Mike Spick gazes into his crystal ball to look at the RAF’s next quarter of a century.
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE celebrated its 75th anniversary on April 1. The past 25 years have been packed with incident — what will the next 25 years hold? Crystal gazing is a perilous occupation at the best of times. All we can state with any certainty is that mankind has a propensity for armed conflict, and that the lessons of the past can often, but not always, be applied to the future. In many ways, the early 1920s were similar to the present time. Then, as now, the main threat had vanished, leaving a vacuum. But in those days, it was possible to adopt the Ten Year Rule’, which suggested that as no major threat could emerge within less than ten years, defence development should be limited to a rate sufficient to achieve war readiness within that period.
Today things are rather different. While the threat of war in Western Europe has evaporated, there are many trouble spots around the world, both actual and potential, to which the RAF may be committed. It is therefore difficult to predict events even during the next five years.
The main lesson of recent limes has been the confirmation of the old truism that one rarely, if ever, fights the war for which one has equipped and trained. One fights the war one has, with the equipment to hand — the unsuitable doing the unthinkable, as Dr Johnson might have phrased it.
Three specific instances spring to mind. The first, of very long standing, is the Harrier detachment which provides air defence for Belize against a potential threat from Guatemala. While the Harrier GR series was never intended to be an air defence fighter, it is the most suitable aircraft for the task, given the unusual circumstances of Belize.
The second was the South Atlantic conflict in 1982. The RAF was at this time geared for the defence of Europe against the threat of attack posed by the Warsaw Pact countries. The need to defend the Falklands from Argentina was never envisaged, let alone recapture it after invasion and occupation. No-one could nave predicted RAF Harriers operating from aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy; Vulcans carrying out, what were until recently, the longest bombing missions ever flown; and Nimrods equipped with Sidewinders.
The third was the Gulf War of 1991, the later stages of which saw the Tornado GR.1, an aircraft optimised for ultra low-level penetration, preferably at night or in adverse weather, flying precision bombing missions at medium altitudes in daylight, with laser designation provided by Buccaneers. Of the many lessons learned from these three events, the most important is the need for total flexibility.
There is, in fact, another lesson to be learned from the Black Buck Vulcan missions in the South Atlantic. It is that bluff can still play a part in modern air warfare. The long-distance raids on Port Stanley dearly demonstrated that the RAF had the capability of striking at targets on the Argentine mainland. Made rudely aware of this, the Forca Aerea pulled its Mirage IIIs out of the fray to guard against this eventuality, thus weakening its capabilities unnecessarily. Although the bombing of Port Stanley airfield was essentially tactical in nature, the result was strategic in effect. Having said that, let’s get back to the future. Pull up a sandbag, and we’ll have a look.
Potential Threat Areas
Predicting the future for an air force depends primarily on the nature of the greatest perceived threat. Lesser conflicts and situations will inevitably arise, but hopefully these can be dealt with by the means to hand, as proved the case in the three examples given above. Until 1989, perceiving the greatest threat was comparatively easy, even if effective measures against it were difficult to achieve. Before then one had only to look east, to the apparently monolithic communist bloc.
The world is full of potential conflicts about to erupt. There is little point (and insufficient space) to list them all, so we must restrict ourselves to those which might just possibly involve British air power. However, when we say this, we should remember that we are still part of NATO, we are most certainly part of WEU, and we could still, as in the Gulf War, be called upon to take part in a United Nations police action. This means that we must cost a rather wide net. The best place to start is the stance adopted when the Warsaw Pact still existed.
The dissolution of WarPac and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union, left a vacuum in more ways than one. The main threat had evaporated, and there was nothing to replace it. Four years later the world situation still remains in a state of flux, with an increasing multitude of troubled areas, some of which might spread over the next decade, in the same way that small fires spread until they link to form a conflagration. But worldwide, how can we predict which will concern the RAF and which will not? In all matters concerning defence, it is the accepted wisdom to make provision for a ‘worst case’ scenario. Let’s take it piece by piece.
