The most common accusation made against the RAF is that it has favoured those glamorous pointy fast jets above all others. Given the shortage of almost everything else except fast jets it’s hard not to have some sympathy with that perspective but considering the enormous lead times of modern aircraft and ‘cold war’ missions that formed their requirements we must be careful of being smart with the benefit of hindsight.
Once again, we must differentiate between sovereign operations and those we undertake in a coalition. Sovereign operations will be at a small scale and anything above is likely to be in a coalition, a coalition that will also have its own air assets. Our goal should be retain the full spectrum of sovereign capabilities at this small scale whilst making a decisive contribution in select areas to achieve influence in the conduct of the operation. It is also essential that we draw a distinction between obligations in the UK, overseas territories and on expeditionary operations.
Recognising this, I think the RAF needs to concentrate more on air transport, ISTAR, supporting special-forces and less on eye wateringly expensive fast jets.
It is not sensible to divide missions up into those which are fulfilled by fast jets because in reality all aircraft are interconnected, air defence might depend on the E3 Sentry or close air support might be cued from a Reaper UAV. It is all about effects rather than platforms so the saying goes, but for the convenience of making a manageable post I am going to go all retro and look at platforms as well.
Control of the air is a vital pre-requisite for most, although not all, military operations either in the UK, overseas or at sea. Control of the air is a complex challenge and will be dependent on the operational context, the threat, the size of the area of operations and might encompass Quick Reaction Alert, suppression/destruction of enemy air defences, interdiction or destruction of enemy ground based facilities or the aircraft themselves. It might even mean denying airspace to enemy UAV’s, deterring potential enemy incursions or controlling multiple aircraft in a complex air defence environment. It should also be noted that control of the air can be augmented or perhaps wholly achieved with land or sea based defence systems.
UK Air Defence
Although there is a distinction between air defence and providing QRA it is worth for the purpose of simplicity to group them together. As the Tornado F3 is withdrawn UK air defence will be the sole preserve of the Typhoon, operating in two QRA locations, North and South. The Typhoon is a powerful air defence fighter, armed with the latest ASRAAM and soon to be in service Meteor missile, backed up with ground based radar and the E3 Sentry (on a needs basis).
Is this overkill, what are the threats?
We need to be pragmatic here and ask if we can accept a greater impact against a lower likelihood
Although the Russian air force still likes to probe with their Bear’s is this really anything more than a nuisance or provocation to lets us know they are still there. What about terrorists taking over a scheduled or private jet; is this actually a credible threat or has that boat sailed?
There is always the counter argument of being able to rebuild in time against a rapidly realised threat and of course the unknown unknowables but how far do we go.
I am not being complacent but questioning the need to maintain such a high readiness force structure at massive cost against a high impact but low likelihood threat. A recent Parliamentary question and answer revealed that the RAF has launched a QRA response at a rate of just over 1 a month for the last 5 years and for this we maintain 2 squadrons per QRA region, each with between 15 and 19 aircraft. Whilst the improved availability rates of the Typhoon versus the Tornado F3 might be able to reduce the actual aircraft strength it is still a lot of capability. I accept the argument that QRA is not air defence and that those aircraft and personnel are not solely dedicated to QRA but it still seems like a lot.
There are a number of issues I think we should explore;
- Given greatly enhanced airline security is the threat of a hijack in the style of 9/11 a credible threat.
- Does a greater threat come from a chartered (not hijacked) private jets, given the continuing use of Northolt and City airports by such, would we even be able to react in time anyway?
- If we did face multiple threats that might potentially overwhelm existing QRA capability would it be feasible to rely on French, Dutch and Belgian forces?
- Accepting that for commonality reasons the Typhoon is the preferred aircraft, could we cover the QRA task from a single location (with backup of course). The two locations, Conningsby in Lincolnshire and Leuchars in Fife are ideally placed for the northern and southern tasks but separated by only 250 miles, or about a quarter of an hour in the racing snake that is the Typhoon and that is at roughly half speed. Or, would the loss of resilience be too great a risk to take?
