Defence for 2015 and Beyond – Part 10 The Royal Air Force 2025
A series of guest posts from AndyC
More than either of the other services the strength and disposition of the RAF is determined by its support role.
The number of C-17 Globemaster and A400 Atlas transport aircraft is determined by the need to provide long distance mobility for the British Army.
Similarly, the number of Chinook, Puma and Merlin transport helicopters is determined by the need for battlefield mobility.
In addition, the number of A330 Voyager multi role tanker transports is partly determined by the needs of the transport fleet and only partly by the needs of the RAF’s combat aircraft.
ISTAR requirements are also determined by the needs of ground forces. At present three kinds of aircraft and one UCAV are used for different circumstances. It would make sense to pool these assets, reduce squadron numbers and have crews be equally familiar with operating different systems so that the RAF can maximise its capability while minimising its headcount.
What is surprising is that the RAF still operates a number of small squadrons which would appear to be inefficient and expensive from a management perspective. As well as merging the three ISTAR aircraft Squadrons into one it would make financial sense to merge the two Reaper UCAV Squadrons into one, the three A400 Atlas Squadrons into two and the two A330 Voyager Squadrons into one.
It would also seem expensive to maintain a separate airbase for the 24 Puma helicopters. Co-locating these squadrons with other helicopters of the Joint Helicopter Command would be most cost efficient and allow RAF Benson to be sold for development.
The RAF’s priority for training should be to work with the Polish Air Force and German and French aircraft that could all potentially be deployed to Eastern Europe and with the Norwegian Air Force and the French naval air arm in the north and the French and Italian naval air arms in the Mediterranean. Consideration should be given to renting a permanent air base in Poland.
A number of new missiles are already on order and will enter service in the next five years including the Meteor Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile, the upgraded Brimstone 2 anti-armour missile and CAMM-L surface-to-air missile to replace the Rapier for short-range air defence.
In addition, a number of new missiles have also been specifically designed to operate with the F-35B. These include the SPEAR for targeting mobile ground targets at distances of up to 60 miles and the Joint Strike Missile for use as both an anti-shipping and land strike missile at distances up to 150 miles. To maximise commonality and save on cost the Joint Strike Missile should also be used by the Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the Typhoon in its anti-shipping role.
There is no doubt that ground based air defences are becoming more effective. One answer is the stealth of the F-35B but another is to extend the range of stand-off cruise missiles. Improvements in engine technology and the use of lighter materials are enabling these missiles to be effective at much longer ranges. The US has embarked on what it calls the ‘-Extended Range’ programme. For example, the 200+ mile range JASSM is being upgraded to the 600+ mile JASSM-ER. It should be a priority to improve the Storm Shadow missile to a similar extent.
In all of the scenarios examined there is a clear need for a long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft to cover the large areas of sea around the UK that the reduced surface fleet cannot cover. The most effective way to achieve this capability would be to buy a dedicated Maritime Patrol Aircraft such as either the Boeing P-8 Poseidon or Kawasaki P-1. In addition, the UK should evaluate the Triton UAV to see whether it can add to the capabilities and reach of whichever aircraft is selected in the MPA role.
A small number of fighter aircraft operating with aerial tankers are also needed to provide an anti-shipping capability in the areas that carrier based F-35Bs cannot reach and to provide fighter escort for the MPA. With its longer range the Typhoon would be the most suitable aircraft for this role.
The minimum number of squadrons needed to provide effective air defence of the UK is four and we should not go below this. The Typhoon’s capabilities to operate at long range, with high speed, greater agility and at least ten of the most effective air-to-air missiles make it the logical choice for this role. Much the same applies to the Falklands Flight.
Conversely the F-35B has been designed to operate from aircraft carriers. Each QE class carrier is capable of operating three Squadrons. While all F-35Bs can operate in a swing-role one Naval Air Squadron will concentrate on fleet air defence/anti-shipping armed with Meteor and Joint Strike Missiles and will be permanently carrier based. In times of conflict it would be joined by two RAF Squadrons that will primarily focus on close air support/suppression of enemy air defence armed with SPEAR and land strike/anti-shipping with Joint Strike Missiles. If budgets were to allow for a larger F-35 force than six Squadrons the additional aircraft should be F-35As which can operate over a longer range than the F-35B.
