Force Report: The RAF at 90

A NUMBER of reasons lay behind the creation of the RAF. First, the Arm/s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) overlapped and competed when it came to procuring engines and aircraft, and their separate supply organisations failed to meet critical needs during World War One. Then, in June 1917, German Gothas dropped 72 tons of bombs within a one-mile radius of London’s Liverpool Street Station in broad daylight — and RFC and RNAS aircraft assigned to defend the capital were barely able to get within striking distance of the intruders. The clamour for reprisals was led by sensational headlines in national newspapers, but senior politicians knew that the RFC and RNAS were incapable either of stopping the raids or giving

Germany a taste of its own medicine. The RAF came into being to provide seamless air defence of the UK and an independent long-range strike capability beyond the fleet or army area of responsibility.

The RAF Today

Ninety years later, the situation is very different. The British Defence White Paper of December 2003 stated: «There is currently no major conventional threat to Europe». Those who love Battle of Britain movies should know that RAF Bentley Priory, Middlesex, is about to pass into the hands of a civilian developer while, in the age of Homeland Security, air defence of UK is now the responsibility of the Home Office! Gone are the old Fighter Command sectors -Typhoons launched by Combined Air Operations Centre 9 at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, now intercept Russian Bears in an Air Policing region (see Back On The Beat, p30-36). The RAF had 479 squadrons on VE Day (May 8,1945 — the number had been reduced to 54 regular squadrons by the time it went to war against Iraq in 1991. Ten years later that had dropped to 44 — roughly the size the RAF had been in 1924 — although ‘rank creep’ resulted in four times as many air rank officers as back then.

Nonetheless, the RAF has advanced to an extent that would amaze its founding father, Sir Hugh Trenchard. He would have understood the importance of precision bombing to weaken the German will or to overawe rebellious tribesmen in the Middle East, but the technology of his day was not up to either task. During World War Two, it took two full USAAF Eighth Air Force combat wings, a force of 108 B-17 bombers crewed by 1,080 airmen flying in six combat ‘boxes’ dropping 648 1,0001b (454kg) bombs, to guarantee a 96% chance of scoring just two hits (the minimum necessary) to disable a single power generating plant measuring 120m x 150m (394 x 492ft). Today, one RAF Tornado GR4 dropping two precision-guided munitions has the same effect.

The 2003 Defence White Paper was clear that the RAF, like the Army and Navy, ‘must be equipped and configured to protect our citizens at home and counter international terrorism across the globe’. A prime example of the dilemma posed by difficult, ambiguous and fleeting targets is the Afghan bus which takes children to school in the morning and runs rockets to the ‘bad guys’ preparing to attack a NATO airfield in the afternoon.


The ability to locate, tag and track terrorists in all domains, and to rapidly attack fleeing targets promptly around the globe, are crucial RAF objectives. However, it is worth remembering that in the battle against terrorism and other asymmetric objectives, there are hardly any war-winning targets out there but, given the modern 24/7 news media age, there are many war-losing ones. It is futile to kill two insurgents if the collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more, which brings precise targeting to the fore of modern RAF capability.

Last year Tornado GR4s deployed to Al Udeid in Qatar became operational with Litening III targeting pods. Procured under Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) funding, Litening pods confer day and night detection, recognition, identification and laser designation of air-to-surface and maritime targets, and deliver laser and GPS-guided munitions. Turning to the Harrier force, an estimated £500 million was spent on upgrades, including the ability to carry up to six Paveway IVs, a dual-mode INS/GPS (Inertial Navigation System/Global Positioning System) guided 5001b (227kg) weapon with an improved warhead and fuse. However, Afghan experience showed that the Harrier’s Thermal Imaging And Laser Designating (TIALD) pod lacked sufficient image definition for personnel identification from above hostile weapon height so Lockheed Martin’s Sniper advanced targeting pod was selected as a UOR to enhance Harriers at Kandahar. But the most important feature for the present RAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, is that Litening and Sniper pods provide a data link to allow Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the ground to validate targets by remotely viewing streaming video imagery in real time.