- Is the Typhoon too much aircraft for the risk and likely threats, are there cheaper alternatives. I am pretty loathe to accept the idea that introducing a new type is a good idea but surely it is worth asking the question. We have just accepted into service a number of Hawk 128’s with the latest digital avionics and Adour 951 engine, the same engine that powers the Taranis. The Malaysian Hawk 209 single seat light fighters have an in-flight refuelling probe and a military off the shelf multimode radar. Would a handful of them offer a practical alternative or would their lack of supersonic speed, high altitude and shorter range mean it was completely impractical?
- If the two location QRA is the best option do we really need 5 squadrons of Typhoon to cover it on an enduring basis, can we challenge some of the assumptions on which this number is arrived at. 5 squadrons of 15 aircraft plus OCU/OEU does seem rather heavy for 1 or 2 responses per month
Defence of Overseas Territories
By this I of course mean the Falkland Islands which are currently benefiting from Typhoon. It is fair to say that their primary role is that of deterrence and to be effective in this we cannot afford to think the role can be fulfilled by anything second best; especially given the distances it needs to cover.
Control of the air on expeditionary operations is vital so this needs the full spectrum of air to air, battle space management and supplementary capabilities like strike an SEAD/DEAD. This mission is where the double act of Typhoon and F35C will be particularly effective.
Although many consider the F35 to be inferior to Typhoon in the air to air role I suspect when it comes into service the F35 will surprise many with it capabilities in this area, much like the Typhoon has and will continue to prove its effectiveness outside the anti air role. If we can ensure that all weapons are integrated onto both airframes we will have an overlapping set of complimentary capabilities.
If we make a judgement that the threat to UK and Overseas Territories is unlikely to include the latest double digit surface to air missiles and fifth generation aircraft the same cannot be said for expeditionary operations. Russian and Chinese designs are formidable and will only improve, both nations have shown that they are willing to export and/or use them as a bargaining chip.
Modern air combat is wholly different from old images of close in dog fighting and modern beyond visual range missiles gain enormously from being lofted from a position of speed and altitude. The Typhoon is ideally suited to this and in an expeditionary context might be used to achieve air control in the early stages and then switch to close air support or interdiction as the operation progresses. The multi role capabilities of the later Typhoon tranches allow us to achieve maximum benefit from a single type.
Expeditionary capabilities should support both surge (usually for initial operations) and sustained operations, at a lower level. It is likely that these initial operations, perhaps to eliminate the air threat, will need a combination of Typhoon and F35. The F35 also of course, provides an ability to operate from CVF, should that be the optimal solution.
We can’t predict the nature of a future conflict but having the overlapping and complimentary capabilities of the Typhoon and F35 will provide the UK with a powerful and effective force. The question then boils down to quantities, systems and cash.
The Tornado Question
I don’t want to exhaust the already exhausted arguments about Harrier v Tornado but in the context of providing combat ISR and Close Air Support for Afghanistan whilst multi role Typhoon numbers are building the decision is logical.
The failure to bring Typhoon into service has nothing to do with RAF foot dragging but selling 72 Typhoon to Saudi Arabia out from under RAF delivery slots and it is a result of this decision that we have had to make the difficult decision between the Tornado and Harrier. The potential for short and medium term cost savings as a result of completely withdrawing Tornado is significant but they will not be realised because of nothing more than timing and poor decisions.
Current plans call for a force element at readiness figure of 18 aircraft from about 2015 with total fleet size scaled from that. The ratio of fleet readiness to total fleet size seems to be between 4 and 5 to 1 so that would indicate a total number somewhere in the region of 90 aircraft.
Given the projected withdrawal from Afghanistan and the coalition nature of the operation one wonders if we might rely on our allies for close air support whilst supplementing some of the combat ISTAR with the increasing number of UAV’s. This would be a pretty radical step but taking some of those savings and ploughing them into accelerating the introduction of the multi role Typhoon might compress the capability holiday.
The Joint Combat Aircraft and Carrier Aviation
It seems no other aircraft has had more written about it than the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, or the aircraft intended to fulfil the UK Joint Combat Aircraft requirement.