That leaves Expeditionary Air Wing(s) that could be deployed to Eastern Europe, Cyprus or for global operations. This force needs to be made up of at least three frontline Squadrons (with one reserve Squadron in support for major conflicts) to provide enough mutual support and to be able to operate in the full range of likely engagements. Both the Typhoon and F-35B are capable of operating in this role and both have different strengths and weaknesses. In the end the overall force balance will have to be decided by what the defence budget can afford.
In an ideal world the whole Typhoon force would all be upgraded with the latest AESA radar and the ability to carry conformal fuel tanks but this is unlikely to be affordable. As a result of limited budgets there will need to be some specialisation based on the capabilities and age of aircraft. Existing Tranche 1 Typhoons (T3/FGR4 standard) would equip the OCU and concentrate on air defence with only a limited air-to-surface capability. In contrast, Tranche 3 Typhoons (FGR7) would be fully swing-role with AESA radar and CFTs, but at least at the start of any conflict they would specialise in long-range strike with Storm Shadow. All Tranche 2 Typhoons should be retrofitted with AESA radar but only just over half need to be equipped with CFTs so that they are brought up to FGR7 standard, the rest could operate primarily in air defence with a significant secondary CAS/SEAD capability (T5/FGR6).
The RAF needs to maximise the combat capability of the aircraft in its inventory. The Hawk T2 should be upgraded to operate the Meteor air-to-air missiles which, with a pair of ASRAAMs, would provide a valuable secondary level of air defence for the UK. The older remaining Hawk T1 airframes would all be retired by 2020 to be replaced by more capable T2s.
Even though it is being retired from frontline service the Tornado is still a very effective strike aircraft. If the remaining force were stored in the USAF boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base they could be brought back into action should the need arise.
In all of the situations outlined below the number of squadrons quoted includes reserve Squadrons such as Operational Conversion Units and the Test & Evaluation Squadron.
While both the F-35B Lightning II and the Eurofighter Typhoon are fully swing-role aircraft that can perform all combat missions the scenario analysis illustrates that there is a minimum number of aircraft required to fulfil each task and this has informed the various Options below. Each Air Force Option is designed to be consistent with the respective Naval and (where relevant) Army Options.
Air Force Option 1 – operate a total of 15.66 combat squadrons. To maximise operational effectiveness purchase 138 F-35s as originally planned which would equip 6 Squadrons with F-35Bs (2 Naval Air, 4 for carrier based operations and/or towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) and 2 F-35A (towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) plus 6.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence of the UK, 2 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings plus a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight) and 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron, possibly made up of a mixture of aircraft and UAVs. In total this would require ordering an additional 54 F-35Bs, 36 F-35As and 8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Air Force Option 2 – alsooperate a total of 15.66 combat squadrons but save money on procurement. Operate 8.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence, 4 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings plus a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight), 6 F-35B Squadrons (2 Naval Air, 4 for carrier based and/or towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) and 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron. This would require ordering 54 F-35Bs and 8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Air Force Option 3 – with only one QE class aircraft carrier the total number of combat squadrons could be reduced to 14.66. This would include 8.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence, 4 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings plus a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight), 5 F-35B Squadrons (1 Naval Air, 2 carrier based and 2 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) and 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron. This would leave the total of new orders at 35 F-35Bs and 8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Air Force Option 4 – a different combination based on two QE aircraft carriers but with one of them primarily operating with helicopters while maintaining 14.66 combat squadrons. This would include 7.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence, 3 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings plus a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight), 6 F-35B Squadrons (2 Naval Air, 2 carrier based and 2 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) and 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron. This would leave the total of new orders at 54 F-35Bs and 8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Air Force Option 5 – faced with operating just one aircraft carrier and maintaining the number of land based air forces to give a total of 13.66 combat squadrons. This would include 7.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence, 3 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings plus a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight), 5 F-35B Squadrons (1 Naval Air, 2 carrier based and 2 towards two Expeditionary Air Wings) and 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron. This would reduce the total of new orders to 35 F-35Bs and 8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Air Force Option 6 – faced with operating just one carrier while attempting to compensate for the loss of naval air power with 13.66 combat squadrons. This would include 8.66 Typhoon Squadrons (4 for air defence, 4 for an Expeditionary Air Wing plus just a Flight for anti-shipping and the Falklands Flight), 3 F-35B Squadrons (1Naval Air and 2 based on the carrier) and 2 Maritime Patrol Squadrons. This would reduce the total of new orders to just 16 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.