners; deterring potential adversaries and supporting the considerable contribution to UK prosperity that the Defence aerospace and space sector makes; underpinning the UK's recovery to a strong, prosperous and global Britain, and reforging our place in the world.
Thank you again, from me and from CAS 2040, for this opportunity to start 2021 as we mean to go on – building on this year's Integrated Review and building the next generation Royal Air Force.