There is at present, no direct air or missile threat to Great Britain, even though the break-up of the Soviet Union has added three more members to the nuclear club who also have the means of delivery. However, it cannot be guaranteed that this state of affairs will continue. What is the worst case here?
In many countries of the former Soviet Union, civil unrest is rife. The causes are mainly ethnic, but economic problems are a contributory factor. If these result in civil war, which could, via ethnic minorities, easily cross national boundaries, the only body capable of restoring order would be the military. From this, the obvious progression is to a series of military dictatorships. The old Soviet Union, ana Czarist Russia before it, always viewed itself as a central land mass surrounded by potentially hostile powers. The possibility therefore exists that this mindset could, given an external threat, whether real or imagined, (and imagined threats can arise quite easily from the study of ‘worst case’ scenarios), cause a series of military dictatorships to coalesce into a Russian or North Asian Federation for collective security. A typical threat of this nature could for example be a revival of the long-standing border dispute between Russia (geographically Outer Mongolia) and the People’s Republic of China.
It should be remembered that this region has little or no experience of democracy, thus the transition to a military dictatorship would be less traumatic to the population than to a Western European nation. Should this happen, the West would once again be faced with a potentially hostile military giant in the East. It is, of course, highly unlikely that the former USSR would reform in toto. The Baltic states plus Byelorussia and the Ukraine would be inclined to stay out of this federation, while seeking protection by means of treaties of mutual assistance with neighbouring nations, or by joining the Western European Union (WEU).
A further problem stemming from the economic problems of this area is the possibility of unregulated export of advanced weapons systems from the former USSR, or the technical expertise that would enable less advanced countries to produce their own. In the wrong hands, these would have a destabilising effect on a region, as they would change the balance of power. As an extreme example, rumour has it that Tu-22M bombers have been (or may be) supplied to Iran, and that nuclear warheads may already have found their way there from Kazakhstan. If true, this would be a worrying development, although not half as worrying as it ought to be for Saddam Hussein!
But even without advanced technology being involved, arms sales to Third World countries are a potential problem, and made even worse by the parlous economy of the former Soviet states, which are anxious to sell all sorts of kit. The writer was recently in a position to offer at bargain prices anything from Mi-2s to Mi-26s, taking in Mi-6s, -8s and -17s on the way. One careful owner, low mileage for the most port, but some new! Anyone still interested?
In the event, there were no takers, otherwise I should be sunning myself in Bali instead of sweating over a hot word processor in the wilds of Lincolnshire. There are, of course, regulations about the export of this type of hardware, even though they had been ‘civilianised’, and legitimate buyers are therefore hard to find, while the other sort could probably get hold of them for cheaper than I could offer. But you get the idea. Arms proliferation is inevitable in the current climate.
Further east are many potential causes of conflict. The world’s last major communist state is the People’s Republic of China. How the PRC will react to the changing world order is hard to predict, but the offshore island of Quemoy, currently held by Taiwan, is a potential source of conflict, as is the existence of Taiwan itself, otherwise known as the Chinese Nationalist Republic. It may also surprise some people to know that the PRC and Vietnam are traditionally hostile to each other. The forthcoming hand-back of Hong Kong to the PRC may prove a source of international friction if the Chinese fail to meet their legal obligations, although here it is difficult to see what military intervention could possibly achieve to rectify matters.
A further trouble spot, which has been simmering for the past 40 years is Korea, where North and South still face each other across the ceasefire line first drawn in 1953. The only solution seems to be democratic unification of North and South, but this looks unlikely in the foreseeable future. Depending on the circumstances surrounding any conflict between the two, it is quite possible that the UN would once again intervene, and if so, British involvement cannot entirely be ruled out. Nor can participation by the PRC on the side of the North.
While there is little possibility of Britain becoming embroiled in a direct conflict with the PRC, we do have other interests in the Far East, notably in Malaysia and Brunei, which in the years prior to 1966, were involved in a confrontation with Indonesia. Though it seems highly unlikely that this will recur, the possibility cannot be discounted, especially where the oil-rich state of Brunei is concerned.