I mention the term JCA early on because it is important to understand that it is a ‘requirement’ that could have been fulfilled by a number of aircraft. JCA has yet to achieve Main Gate so although the F35 is the preferred aircraft to meet the JCA requirement the fat lady hasn’t quite finished warbling.
The SDSR changed the F35 buy from the STOCL B model to the CATOBAR C model.
I think this is a poor decision; the B model met all JCA requirements and offered the most cost effective route to maintaining the aircraft over the longer period. Going to cats and traps gets a modest performance improvement and a lower capital cost but the additional costs of maintaining carrier qualification and extra personnel used for deck operations/maintenance will soon make those lower capital costs seem like small beer. It is clear that the MoD has very little or no data on which this decision has been made, citing the word ‘estimates’ in answer to several questions in the house on the cost differential. When the MoD starts estimating about future costs am I the only one that starts to get nervous and to base such a huge decision on the back of a fag packet seems rather unwise.
There is also the cost of delay, we complained about the last government introducing a delay to CVF in order to push costs out to the future but adding significantly to the overall cost, yet when it is to get the FAA’s beloved cats and traps that will add about a billion pounds, the sound of silence is deafening.
I will explain why I think the decision was taken in the next section.
Discounting the aircraft it is looking like the CVF project will cost the UK in excess of £6billion for which we will likely get one operational vessel with another as a spare or likely sold off.
With a small number of F35 I cannot see any financial sense in maintaining two distinct fast jet forces, however joint, however much common training we do. I have been accused of not wanting to look at sacred cows because I think the business of flying should be done by a force that doesn’t do anything else.
How is this for a sacred cow cull!
Rather than stringing out the FAA career structure for the next ten years, trying to maintain some shoestring capability against all financial and operational logic we should simply disband the fixed wing elements of the Fleet Air Arm and put the F35 (and other aircraft) into a single RAF force structure. When the F35 is needed for carrier operations, it will embark on CVF, when it makes sense to be land based, it will operate from land bases.
We need to think less about aircraft as possessions of a single service and more about where it makes most sense. We make decisions on a joint basis so the notion that the two services will have different objectives and priorities, the RAF leaving the fleet undefended for example, is simply out of tune with the realities of today.
The Boys from Brazil (and France as well)
I maintain that the choice to switch from the STOVL F35B to the CATBOAR F35C was based on politics and backroom deals. The Brazilian F-X2 competition short listed the F18, Rafale and Gripen NG and from the various Wiki Leaks releases it would seem that the widely accepted favourite, the Dassault Rafale, has yet to make the finish line. It is no secret that Dassault badly needs an export success for the Rafale and with the UK only having a marginal interest it shouldn’t make any difference to us who wins. All the arms manufacturing nations are tripping over themselves to be Brazil and India’s newest BFF (best friend forever) and given we are out of the aircraft race, what else could we offer up?
How about a nice shiny new aircraft carrier, surplus to requirement and only one careful owner?
The Brazilian’s have already chosen the EADS Cougar as their medium lift helicopter and have a number of agreements in place with the UK and French for other equipment. Their ex 60 year old, French, Sao Paulo aircraft carrier has recently been upgraded, as have a number of their A4 Skyhawks but in the medium term these will need replacing.
If the F-X2 programme is not cancelled by the incoming President (Dilma Rousseff) it would make sense to have a single aircraft for both land and sea based operation and given the finalists that means a CATOBAR launch and recovery system. Despite muttering about a Chinese/Brazilian aircraft carrier I can’t see that happening.
CVF as planned was of course going to be STOVL so that removes the most likely overseas buyer for our second carrier.
The parlous state and huge running costs of the Charles de Gaulle make the Port Avions 2 (PA2) aircraft carrier a pressing need. Instead of operating both it would make a lot of sense to push forward to PA2 and withdraw CdG.
The UK and France could then operate a joint European carrier group using a design that is apart from some minor details, identical. The carrier/s would anchor a future EU Naval Force yet still have some sovereign autonomy for national operations, operational training could be consolidated and support costs shared.
This would of course leave both nations reliant on each other for sovereign operations when the primary carrier was in refit or out of action for whatever reason. The Falkland Islands is often used as a potential fly in the ointment, why would France sail south with a Royal Navy task force should circumstances conspire to put the UK’s carrier into dock and the Falklands under threat?
