In an effort to provide more fact-based information on which to discuss, a contributor has sent me this.
A fictional and relatively small RAF fast jet Sqn is equipped and manned as below.
I have tried to keep everything as simple as possible in order to keep this as short and clear for non-military readers. My aim is to show how vital proper manning is to the RAF as without it we simply can not operate.
Aircraft, Total Sqn Aircraft = 12 x Windy Weather F6s – A single-seat swing-role jet
However, 2 aircraft will always be in a Major Service (every 1000 hours) and 2 aircraft will always be in a Minor Service (every 500 hours). This means there should always be 8 aircraft on “the line” available to fly at any one point.
Crew, The squadron has 20 crew who require 15 hours flying a month to remain current (trained/licensed to fly)
Flying hours allocated
Currency; 3,600 hours
Combat ready; 400 hours (training for new pilots on the sqn to get to the required standard for combat ops)
Exercises; 2,000 hours
Contingency/Ops,; 2,000 hours
Total, 8,000 hours
Therefore, on average the Sqn should fly 24 aircraft hrs per day based on a 5 day week which is 3 hrs per aircraft on the line per day.
The hours allocated are reliant on the engineering requirements. The major services are carried out by the aircraft manufacturer based on a pre-set contract written during procurement. The dates that these aircraft enter/exit major servicing are planned years in advance and can not be changed without paying huge penalties.
7 engineers per aircraft covering the aircraft on the line and in minor servicing.
With 3 shifts to cover a flying day of 0700-2200 daily = 210
A JEngO plus FS per shift plus WO and SEngO =8
4 Armourer per shift = 12
2 Squipers per shift = 6
2 Suppliers per shift = 6
Total Engineer Manning = 242
Ops, Admin etc = 10
Total Sqn manpower = 272
Life as Normal
Using the manning figures above let’s look at a normal situation and see how things work out. Everything is going to plan with no major problems or crises affecting the hours flown, aircraft serviceability or manpower.
Weather, This is the UK and we get bad weather. A sqn can lose hours, days, weeks or even months to bad weather each year. Each hour lost needs to be gained back somewhere else increasing the number of hours flown on the good weather days. The more hours flown per ac per day the more servicing is needed so the more man-hours you need to do it but you do not get any more manpower so people just work harder. Some flying needs to be done during the day which is easy in summer and hard in winter. Other flying hours need to be done at night which is easy in winter and hard in summer.
Real Life, People get sick, go on courses, take leave, get pregnant, get posted in and get posted out etc. So every section will be running light continuously. If a pilot misses 3 weeks due to a course and sickness he then has to fly his 15 hours in 1 week to avoid going out of currency monopolising the flying meaning other people can not fly as much. If engineers are away others may have to work a different shift to cover or certain jobs are put to one side or delayed. Just because you are a member of a flying squadron it does not mean you can be sent on operations to support another unit so squadrons will always be running light due to this as well.
Aircraft never go unserviceable when you want them to or to suite your manning. For example the engineers have various specialisations engines, airframes, avionics etc so you have a number of each specialisation on each shift. This is fine if the aircraft all go unserviceable for different reasons as you can spread the manpower out and work concurrently as best as possible. It rarely works out that was so if 3 aircraft have engine problems you probably can not fix all 3 at once yet you have engineers sat doing nothing as they are not trained/licensed to work on engines and so on.
Aircraft Upgrades or Modifications; Military aircraft are constantly being upgraded and modified so you will inevitably lose aircraft while this is done. So again you have to fly the remaining aircraft harder and the more hours flown the more servicing is needed so the more man-hours you need to do it but you do not get any more manpower so people just work harder.
Aircraft Spares; Clearly, if the spare part you need to fix your aircraft is not on the shelf you have order it and wait for it to be supplied. The RAF uses some clever software to analyse wear and tear on aircraft which then dictates what, and how many spares you have on the shelf on station, those spares that are available off the shelf from suppliers and so on. This reduces costs considerably but aircraft simply do not break as and when they are supposed to so spares delays are common. Often the part you need is “robbed” (removed) off another aircraft that is broken for anther reason. This presents various issues outside the scope of this article (if it ain’t broken, don’t fix (touch) it!!) but the important factor is robbing a part takes more time than taking the same part off the shelf (removing it then possible cleaning/prepping, function testing etc) hitting your manpower further.
There is more but I think you get the idea that normal day to day life constantly affects your manpower and your ability to complete your tasks. Sadly, life is never as simple as above another other issues are common and frequent…….
Short Term Operational Tasking
So everything was going OK as per the above, there were issue but the Sqn was able to manage them with no real risk of ever getting stretched to breaking point. The phone rings and the Sqn boss is told that he needs to send 4 aircraft out to Italy as part of a NATO force to police a no-fly zone over a North African country. He has to provide 2 aircraft per day flying 6 hours each and every day for 30 days with the possibility this will extend.
Initial thoughts and assumptions are that this represents:
50% of the squadron’s aircraft, 2 aircraft plus 2 spares.