It is now nearly 23 years since the last overt hostilities between India and Pakistan, but ethnic/religious conflicts between Hindu and Muslim are rife in the northwest of the country. A further factor is the proposed independence of Jammu-Kashmir. With both countries known to be working on nuclear weapons, the situation could conceivably get out of hand. Normally, this area would be outside the British sphere of influence, but in any UN peacekeeping action, we might be expected to play a leading role. In any case, wars in which flying officers shoot down wing commanders are entirely foreign to our nature.
The next stop on our world progression has to be the Gulf, where RAF elements are currently engaged. But before dealing specifically with this area, we must first take an overview. Once we start considering this region, we become inextricably involved with first the Arab, and then the Muslim world. As one affects the other, we must first deal with the whole.
The first consideration is that all Muslims are not Arabs. The second is that Islam seems to be divided against itself. For starters, Iraq is an Arab nation, while Iran is not. The eight-year war between these two, encompassed both these divides, with Iraq posing as the eastern bastion of the Arab world against the Iranian outsiders. While both nations are Muslim, the Iranians are of the Shia persuasion, while the dominant sect in Iraq is the Sunni. Just to complicate the issue still more, the Sunni Iraqis are a minority in their own country. While Iran appears to be a sacerdotal state, Iraq is firmly secular, governed by the Ba’ath political party, most if not all members of which are drawn from the Sunni minority. Confused? So were the Middle East experts who so badly misforecast the course of the events which followed the occupation of Kuwait!
In theory, when the leader of an Islamic country calls a Jihad, or holy war, Muslims around the world rise up and smite the infidel. Drawing on this, and the presumed brotherhood of the Arab world, the experts came up with many dire predictions, none of which came to pass. In practice, Saddam Hussein proclaimed not one but two Jihads, but few Muslims took much notice. This was just as well, because the Muslim Arab world stretches from Saudi Arabia in the east, right across the North African continent to Morocco on the Atlantic coast.
This is not to say that the threat of a Jihad can entirely be discounted in the future. Islamic fundamentalism, inspired by Iran, has taken hold in many countries, notably Algeria, and if the Ayatollahs were to call a Jihad, the consequences might be for more serious.
To return to the Gulf, in common with the rest of the oil-dependent industrialised nations, Great Britain has a vested interest in preserving peace and stability in the region. The RAF took a prominent part in the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, and is currently flying in support of UN operations in the region from bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Four factors threaten peace in the Gulf. The first is Iraq’s long-standing claim to Kuwait as a province of the Iraqi homeland. The second is Iraq’s failure to comply with UN resolutions demanding the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. The third is the persecution of a significant proportion of its own population; notably the Kurdish minority in the north of the country and a large Shia community in the south. The fourth contentious issue is the difference between the haves and have-nots of the region, coupled with squabbles over oil production quotas. The latter was in fact one of the prime causes of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
It may be argued that countries other than Iraq are developing nuclear weapons, and that the UN is doing precious little to stop them. The reason is that the present Iraqi leadership has demonstrated that it is not mindful of the logic of deterrence. Nuclear weapons in Iraqi hands make the odds on a nuclear exchange in the region too high for comfort, bearing in mind that Israel has, and Iran may have beasties, while the ensuing risk to a significant proportion of the world’s oil production could have disastrous consequences for the economies of the oil-dependent industrial nations.
The Balkans are a current trouble spot, with a potential for conflict spreading for beyond the present borders. There are virtually no limits to the number of ethnic minorities in the region, and the ‘domino effect’ could involve the newly-formed Czech and Slovakian Republics, Romania, Albania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. For example, Hungary has sizeable minorities in all these countries except Albania, plus Vojvodina and the Ukraine.
A further potential cause of conflict is Macedonia, which has sought independence from the Serbian Republic. This is anathema to Greece, which has a Macedonian province, while Bulgaria, to which one third of the old Macedonia was ceded under the Treaty of St Stefano in 1878, contains a sizeable Macedonian minority. To confuse the issue even more, Bulgaria has recognised the Macedonian republic as an independent state, while denying the existence of a separate Macedonian nationality for fear of claims by Serbia. Meanwhile, a confederation between Greece and Bulgaria has been proposed, which will not make Turkey very happy, as Bulgaria has a sizeable Turkish minority.