During the Cold War, when strike operations were all about sorties per target, it would have taken up to 15 Jaguars with dumb bombs to ‘kill’ a Soviet tank: today, 12 Brimstone anti-armour missiles carried by a Tornado GR4 can take out 12 separate tanks. Discrimination is everything in modern air operations, and the internal gun can often be the most accurate weapon around, which is why RAF Typhoons are at long last gearing up to operate the aircraft’s internally-mounted 27mm Mauser gun.


Looking ahead, the UK has signed up to a four-year, £124m deal to design the Taranis Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). Named after the ancient Celtic god of thunder, the Taranis programme aims for a Hawk trainer-size jet capable of delivering weapons to a battlefield in another continent with no need for pilot or operator input. Just as importantly, the air vehicle could remain in the air for more than 24 hours. This is a far greater level of persistence in hostile airspace than is achievable with conventional fast jets, thanks to a high degree of stealth and long endurance augmented by autonomous air refuelling. Around 2010, a decision will be taken on whether such a large UCAV will form part of the UK’s Future Combat Air Capability programme, alongside manned multi-role fighters, by the end of the next decade. The RAF sees great potential for unmanned air vehicles, and has just stood up 39 Squadron, A Flight with reconnaissance Predator As and B Flight with the ‘grown-up’ MQ-9 Reaper. The A-10-size Reaper can carry four 5001b (227kg) bombs and the RAF has funding for three of them, though it aims to buy 12 over the coming years.

However, to project and sustain hard military or soft humanitarian power abroad also requires critical capabilities in communications, surveillance and the like (known as C4ISR), and in airlift, air refuelling, force protection and expeditionary logistics. This has led to RAF investment in Raytheon’s Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) to be fitted on five Bombardier Global Express business jets for airborne standoff battlefield or ground surveillance.

The former anti-submarine Nimrod MR2 has been updated for area surveillance over Afghanistan, from where it passes information to enable a Predator, controlled from Nevada, to designate for a ground-attack Harrier.


Turning to airlift, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review announced that the RAF strategic air transport fleet was to be supplemented in the short term by the lease of four C-17s until 25 A-400Ms came into service around 2009. Half of the C-130K Hercules fleet was also to be replaced by C-130J. But as a C-17 can lift 165,000lb (75,000kg), which includes a main battle tank, as against 75,000lb (34,000kg) for an A-400M, leasing C-17s pending the introduction of A-400Ms eventually morphed into the acquisition of a split but of C-17 and A-400Ms. The MoD then decided to buy the four C-17s outright, with a fifth and sixth being added this year. Although decisions have still to be made on replacing the Sea King, Puma and heavy-lift Chinook helicopter fleets, in March 2007 the MoD announced the purchase of six additional Merlin helicopters, to be deployable on 78 Squadron within 12 months.

Expensive Delays

Some commentators portray the RAF as stumbling from one crisis to the next, but this is an ill-informed description. The RAF in 2008 has a range of top quality strike and combat support equipment either entering service or in the pipeline, and the Army or Navy can only look on in envy. Sir Glenn Torpy is not given to public outbursts because in procurement terms the RAF is doing very nicely, thank you. That is not to downplay the fact that the MoD equipment plan been underfunded by an estimated £15bn over the past decade. Although the Treasury has given the military an annual 1.5% increase in real terms, the cost of developing and delivering cutting-edge defence technology is running at 7-8%. There is money for UORs but all too often there is no budget allocation to cover subsequent logistic costs for equipment thus procured.

On top of budget shortfalls, there are the management problems, of which Nimrod MRA4 is a prime example. Contracted in 1997 under a fixed-price deal, the MRA4 project was originally intended to deliver 21 aircraft for £2.9 billion. When development costs spiralled by an extra £700 million, the order was cut — first to 18 and then to ‘around

12′. There is now minimal funding for test and evaluation flying so the new Nimrods could enter service before any major flaws are detected, which will be much more expensive to rectify. And the MRA4 has been so long in coming that one of its crucial sensors, which was bought over ten years ago, will be less capable that that on the MR2 it replaces. There are other mismanagement sagas. Eight Chinook HCBs have been stuck at Boscombe Down since 2001 after millions were spent on software modifications that made them virtually unflyable.