2 sorties per aircraft per day of 3 hours
4 crews flying each day, 2 crew resting and a planning crew = 7 crew
4 aircraft = 2 shifts of 28 engineers + armourers, squippers etc.
Ops and Admin staff, drivers and a Detachment Commander
Total predicted hours = 360 plus transit times (3 hours to Italy, 3 hours back x 4)
Total manpower = 80
So this does not look too bad, the only immediate concern is that you are losing 50% of you aircraft as flying still needs to continue back at base. But………..
Aircraft, Which ones shall we use?
Well first you need each aircraft to have over 90 hrs left before it’s next Minor or Major Service. So straight away that is a limitation and sods law says at least one of the aircraft you need will be broken so you have to rob parts off a serviceable jet to get it working. So you identify your 4 aircraft and start prepping them to ensure they are as serviceable as possible (most aircraft will normally carry minor, non-critical faults and unserviceablilies but you try not deploy aircraft like that). You all start prepping what spares you need to take plus you need to coordinate bombs and bullets, tools, paperwork, IT etc.
Everyone is very busy.
Crew; So you need 7 crew so who do you take? Well you need crews that are in currency and you will need to ensure some of those are your experienced crews. You identify the seven and they are told to go and fly whatever sorties, currencies etc they need and be ready to go. The rest of the crews support them but wont be getting their normal amount of hours.
Admin; Flights will be booked to get all the ground support equipment and personnel and the crews not transiting the jets to Italy. The rest of the stn supports the sqn and a C17 comes in to take out all the support equipment and most of the staff, a Tristar takes the rest.
7 days later the deployment is in full swing in Italy, it was hard work but you made it. Job done?
Meanwhile Back at Base
Crew; The requirement for the remaining crews to fly 15 hours a month remains but now there is only 4 aircraft to do it. Yet you now need to ensure that you have crews ready to augment the detachment in Italy and have to consider what happens if the operation extends beyond 30 days. In short you need to fly more with less aircraft. You may be able to cancel some exercise, but not all and some of the exercise may offer excellent training for what you will be doing in Italy so you still do them. The Sqn routinely deploys on operations 3 months a year and that wont be cancelled so you continue to prepare for that meaning more flying hours.
Engineers; The aircraft will still break but the spares shelf is nearly empty as most of it is all in Italy as those aircraft are the priority. You order more spares but it always takes time. You have lost a quarter of your engineering manning so you can no longer sustain the same shift pattern resulting in less hours available to fix and service the aircraft. The yearly 3 month det accounts for 1800 of the contingency/operational hours so with the new detachment you are going to be 160 hours over your allocation. There is no extra money for this and you can not send aircraft into Major Servicing early as its not in the contract. So you have to save the 160 hours from the Exercise allocation and this may work out as you have just cancelled one exercise. You sent the 4 jets with the most hours remaining until their next minor/major service to Italy so now you have to manage the hours left on the jets at base.
The Minor Services are done in house so if the aircraft use the hours quicker than planned due to the extra flying you can perhaps cope, a bit. But, you are short on engineers so it may take longer than normal to complete the Minor Services
At this point SEngO decides that one aircraft that is due a minor service in 15 hours and is currently unserviceable with a quite manpower intensive problem will just be left broken for now.
There is no point using valuable manpower to fix it so it can fly for 15 hours.
So the 4 aircraft become 3.
So what does all this mean?
The guys in Italy are flying more hours than are normal, the aircraft are well supported and like the warm weather so serviceability is good.
Everything is going well.
Back home crews are struggling to remain current let alone have extra hours to train for a possible deployment to Italy or for the standard 3 month squadron detachment.
The engineers are working all hours in an attempt to keep the 3 remaining aircraft serviceable. Winter is closing in so vital hours are lost each week to the weather which is fine for the engineers (more time to fix aircraft) but not for the crews. You lose 2 pilots who are posted but get 3 new pilots straight from the Operational Conversion Unit. On the face of it the seems like a result but the 3 new pilots require a lot of flying to get them Combat Ready and you need the hours for the other pilots so the new pilots get no hours for the first few weeks. The squadron boss has already started cancelling leave and courses in attempt to preserve manpower but can not cancel people being sick or pregnant. With grit, guts, strong leadership and capturing the true RAF Ethos the Sqn manages to do just about everything it needs to and not fall apart.
The squadron boss gets another call from Air Command; the operation has been extended to a total of 60 days. It is not all bad news though the sqn will be able to borrow 2 aircraft from another sqn and a further 2 aircraft will come out of major servicing and 2 will go in. The 3 aircraft have become 6.
Re-Plan Time And Initial Thoughts And Assumptions
The 7 crew in Italy need to be replaced by 7 fresh crews.
Some or all of the engineering manning will also need to be replaced.
Any manpower replacement need to be staggered for better continuity. The manpower returning form Italy will all get 7 days leave.
6 aircraft back at base is good and any hours used on the 2 borrowed aircraft will come from the lending sqns hours allocation.
Crew; So you need 7 crew so who do you send? Well you need crews that are in currency and you will need to ensure some of those are your experienced crews. But, you have already sent your most experienced people out so who is next? You identify the 7 and they are told to go and fly whatever sorties, currencies etc they need and be ready to go. This 7 need more hour than the previous 7 to do get current/competent so the flying programme crams in as much flying as possible.