Could we have some arrangement that would allow the Royal Navy to borrow PA2 for a bit, putting it into harms way?
Quite clearly this is a tough sell and Liam Fox has continually stated that there is no possibility of a joint UK/French carrier but where did listening to politicians make emphatic statements get the students exactly?
Sticking with F35B makes either of these options a complete non starter.
The cost and capability differences between the B and C are mere window dressing for a politically driven decision.
Juggling the Balls
It is looking likely that all 55 Tranche 1 Typhoons will go in the next few years as it has been stated that upgrading them to Tranche 2 would be too expensive. Can we question the basis on which this decision has been made; I think we should at least think twice before tossing aside 55 extremely expensive aircraft because we cannot afford to bring them up to a common standard, with all the ruthless commonality benefits that this would deliver? If the upgrade is too expensive and expected export orders to Oman kick in then the RAF may be forced to retain the T1 aircraft longer than expected anyway. Some of the T1 aircraft have already been upgraded to the latest revision T1 revision (Block 5 P1E I think) and if a full upgrade is not possible then it does not mean they suddenly become useless.
One gets the impression that the RAF views the Typhoon as yesterday’s news and are already frothing about the benefits of the F35, preferring to spend money on new equipment than to maximise the usefulness of what has already been very expensively bought and paid for.
Hang on a minute there chaps.
There are many plates to be juggled with Typhoon numbers and tranches but the likely outcome is between 90 and 110 modified tranche 2/tranche 3 depending on export orders, disposal of tranche 1 and whether replacements for export orders would be obtained.
On a ratio of 5 to 1 (total fleet/ready) that means the UK will be able to muster about 20 aircraft available for task. If we can increase availability, reduce training requirements and replace export orders then we might be able to both improve the ratio and increase total fleet numbers. The rapidly advancing capabilities of synthetic training may allow a reduction in the training airframe count for both Typhoon and JCA so overall numbers might be decreased for the same effect.
The programme has cost the UK taxpayer roughly £20billion and whilst it may be a cheap shot, that’s about a billion pounds for each available Typhoon!
The accepted F35 order seems to be around 40 aircraft initially, forming a single large squadron. More orders would follow as funds permitted with the latest duty rumour being that the total F35 buy from 2020 onwards would be in the ballpark of 100 plus.
Trying to work out numbers required is pretty difficult because availability rates differ between aircraft, whether they are on operations or not, unpredictable attrition rates and many other factors.
From the suggestions above I think it is reasonable in the context of other priorities to challenge the assumptions on which QRA/AD is scaled. I do not think we can justify 5 squadrons worth of £70m aircraft standing guard against UFO’s, terrorist aircraft and Russian Bear’s whilst we are desperately short of expeditionary assets.
So I am just putting this suggestion ‘out there’ as a lower capability, higher risk solution. Prioritising expeditionary operations over UK defence, especially as the National Security Strategy and SDSR explicitly recognise the low threat we face from air attack.
UK Air Defence/QRA: 1 enlarged squadron of 20 aircraft per QRA region able to provide 2 aircraft on standby and on an enduring basis, including in squadron high readiness reserve.
Falkland Islands Air Defence/QRA: 1 enlarged squadron of 20 aircraft, with a 4 aircraft flight on task, 1 non standby and 1 on high readiness.
When not on alert the crews would be training, on leave or at lower readiness for re-tasking etc. Aircraft would be used for training, in maintenance or rotated to manage airframe hours.
This results in an airframe requirement of about 60, not including any OCE/OEU/Attrition aircraft
One Shot Expeditionary: Not all future operations will be against the Taleban or COIN in nature so we still need to retain the ability to strike distant targets against a competent enemy. This will be resourced in the future by a mix of Storm Shadow missiles, submarine launched Tomahawk missiles and the F35C. In due course, the UCAV may also supplement these platforms. Initial expeditionary operations will be of both a different nature and different scale to those carried out on an enduring basis. Expeditionary is therefore seen as sustained +1. The F35 is ideally suited to deep strike so would be used as a ‘golden bullet’ one shot capability. It is unlikely that we would conduct sustained operations from CVF but for the initial stages, it could be the only platform available and in line with the more likely multi-purpose role of CVF, 12-15 F35 would be the routine deployment.