Although troops deployed in southwest Asia are desperately short of helicopter heavy lift, it will take until at least March 2009 for these Chinook HC3s to be made fit for purpose. The UK’s Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme, desperately needed to replace the ageing VC10s, has been enmeshed in wrangling for four years over a £13 billion private finance solution because the MoD wants to keep the costs off balance sheet. Funding mismatch begets financial sleight of hand, with the National Audit Office finding that £448 million (57%) of major project cost reductions were achieved by either re-classifying expenditure from procurement to support or transferring expenditure to other procurement or corporate management budgets. There are well-publicised examples of hollowing out of military support in areas such as military accommodation and hospitals to pay for defence programmes and operations.

The other big RAF problem is lack of manpower. Since 2004, the Service has been downsizing to reach a manpower requirement of 40,800 by April 2008. It is now clear that this figure is too low to meet all commitments, and some excellent operational kit has had to go for no better reason than that the RAF lacks the manpower to sustain it. It was only in 2001 that the RAF stated: «The RAF Jaguar Upgrade has proved to be extremely cost-effective whilst the aircraft continues to enjoy low operating costs. As a means of rapidly deploying cost-effective military capability, the Jaguar remains unmatched. This programme has been on time, on budget and above specification. It certainly has become an RAF success story.»

The Jaguar GR3A introduced up-rated engines, TIALD pods, GPS, Hands on Throttle and Stick, new Heads-Up Display computer and multi-function colour cockpit displays, new mission planner, new voice-warning device, a new Ground Proximity Warning System and a new Helmet Mounted Sight capable of offering off-boresight Sidewinder missile firings in self defence air combat. Upgraded aircraft could deliver precision-guided bombs but, unlike the Harrier GR9s, they retained their twin 30mm cannon. By 2006 there was just one Jaguar squadron (6 Squadron) left in service but those 12 aircraft and crews could have relieved a much-overstretched Afghan Hamer force. The Jaguars could not have operated in the full heat of the day, but they had far and away the best configuration for the anti-Taliban task. They were at the end of their operational life so could have been flown to death, and they would have been less susceptible to heat and sand than the carbon fibre composite Typhoon. There was no financial saving to be made from scrapping 6 Squadron — all the Jaguar contracts had already been cancelled and the savings taken. The RAF brought forward Jaguar retirement simply to free up skilled manpower for the Tornado and Typhoon fleet. Given that the RAF has been cut back into the bone, and that new units such as UAV-equipped 39 Squadron need personnel, Sir Glenn Torpy is striving to get the RAF establishment back above 41,000.

Future Challenges

Looking forward to future challenges, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review endorsed the purchase of 232 Eurofighter Typhoons while the RAF and RN were to share the operation of a single aircraft — to become known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). As the RAF first came into being to secure air superiority over the UK, the Service has always signed up to Field Marshal

Bernard Montgomery’s dictum that the greatest principle of war is to win the air battle first A typical Typhoon air superiority fit would be six Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and two Short Range air-to-air missiles, plus two 2,000 litre (440 gallon) and one 1,000 litre (220 gallon) external fuel tanks. MBDA’s Meteor is the flagship European BVRAAM with its advanced air-breathing ramjet and the latest electronics to deliver optimum combat performance. Capable of speeds up to Mach 4, a data-linked Meteor launched over

London will hit an agile, manoeuvring target over Brighton within a minute.

When in service, Meteor will enable the RAF to engage multiple targets simultaneously well over 60 miles (100km) away, but will politicians give air commanders the clearance to fire on Day One of a campaign? Notwithstanding all the electronic and other confirmatory signals, the spin doctors will be terrified of the RAF inadvertently shooting down an Airbus full of nuns. Politics will dictate that the RAF stays in the Visual Identification business no matter what technology has to offer. And all the real-time video being streamed from targeting pods must not get diverted to Whitehall to enable the great and the good to watch an unfolding ‘soap opera’ or to interfere in the operational decision-making cycle.

