RAF 2019 – Mind the Gap

January 9th 2015 is an historic day for the Royal Air Force as it marks the first increase in the number of frontline combat squadrons since the mid-1980’s. In a dangerous world where putting ‘boots on the ground’ is increasingly politically difficult the RAF is inevitably thrust to the front row of the UK’s force projection.
OP SHADER RAF Tornado GR.4

A guest post from AndyC that I should have posted on the 9th (Sorry about that!)

January 9th 2015 is an historic day for the Royal Air Force as it marks the first increase in the number of frontline combat squadrons since the mid-1980’s.

In a dangerous world where putting ‘boots on the ground’ is increasingly politically difficult the RAF is inevitably thrust to the front row of the UK’s force projection.

The increased assertiveness of Russia has led to the return of their aircraft to probing our air space as well as the need for a higher presence in Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic States.

The success of IS in Iraq and Syria has led to the deployment of Tornados to Cyprus while the Afghanistan mission has finally drawn to a close.

All of these commitments have put strain on the RAF when it has fewer fast jet squadrons than at any time in its history. No amount of training or having the latest equipment can always make up for the stretch caused by multiple commitments occurring at the same time.

The question we face is: does the RAF have enough aircraft to do all the things the government and the international situation require of it?

To answer this logically we need to examine what are the minimum levels of equipment needed in each area of operations.

  1. The defence of the UK’s air space. In many respects the most important conventional defence priority. Quick Reaction Alert aircraft are maintained at RAF Lossiemouth for the north and RAF Coningsby for the south. As this is a 24/7 operation it takes its toll on aircrew and equipment. To be done effectively the minimum requirement is for two squadrons to share this role between them at each base.
  2. In 2014 a flight of Typhoons was sent to the Baltic States to provide support for an air policing operation. This support, or even more, could be required again at virtually any time with little notice.
  3. Currently eight Tornados are operating from Cyprus against IS targets. This operation could go on for many years.
  4. Three more Tornados have also been operating in Nigeria.
  5. Although the regular rotation of a squadron of Tornado aircraft to Afghanistan has come to an end we may need to be prepared to intervene again if the government comes under threat from extremist groups.

So, the RAF needs a minimum of four squadrons to meet its QRA commitments. Experience last year shows that it also needs a minimum of one squadron to be available at short notice to go to areas of the world which are unstable. Some of these deployments have the potential to be quite lengthy. Using the established rules for rotating personnel would suggest the need for a minimum of three squadrons to be available for these global operations.

Altogether this suggests that the RAF could manage with seven frontline combat squadrons and that is what they had for most of 2014.

However, this doesn’t allow for any unexpected contingencies or the need for flexibility over the size of the forces to be deployed. For example:

  • if the government felt there was a need to increase its commitment to an existing operation or
  • a new area effecting British interests required intervention (such as the Falklands or somewhere else in the Middle East or Africa) or
  • there were faults to an aircraft that could reduce the numbers of that type available for active operations or
  • aircraft are out of service while they receive upgrades (as a lot of the Typhoon Force will be over the next four years when they receive new E-scan radar and integrate Storm Shadow, Meteor and Brimstone 2 missiles) and
  • allowance has to be made for the time (often at least twelve months) for new squadrons to get fully up to strength during which they can’t easily be committed to active operations.

Realistically when you take into account the possible level of commitments and the likely availability of combat aircraft the inescapable conclusion is that the RAF needs an absolute minimum of eight frontline combat squadrons.

This seems to have been recognised by the decision to re-establish 12(B) Squadron but a major challenge is developing from 2019 onwards.

A capability gap is being created by three past policy announcements:

  1. the Tornado Out of Service Date of March 2019
  2. the proposal to withdraw all tranche 1 Typhoons by “the end of the decade” as confirmed in an interview with Air Commodore (as he was then) Gary Waterfall in 2013 and
  3. the recent MoD statement of November 24th confirming an “investment in Lightning II over the next 5 years to procure an initial 14 of these multi-role fifth generation aircraft”.

Taken together by mid-2019 this leaves an RAF of 107 tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons equipping four frontline squadrons and 18 Lightning IIs equipping at most one frontline squadron.