Engineer; You now have 6 aircraft which initially seems good but you have no additional manpower to fix them so you hope and pray nothing serious goes wrong with any of them. 2 of the aircraft in Italy are getting short on hours so you need to prep 2 new ones and send them out to Italy. This works out well as you can swap 2 crew at the same time. Manpower is diverted to fully prepare these aircraft. As you start to send new people to Italy you have to run even lighter while you wait for the returning people to take a weeks leave. More spares need to be sent out to Italy so again your shelf starts to look a bit bare. So the 6 aircraft will become 4 for a week (preparing for the swap) but due to spares and manpower shortages the most aircraft they are able to get serviceable is 2 at anyone time. The crew want to fly them 8 hours a day resulting in more servicing requirements.
A week or so later the personnel and aircraft swaps have been completed and everyone has returned from leave. Do things start to return to normal?
Crew; The 7 crew that have returned have flown lots of hours but due to the nature of the flying from Italy they need to do some night flying to remain current. The few remaining crews who have not been to Italy are trying to get current and train to go to Italy just in case and need to day fly. Everyone still needs to continue preparing for the normal Sqn deployment which is proving nearly impossible.
Engineers; Things have picked up a bit but they are still struggling to keep more than 3 aircraft serviceable a day and morale is dropping. The crews want to fly day and night but the manning can’t cover both so the Sqn boss decides that the night flying will have to wait, prepping crew for Italy is the priority.
The 60 days are up and French have agreed to take over the sqn commitments to the no-fly zone so everyone returns home for tea and medals. The last 70ish days have been hard on everyone but it’s over now everything will be fine, won’t it?
The Sqn is back to full manning, leave has been taken and everyone is rightly proud of what they have done.
So what happens now?
Crew; Flying continues and the 3 new crew are starting to get the hours they need. However, due to the Op only 2 crews are current for night flying so the Sqn needs to fit in a night flying week somehow. Extra hours are needed to get everyone fully current again before the sqn deploys people on standing 3 month detachment in 6 weeks time. The lost exercise means they will not get to complete certain types of training before they deploy next time. This means some crew on the sqn have not flown certain missions since the last operational deployment 12 months ago. Skill fade is a real issue but there is nothing that can be done so the risk is noted but this will not stop the next deployment.
Engineers; The 2 borrowed jets have been returned so we are back, in theory, to 8 on the line forward line. The sqn is now 400 hrs over its Contingency/Operational hours so more needs to come from the Exercise allocation. However, it is now late in the financial year so most of the exercise hours have already be spent so you can gain back 250 hrs but are still 150 hours short which now have to come from the Combat Ready Allocation meaning the 3 new pilots will not get all the hours they need this financial year (to become Combat Ready). Due to the extra flying some of the aircraft are closing in on their minor servicing early so you try to fly them less as there is still a back log of minor servicing from the detachment period. The 8 has effectively become 4 but there is nothing you can do. There is a lot of catch up work to get all the jobs done that were pushed to one side during the op so it is still non-stop for the engineers.
6 Weeks later
6 crew and 20 engineers and support staff depart for the Middle East. It is mid winter and the sqn is loosing 2-3 hours flying each day due to weather and the lack of daylight as most of the flying needs to be done during the day. The sqn again enters the cycle of preparing crew and engineers to rotate through the detachment and all the associated issues as seen above.
The Sqn boss comes back from a meeting with the Stn Cdr and he is not happy. The Stn normally closes for 10 days over Christmas and despite the Sqn boss pleading that the stn remains open for a few extra days to allow more crews to get current the Stn Cdr refuses.
To be fair to the Stn Cdr his hands are tied, many of the Stns staff are civilians who can not be forced to work over Christmas even if he had the budget for overtime. Air Traffic Control, Stn Operations, the Fire Section and Medics are all short staffed due to their own operational commitments, courses, illness, maternity etc and both need and deserve time off. The Stn Cdr has also been under pressure by the council as the locals don’t like all the noise from the airfield so he has promised no noise of Christmas.
It never ends.
So there you have it, the story of one fictional sqn and how it transitions from normal flying to short notice operational detachment and then to routine operational detachment. The simple fact is a flying Sqn is a constant state of recovery and repair but it never fully recovers and just gets worn down.
Aircrew and Engineer competency is a real issue as they never get chance to completely train for what the do and consolidate experience and knowledge.
This sums up the last 10+ years of the RAF.
Yet the story above is much simplified and captures a fraction of the issues.
I only just touched at the issues for the support staff (ops, ATC etc) at the end but this is another huge issue that never goes away. You should have noticed lots of problems that needed to be solved that would require a fair amount of staff work and deliberation. If you take nothing else away from this article then take away the fact that no modern day RAF unit is ever actually fully manned and that contracts will civilian companies are a real life limitation.
There is no flex in the system at all any more and everything we do has a negative knock on affect further down the line.
In short, an RAF unit is not even manned for basic exercises and normal flying let alone operations, even small ones.