Rather than starting with some abstract theories of air power and in the same manner as the previous series on the Royal Navy, the starting point is to look at tasks.
What is it we require the RAF to do and how do we place these into the context of the National Security Strategy?
Once again we have to be crystal clear on the difference between non discretionary tasks and those operations we choose to take part in, usually in a coalition. What capabilities must be retained and what delivers most effect in a coalition operation where that coalition might comprise NATO or EU nations?
This brings us neatly on to the question posed at the beginning of the first post; do we need an independent air force?
I think the answer is actually pretty clear, air power can deliver strategic effects independently of the other services and the nature of the tasks and equipment needs a fully focussed organisation to deliver those affects. Air stuff is all the RAF do, with the other services its ‘something else’ they do.
This is not to stay that the RAF can just carry on normal jogging; it is a measure of the amount of change needed when it has the brass neck to state two of its strategic objectives are to tell everyone just how great they are.
Despite this stated objective the online strategy document is 4 years old and finding a well defined, brief and effective description about what the UK can actually expect from the RAF is very difficult. We get lots of platitudes about being a force for good and being adaptable or agile but not much else. For a service that prides itself on its strategic communication prowess it misses the mark by some way. There are plenty of excellent papers on doctrine, the future and the past (in this respect much much better than the other services) but the present is a little more difficult to track down, it is there, but you have to dig.
Like all three services, the RAF needs to show more realism about actual threats and needs, pragmatism about equipment and recognition that hoping for more money is not a viable strategy.
However difficult, again like all three services, it must make a coherent case for its existence based not on the deficiencies of the other services, however subtly it may do it.
The Think Defence proposal for the RAF is very similar to the Royal Navy, retaining a full spectrum of capabilities that support a small to medium scale operation where we might act alone, with everything else (numbers and capabilities) being open for debate.
Surrounding the core would be the ‘capability plus’ areas.
Air Defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, this is arguably the single most important non discretionary role. Defence against what is the obvious question but remember, this is about a long term view and despite there being only limited direct air threats to the UK it is an important capability to retain. It is of course, also vital for defence of the Falkland Islands and other overseas territories.
Strike, Air Defence, Transport, Close Air Support and Combat ISTAR for a Small/Medium Scale Intervention or Non Combatant Evacuation, basically, the away fixture but at a relatively modest scale as characterised by an enduring brigade strength operation, although it may involve maritime forces or indeed, be an ‘air only’ affair. A multi role expeditionary force, able to execute a range of missions but those missions would not necessarily be carried out simultaneously.
ISTAR, in order to create and exploit the so called ‘decision advantage’ we must seek to constantly refine our information superiority capabilities. Collection, analysis and dissemination across of a coherent joint service information architecture is likely to be a key deciding factor in future conflicts. Pre SDSR the RAF were making considerable moves in this direction but the decisions a few months ago seem to have reversed this trend.
Building Regional Security Capability, in the Royal Navy series I proposed a similar strengthening of this area and much like the maritime environment, air power can make a significant contribution to regional (and ultimately UK) security through defence diplomacy, counter narcotics, training, joint security operations and equipment/doctrine development.
Special Forces Support, special-forces are always in high demand but short in numbers (that’s perhaps why they are so special) and they will continue to be a key element of UK defence capability. Support for special-forces operations should be improved to make us less reliant on the US and able to offer a truly self contained force structure that will deliver significant leverage in coalition operations. This capability plus will also have many synergies with the regional security capacity building area.
It is unlikely that any operation involving UK forces will not have an air component but the likelihood of air defence and strike missions will decrease and the demand for persistent combat ISR, close coupled ISR and transport will increase.
These missions are also likely to be in a coalition and to maximise our influence in this coalition we have to avoid bringing a tiny little bit of everything, therefore becoming a burden or ‘me too’
The future is unpredictable but we can make educated and informed guesses but retaining the core capabilities provides a hedge against guessing incorrectly.
Extremely effective air denial weapons are proliferating and it would be easy to speculate on the concessions Russia extracted from the US in return for not selling their latest anti aircraft missile system to Iran.
Unmanned systems have exploded onto the military scene in the last few years but questions remain about bandwidth constraints, effectiveness in contested airspace, operator requirements and loss rates.
Cost growth remains unchecked and this is a future trend that is likely to have the greatest impact on planning.
## Other posts in this series ##