In the same area, Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for the past two centuries. Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire was achieved in 1832, but frequent conflict since then, characterised by barbarity on both sides, has left a legacy of antipathy and mistrust, exacerbated by ethnic unrest in Cyprus, and the subsequent Turkish invasion and partition of that island in 1974. No improvements in relationships have occurred since, and the potential for further conflict remains. Even the fact that both nations were members of NATO failed to keep them in line, and we can therefore assume that membership of the EC and WEU will make little difference. Meanwhile, Britain retains sovereign bases on Cyprus, making it difficult to remain aloof in the event of renewed hostilities.
The African continent contains many unstable areas and regimes, but despite her erstwhile colonial role, Britain is unlikely to become involved unless called upon to do so by the UN, the recent American venture in Somalia notwithstanding. Assistance in famine relief operations would appear to be the most likely prospect, but we will return to this continent later.
Finally we must consider South America. There we have the on-going Belize situation, while further south, Argentina will not relinquish claims to the Malvinas in the foreseeable future, which means that an RAF armed presence must be kept at the far end of the world. This brings us to one of the more obvious ‘what-ifs’. We have already mentioned the possibility of unregulated arms sales and their effects. What if Argentina was, over the next few years, to re-equip with long-range Flankers, with perhaps a few Foxhounds thrown in for good measure? Might they not then decide to make more bellicose noises?
Obligations and Alliances
From the foregoing look at threats, it is obvious that there is no direct air threat to Great Britain at present, and little chance of one emerging in the next few years. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the world, and while we are part of that world, we may be obliged to join in the occasional vulgar brawl. As far as Belize and the Falklands go, no more need be said, but we also have obligations to meet and alliances to honour which may involve action in other ports of the world.
Of these, the United Nations Organisation is the most global, and the most ineffective. Security Council resolutions are all very well, but only rarely do they call for anything more than economic sanctions to be taken against an offending nation. The record shows that sanctions are basically ineffective. And even when stronger measures are called for, results depend on the will of member nations to enforce them. The Gulf War against Iraq was quite exceptional in this respect. It is doubtful whether we shall ever again see an Argentine frigate on the same side as Afghan Mujahideen! What the UN really needs is an international force under direct control to enforce its will. Failing this, a powerful nation to act as a global policeman would do, providing such a one could be found. But having said that, UN action in the Gulf provides hope for the future if only the good guys can be persuaded to rally round. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the RAF may again be called upon to take part in other international operations under UN auspices in the future.
Other organisations to which the UK belongs have rather more teeth. How well NATO would have worked in time of war we shall never know. The treaty still stands, and the structure is still in place, but the threat that it was intended to oppose no longer exists. Furthermore, there is one great big hole in the centre of NATO. While France has always been committed to the defence of Europe against invasion by communist forces, she left NATO in March 1966, albeit promising full co-operation. Meanwhile, the rundown of American forces in Europe may well end in a complete withdrawal before many years have passed, in which case NATO may well expire naturally.
Its place will be taken by WEU which, although originally a political organisation, has in recent years been taking on more defensive functions. WEU is effectively the military end of the EC, concerned with collective defence for member states and their interests abroad. As France is a WEU member, the organisation presents a cohesive whole. A rapid deployment force is currently being put together, and an international ‘aeronaval’ force is proposed. Naturally the RAF can be expected to play a full role in both continental air defence and in overseas operations. These commitments will, to a large extent, determine the future structure and equipment of the force.
The Missile Threat
With the Soviet ballistic missile capability no longer regarded as a serious threat, Europe relaxed, only to be rudely awakened by the Iraqi attacks on Saudi Arabia and Israel. It at once become evident that the proliferation of medium-range weapons in Third World countries, especially those bordering the Mediterranean, constituted a threat to Europe, while the development of medium and long-range missiles, the latter often for space purposes, is a growth industry. It is estimated that by the turn of the century, no less than 26 countries will possess short and medium range systems.