Harking back to the conflicting single-service priorities of 1916, the RAF should be the executive lead authority on UAVs and airspace management coordinator to ensure that every artillery shell, cruise missile, helicopter, fast jet or UAV is under the control of a single air component commander.

Then there is Space. Most of the 1,150 satellites in orbit are commercial, which means that more than the western way of war is dependent on space. GPS, which the USAF funds under sufferance, is now a global commodity. Without GPS there would be no mobile phone or ATM network, while news communications, Internet information and a host of other techno ‘goodies’ come courtesy of space. Because commercial satellites are in fixed orbit, they are sitting ducks. Sending a Scud missile to explode in the Van Allen radiation belt around the earth, thereby putting our way of life out of business for some time is well within the capability of Islamic terrorists. The UK is not so much space enabled as space dependent, and securing space supremacy should be the next RAF frontier.

Apart from tapping into the Homeland Security budget, the RAF will only free up serious new money by re-evaluating its current order book. The first priority is to sustain the airlift requirement because nearly one fifth of UK military personnel were deployed on operations and military tasks in 2005-07. Supplementary funding for military operations does not cover the replacement of the three C-130 Hercules transports lost on operations, even though tactical airlift is vital. On top of that, the C-130K force is running out of fatigue life. Five ‘Herks’ had to be retired in 2007, bringing the C-130K total down to 19. We can expect more of the same, and the problem is exacerbated by delays in the A-400M programme. The FSTA programme needs a kick up the backside because two VC-1 OK tankers will have to be retired this year just to provide spares for the rest of the fleet.

The RAF needs to ‘think outside the box’ on some aspects of combat support. Military partnerships with the Department for International Development (DFID) and charity organisations may be best to deliver what the public wants — environmental disaster monitoring or rapid post-earthquake relief or ‘doing something’ about genocide in Darfur. One solution is to aim for capability packages — medical, air transport, helicopters etc — that can be put together regionally. If the RAF could keep fighter and bombers on Quick Reaction Alert throughout the Cold War, why not have disaster relief air assets on standby?

Too Many Typhoons?

As for the 232 Typhoons that are bleeding the RAF budget, they are designed to support an RAF fleet of 137 active aircraft to equip seven former Tornado F3 and Jaguar front-line squadrons (15 aircraft each, plus four in the Falklands), an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) with 24 aircraft, and an Operational Evaluation Unit (4 aircraft). These units will share nine further aircraft categorised as in-use reserves (one per squadron and two with the OCU). Remaining aircraft will be rotated to cover attrition and to enable the fleet to reach its scheduled out-of-service date. Typhoon has been denounced as a Cold War legacy system, but in the Cold War, NATO faced a geographically well-defined threat, which required long range air interceptors of the Tornado F3 variety.

Today an agile multi-role fighter with an ability to use a range of smart weapon systems is crucial to the nation’s armoury. If you want a very stealthy, supercruise fighter optimised against Premier League threats, you may need an F-22 Raptor but it will cost a great deal more than a Typhoon. In simulated combat against the current benchmark — a Su-35 — the F-22 shoots down ten for every one of its own losses. Typhoon achieves just under half that (some 4.5 Su-35s for every Typhoon lost). The next best capability is the Rafale C, which loses one for one. The F-15C Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, and F-16C Fighting Falcon would be shot down more often than they would be victorious. These unclassified results using networked simulators give no more than indications of comparative capabilities, but they bear out the fact that the UK is securing a very high performance agile fighter at a good price. But the attrition buy must be cut

The 2004 MoD assessment of Future Capabilities judged that 20-air defence and 64 offensive support aircraft would be sufficient to meet «the full range of small, medium and large scale contingent operations». The current plan for 232 Typhoons, 150 JSF and 112 Tornado GR4s to fulfil the remit for 84 deployable fast jets, is far too many. Gearing it up should not be beyond the wit of national leaders to arrive at some suitable compromise whereby the RAF ends up with what it really needs — around 150 swing-role Tranche 2A Typhoons. The son-of-Taranis UCAV would undertake dull, dirty and dangerous work such as hunting down surface-to-air missile sites or Scud launchers, which leaves the JSF order. Currently Britain is focused on the F-35B (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing version), despite its 450nm (830km) radius of action as against 600+nm (1,110km) for the land-based F-35A and over 700nm (1,300km) for the F-35C carrier version (CV). And because of the need to save weight, the F-35B now carries least ordnance over the shortest combat radius.