40 F35C provides a single enlarged squadron of about 20 aircraft, plus OEU/OCU and attrition spares (carrier aircraft traditionally suffer higher accident and wear rates than land based aircraft). It is not the intention to resource an enduring commitment with F35 and this should conserve their airframe hours, as above, using them a deep strike force to penetrate contested air space from either land or sea. From this pool of 40 aircraft we would be able to surge beyond the normal 12-15 aircraft deployment for CVF on a national emergency basis.
This results in an airframe requirement of about 40, including OCE/OEU/Attrition aircraft
Sustained Expeditionary: formed into a single expeditionary air wing (as currently) the RAF should be able to sustain a single deployment of fast jets on an enduring basis, supporting an Army Multi Role Brigade, whilst still having the ‘one shot expeditionary’ and UK/FI QRA operating as normal. This enduring basis might be for air defence (in a manner similar to the Iraq no fly zones) but would normally consist of combat ISR and Close Air Support.
Squadron size would be 12 for a total aircraft requirement of between 48 and 60 depending on the deployed/non deployed ratio achievable. I think 4 should be a target, not 5, the Royal Navy manage it with ships and although the new multi role brigade structure is working on a 5 to 1 ratio I think it would be unfair to compare the two.
I want to work on the assumption that we go to a Typhoon fleet of about 160; that is, not trashing the T1’s and replacing any export orders with T3’s
This produces an aircraft requirement of approximately 50 not including OCE/OEU/Attrition
F35C = 40
Typhoon = 110 plus 50 (split between OCU/OEU and attrition/spares) for a total of about 160 aircraft
Squadron disposition would be as follows (although their sizes would differ)
UK QRA/AD, QTY 3
FI QRA/AD, QTY 1
Expeditionary Strike/CVF/Strategic Reserve, QTY 1
Sustained Expeditionary, QTY 4
TOTAL POST 2020 Squadrons Count = 9
Trying to understand the capabilities of the Typhoon is difficult because of the differing Tranches, Batches and Blocks and this is compounded by the need to obtain agreement from all Typhoon partner nations for any deviation. Given the long term role of Typhoon in UK service we should investigate the options for developing our own technology roadmap.
For a comprehensive rundown of the various flavours, click here
The F35C is of course ‘capability unknown’ but it is safe to assume that we will be happy with whatever comes off the LM production line.
I will look at air delivered weapons in a separate post.
I started this post with a comment that the RAF needs to change slightly its priorities and devote more resource to air transport, ISR, building regional security and special-forces support.
To ‘pay’ for this change in priorities I propose to raid the fast jet piggy bank, especially the F35. With all the ‘future of’ posts I am attempting to stay within existing funding rather than indulging in fantasy fleets of 138 F35’s and hordes of UCAV’s. The recent ‘6 Squadron’ story was based on a transition up to 2020 and did not seem to take into account quantities beyond that. Although squadrons are used as a basic unit of measure we should not forget the definition of a squadron can change, it is a loose organisational construct rather than a force size set in stone. What is more important is equipment at readiness and available for deployment, but squadrons are a handy reference.
We should maximise on our significant investment in Typhoon rather than casting our eyes on the shiny new baubles of the F35. Beyond UK air defence/QRA the most likely task for the RAF fast jets will be Close Air Support, a task that the Typhoon is actually supremely suited for. It is this we should be concentrating on not deep strikes against double digit SAM’s and T50’s. Reducing the reserve and may shorten the service life of the Typhoon fleet but things have changed since the assumptions that formed the initial Typhoon requirement.
Post 2020 this is simply a suggestion;
- 2 enlarged squadrons for UK AD/QRA recognising a reduced risk (Typhoon)
- 1 Squadron for Falkland Islands AD/QRA (Typhoon)
- reduced size Squadrons for Sustained Expeditionary Operations (Typhoon)
- 1 enlarged Squadron for CVF/Deep Strike (F35C)
## Other posts in this series ##