Even more worrying is the type of warhead that they will carry. Apart from the original members of the nuclear club, at least ten nations are currently working on nuclear weapons programmes, among them Iran, Iraq, Libya, the two Koreas, South Africa and Taiwan. By 2000 it has been estimated that no less than 30 Third World countries will have chemical weapons, and ten will have a biological weapons capability.
The result is that WEU has been looking at the possibility of an effective anti-missile system, and several countries have commenced feasibility studies. While there seems little doubt that a missile defence system can be developed, it will be extremely costly. In these times of shrinking defence budgets, the money can only be found by reducing conventional forces, which is not altogether desirable.
The alternatives are: missile defence at the expense of conventional forces, with no guarantee that it will be 100% effective; total nuclear disarmament, which although it is the most desirable option, is looking increasingly unenforceable; or a return to nuclear deterrence combined with strong conventional forces. The latter looks the most practical solution if it can be achieved without restarting an arms race.
Future Roles for the RAF
We have seen an overview of the troubled world in which we live, and a broadband spectrum of the threats which we face. Where exactfy does the RAF fit into the scheme of things, and what does it need to do so?
The major roles are what they always have been; the air defence of the UK, the guarding of the waters around our coast, which for all practical purposes means our half of the Atlantic, and the support of our land and naval forces wherever they may be. For the past 70 years our defensive orientation has been eastwards, and there is no valid reason to change now. Commitment to NATO seems currently of less importance, but out of area operations in support of either the UN or WEU may well become frequent in the future.
The main driver for change, apart from the need to replace elderly and obsolescent types, appears to be WEU out of area operations. Full details have not yet been worked out, and in any case, will vary with individual circumstances, but the need for rapid reaction, with full support facilities, is primary. The ability to operate from temporary bases would also be a tremendous asset, while commonality with the aircraft of other WEU nations will ease the logistics problems. The main areas to look at are interception/air superiority; interdiction/strike; attack/close air support; maritime reconnaissance, and trash hauling. Lefs take these in turn.
INTERCEPTION/AIR SUPERIORITY: Tornado F.3 is the current front-line RAF interceptor. In many ways an exceptionally capable aircraft, it will carry the burden of the air defence of the UK for many years yet. In the event of a WEU out of area operation where other air forces are tasked with providing air superiority, it may be used to supplement air defence over Europe pending their return. The RAF contingent of E-3D Sentries may also be called upon to carry out a similar function if the NATO AWACS contingent is called upon to operate elsewhere.
Tornodo F.3 will be supplemented by Eurofighler 2000 (please someone think of a better name soon) from the end of me century. This will give the RAF a credible air superiority fighter for WEU out of area operations against even the most modern agile threat fighters. It will have the advantage of being operated by Germany, Italy and Spain, thus minimising the logistics problems inherent in a multi-national operation. It may be that its advent will allow numbers of Tornado F.3s to be mothballed, to be revived in the event of a significant unforeseen threat arising, such as the hypothetical Russian Federation, in the next 15 to 20 years. This would allow a rapid expansion of the RAF air defence element, provided that sufficient aircrew could be kept current on type.
STRIKE/INTERDICTION: Tomodo GR.l, hopefully soon to be upgraded to GR.4 standard, is the current front-line RAF interdictor, and will remain in service for perhaps another 15 years, or until such time as a replacement is acquired. Range, load-carrying and accuracy are unsurpassed, and its only drawback is perhaps a lack of stealth, about which little can be done. It is also operated by Germany and Italy, both of whom have also acquired Tornado ECR for defence suppression.
The acquisition of stand-off weapons for Tornado GR.1 will greatly improve its survivability and enhance its capabilities. Nor should it be forgotten that it is the heir of V-force, and can carry nuclear weapons. One possible future threat postulated earlier was the proliferation of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in North Africa. In this event, Tornado, with its accuracy and undoubted penetrability, would form part of a very visible deterrent.
At present, many RAF GR.1s are being mothballed and put into store. If many WEU or UN operations are undertaken, these will form a valuable attrition reserve, as well as allowing a rapid force expansion if required.