This is nowhere near sufficient to meet the likely demands that could be placed on the RAF from QRA, Baltic air policing and possible missions in the Middle East and Africa.

There are also plenty of reasons to be concerned about how long this capability gap might go on for. Below are two scenarios based on an ultimate order of 102 Lightning IIs forming three RAF frontline squadrons, two Naval Air Squadrons and one OCU plus six aircraft assigned to the Test & Evaluation Squadron.

The first scenario assumes a conservative case that the UK buys 12 Lightning IIs per year after 2019 which would effectively continue the rate at which we’ve been buying new Typhoons. The second scenario examines buying 20 aircraft per annum which is likely to be the maximum rate which the equipment budget could support.

12 Lightning IIs per annum:

Year Squadrons Number of Lightning IIs Stand Up Date Full Strength Date
2019 17(R) Squadron617 Squadron 108 20142018
2020 617 Squadron809 NAS 84 September 2020 August 2020
2021 809 NAS 12 December 2021
2022 17(R) Squadron41(R) Squadron 66 July 2022 June 2022December 2022
2023 IX(B) Squadron 12 January 2023
2024 IX(B) Squadron801 NAS 48 April 2024 March 2024
2025 801 NAS12(B) Squadron 84 September 2025 August 2025
2026 12(B) Squadron 12 December 2026

 

20 Lightning IIs per annum:

Year Squadrons Number of Lightning IIs Stand Up Date Full Strength Date
2019 17(R) Squadron617 Squadron 108 20142018
2020 617 Squadron809 NAS 812 June 2020 May 2020
2021 809 NAS17(R) Squadron

41(R) Squadron

IX(B) Squadron

46

6

4

 

July 2021

October 2021

March 2021June 2021

October 2021

2022 IX(B) Squadron801 NAS 128 August 2022 August 2022
2023 801 NAS12(B) Squadron 812 May 2023 May 2023
2024 12(B) Squadron 4 March 2024

 

Under the first scenario the RAF only returns to having eight frontline squadrons in the autumn of 2025 and even in the more optimistic second scenario only achieves this in the middle of 2023.

If the RAF is to avoid a major capability gap lasting between four to six years something significant has to be changed.

Whatever this is needs to be able to last until at least 2025 just in case the equipment budget can’t support a higher rate of new orders for the Lightning II.

One possibility might be to maintain the remaining Tornado force but its age and heavy service use in Iraq and Afghanistan must argue against this. However, with many spare parts a small number might be kept in service until Lightning II numbers can be increased. This would also allow additional time to find a replacement for the excellent RAPTOR reconnaissance pod.

The only realistic alternative is to invest in the tranche 1 Typhoon. It’s still only a little over a decade old and even the earlier version is very capable in its main role. Now that we have newer swing-role Typhoons available tranche 1 aircraft could return to being dedicated air superiority fighters. They could be upgraded to carry six Meteor BVRAAMs – four conformal and two on the inner wing weapons stations – as well as four ASRAAMs. This is a formidable payload by any standards.

In addition their radar could be upgraded as well. There are cost, computing and power usage issues with tranche 1 Typhoons operating Selex’s Captor E-scan radar but it might be worth exploring other alternatives such as Selex’s similar but smaller Raven ES-05 AESA radar that has been developed for the Gripen. If this is still too difficult and expensive other even simpler alternatives such as Northrop’s SABR or Raytheon’s RACR could be explored as they are designed to work even with legacy aircraft.

This would enable the RAF to operate six frontline Typhoon Squadrons – four swing-role and two air defence. It would leave the air defence squadrons concentrating on QRA and missions like Baltic air policing while later aircraft concentrated on using their full swing-role capability.

The Lightning II force would then build up as the existing Tornado squadrons are retired:

  • 12(B) Squadron could switch to operating Typhoons in 2016-17 and then become the final Lightning II Squadron sometime between 2023-25
  • 31 Squadron could stand down in 2017-18 to be replaced by 617 Squadron
  • XV(R) Squadron could stand down in 2019-20 at the same time as a Maritime Patrol Squadron (208 possibly) is stood up and
  • IX(B) Squadron would be the last Tornado unit (as it was the first) carrying on alone to 2021-22 and specialising in the use of RAPTOR.
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