I am not sure why, but we often use the term, we are not Belgium, when describing our military capabilities. It’s not a slight on Belgium in any way at all, the UK and Belgium have a long history of working together in military terms but more a comment on our relative strategic outlooks.
In the aftermath of the Harrier withdrawal, looming reductions in Tornado numbers, uncertainty about final Typhoon numbers and even more uncertainty about F35 orders, Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell seems to have publicly deployed the ‘Belgium Bomb’
But did he?
Reading the Telegraph article it is clear that he was asked, not sure by whom, whether the cuts would leave us with an air force the same size as Belgium’s he replied;
I think we’re slightly above Belgium, and we are not a Belgium-minded country
We should always be careful to avoid misquoting and third hand assumptions because this has happened so many times, the Air Vice Marshal was responding to a leading question so when the tabloids start screaming about the RAF being only slightly larger than the Belgian Air Force (Component) and quoting him, we should step back.
But what about Belgium anyway?
The Belgian Air Component has 72 F16 fighter bombers, of which 60 are assigned to NATO. In addition, they have a small number of transport aircraft, trainers and helicopters. The RAF is of course substantially more powerful and capable across all areas, comparing the numbers of squadrons only provides half the picture. Zimbabwe has more squadrons than the RAF, or Belgium for that matter.
Behind the Belgian comparison there is a more serious point, the likely reduction of the RAF to 6 fast jet squadrons by 2020, 5 Typhoon and 1 F35C.
He warned that even the reductions that have been publicly announced — from 12 fast-jet squadrons to eight — would leave the RAF only “just about” able to do its current tasks, with no leeway for the unexpected.
“Am I happy to be down at that number [eight squadrons] next April? No, it worries the hell out of me,” he said. “I can just about do Operation Herrick [Afghanistan], and the QRAs [air defence operations]. Can I do other things? Yes, but it is at risk.”
In all the bitch fighting about Harriers or Tornado’s we might often lose sight of the fact that it is not just the Royal Navy that has been dramatically reduced, accepting the limitations of using squadron numbers as a benchmark, the RAF in the early 90′s had about 30 fast jet squadrons.
The MoD quickly distanced themselves from the comments.
Equally illuminating were his comments on F35C and carrier operating skills
The techniques and procedures to recover a conventional carrier aircraft using catapult launches and arrestor gear recoveries, or ‘cats and traps,’ are totally different from that of a STOVL aircraft. That is just as true for the aircrew as it is for the ships crew. Whilst the Harrier would have preserved the requisite skill sets for the F35B STOVL variant of the Joint Combat Aircraft. Effectively, we need to build the skill sets for the new aircraft and carrier configuration from scratch. We all ready have plans in place to begin that build up over the next 10 years with our allies and partners.”
One senior Royal Navy commander agreed with Bagwell’s assessment and said there was a much bigger question mark over regaining deck skills than the capabilities of pilots
We have 10 years to get our act in gear and understand what operating the F-35C variant means for training and other preparation. Some we will have to learn from the USA and France. We will be flying Rafales from French carriers within a few years. I’m sure of it
So that single squadron will need an initial order of 40 aircraft.
How the aircraft will be employed in the future has yet to be worked out, but said he thought the aircraft would not be tied to the aircraft carrier.
They are there to project air power. It’s irrelevant where they are launched from. The Royal Navy will hate me for this, but sometimes they will be launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier for good reason. Other times it will be in-country closer to the problem
What can we take from these comments?
At a guess;
- An initial buy of 36 F35C with the promise of some jam tomorrow
- Closer integration with the French and US Navies, not because of some intrinsic strategic partnership but because we will not be able to work up to carrier operations in the absence of a our own carriers
- No permanently embarked aircraft force for the QE class aircraft carrier/s
- Yet more inter service handbags
- Disbanding of Fleet Air Arm fast jet capability
- Delays to the in service date of the QE class to allow deck operation skills to be built
Mayonnaise on chips, you are joking!