ATTACK/CLOSE AIR SUPPORT: The RAF operates two attack/CAS types. Of these, the Jaguar will reach the 20th anniversary of its entry into operational service in 1994, and will probably be phased out before the end of the century. The Jaguar, which is also operated by France, needs long hard runways from which to operate. In many WEU out of area operations these will often not be available, and even if they are, resources for airfield defence, particularly perimeter security, will be considerable.
By contrast the Harrier, now in its GR.7 incarnation, will be around for many more years. It seems probable that the RAF Harrier force, by virtue of its flexibility and non-reliance on fixed runways, may be asked to play a leading role in WEU out of area operations. Area security will be much less of a problem than with conventional fixed wing aircraft. The only real problem is logistical. The Harrier can use forward basing, minimising sortie times and greatly increasing sortie rates. It therefore, as the USMC discovered in the Gulf War, gets through far more munitions than the average bird. If stockpiling is not a practical proposition, and often it is not, for more support helicopters will be needed to keep it supplied than are currently available.
MARITIME RECONNAISSANCE: This is vital to a trading nation like the UK. It also encomposses the anti-submarine warfare mission. The ageing Nimrod MR.2 fleet is due for replacement in the next few years, but with what is the question. There are several possible alternatives, of which the first is to rebuild the airframes and update the systems. This could well be the cheapest option in terms of capital outlay, at the same time providing jet speeds for the transit out to the patrol area and back; four-engined safety coupled with twin-engined economy, while saving expensive conversion training for both air and ground crew.
The American contender is a derivative of Lockheed’s P-3 Orion. This again would give four-engined safety with turboprop economy, but the basic design is dated, and jet dash speed would not be available. Of the other WEU nations, Norway, Portugal and Spain operate the Orion.
From France comes Dassault’s twin turboprop Atlantic 2. Used by fellow WEU nations France, Germany and Italy, this gives good commonality, but few advantages over a rebuilt Nimrod, while lacking high transit speed.
The only jet contender is Russian. This is Beriev’s Be-40 Albatross. Although only twin-engined, Albatross is an amphibian, which should provide much greater flexibility than a land-based type. For example, when sea states permitted, Albatross could set down and lower its sensors for an extended period, or even carry out a rescue operation. The advantages of speed and range of an amphibian over a rescue helicopter hardly need stating. Special forces operations are another possibility. It is to be expected that Rolls Royce turbofans and a western avionics system would be fitted for RAF service, while the supply of spares would need to be underwritten by a British manufacturer.
Should Albatross be selected as the Nimrod replacement, it would be a very enterprising choice. Oddly enough, in helping the Russian economy, it would be taking an indirect step towards ensuring that the more dire predictions of the re-emergence of a Russian Federation would not come to pass.
The final item on the near-term replacement schedule is the RAF Hercules fleet, which is due to commence in 1996/97 and be complete by 2000. Now how can anyone possibly consider replacing a Herkybird with anything except with another Herkybird, which makes the C-130J the front runner. On the other hand, serious competition keeps prices down, and Ukrainian company Antonov is rumoured to be offering their An-70T. While this seems an outsider, the frock record of Antonov in producing sturdy and capable transports means that it cannot easily be dismissed.
While on the subject of trash haulers, the RAF has one thing missing from its inventory. This is a jet transport with rear loading, capable of taking large and heavy loads over long distances at high speeds. With all predictions pointing towards future actions being at long distance under UN or WEU auspices, this will be an essential. The European Future Large Aircraft (EUROFLA) is still a paper aeroplane, and unlikely to become available for many years yet, although if ordered in conjunction with France and Germany, it would be a considerable WEU asset. The obvious alternative is the McDonnell Douglas C-17, but this may prove unaffordable. Otherwise, the huge Antonov An-124 is available now.
This brief look at future prospects for the RAF has been based on an assessment of potential threats, and the seeming probability of future joint action as part of WEU. Predictions of world events have a habit of springing a leak, but we must start somewhere.