Given that the new Royal Navy carriers have grown from 40,000 to 65,000 tons, it makes much more sense to change the British JSF order to around 120 F-35Cs. The Royal Navy would have 50-60 to equip its carriers while the RAF would have the rest to reinforce expeditionary operations where necessary, or to undertake deep strike missions in a major conflict. British F-35Cs would enter service from 2015, at which point the Tornado GR4s would start to disband. Swift retirement of the GR4 would save the RAF on rear crews, and dispense with all the TFR and low-level training that are so hard to justify environmentally. Concentrating solely on Typhoon, F-35C and Taranisplus after 2015 would confer major logistic benefits.

Independence Day

Sir Hugh Trenchard was brought back as CAS in 1919, after resigning from the post two weeks from the RAF’s inauguration in 1918, due to differences with Air Minister Lord Rothermere. In the aftermath of the Great War, when resources were few, Trenchard’s political masters saw him as the best man to make do with little. That year, when money for defence was scarce, there were many — not least in the Navy and Army — who regarded the infant RAF as an expensive and unnecessary luxury. Similar voices today write letters to editors of national newspapers arguing that the RAF should be disbanded and its assets divided between the Army Air Corps and the Fleet Air Arm.

Notwithstanding that air defence and air transport should always be treated as strategic assets, and that the Canadian experience in cramming three very separate services into one uniform proved disastrous, the future lies in cohabiting rather than forced marriage. The various air arms already work together in exemplary fashion. If you stand in an ops room in Afghanistan, the Army, Navy and RAF helicopter pilots use the same jargon and operate seamlessly because they all went through the same training system, their simulators are linked and they are co-ordinated by Joint Helicopter Command. Similarly, Joint Force Harrier consists of two RAF and one Royal Navy squadrons that are jointly manned. When the first new RN carrier comes into service, it is more than likely that an RAF two-star who once served on 800 Naval Air Squadron will act as the Joint Force Air Component Commander afloat. Given the degree of joint logistics, operating procedures and higher command training currently pertaining across all three UK services, subsuming the RAF within the other two services would add nothing but grief.

That said, an independent RAF will have to be much more willing to share with air forces outside the UK. Everyone accepts that the post 9/11 security situation demands international sharing and coordination of sensitive intelligence, but far fewer seem to taken the next logical step which argues for something like a European Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV to replace the Canberra PR9. UK public demand for more hospitals, schools, police and pensions dictates that the RAF of the future will only be able to cover the air power spectrum through closer cooperation with others. Given the problems with FSTA funding, European air forces should procure and sustain a NATO air-refuelling Force in the same way as NATO AWACS. If nations operated their Typhoons or A-400Ms on a cooperative basis, there could be significant cost savings in maintenance, logistics and training. Sir Glenn Torpy’s successors must accept that it is better to share the right capabilities than to own a small number or the wrong ones.

In conclusion, the RAF continues to be held in high esteem around the world and its kit is top-rate.

However, it can no longer aspire to replicate every high-tech USAF activity in miniature. Its leaders have to decide on what capabilities to share with European partners or to dovetail in with the massive US procurement and supply chains. Failure to do either will condemn the RAF to genteel decline and ‘salami slicing’ of roles. Most importantly, the RAF must retain its most precious long-lead item — flexible, experienced, motivated and trained personnel capable of coping in an increasingly complex security situation. Only then will it be in a position to cope, first and foremost, with immediate threats to the security of the UK for another 90 years.

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