Priorities and Options for SDSR 2015 – Defence of the United Kingdom


The task of defending the UK itself falls largely to the RAF and Royal Navy.  They need to have sufficient forces to defend our airspace and territorial waters.

That means keeping hostile aircraft, ships and submarines out of range of being able to launch stand-off weapons at the UK or threatening our vital shipping and air transport routes.  This planning scenario is not based on addressing any one particular threat but an analysis of the defence needs of the UK from threats approaching from any geographical direction.

The RAF’s principal role is to provide long-range air defence (up to 1,000 miles) using advanced air superiority fighters – equipped with the latest AESA radar, up to ten of the most effective air-to-air missiles (Meteor and ASRAAM), supported by AWACS and aerial tankers.  Four Typhoon Squadrons, one Squadron of E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft and one Squadron of A330 Voyager aerial tankers should be able to fulfil this role against likely credible threats.  Dispersed between RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Coningsby and RNAS Culdrose the Typhoon is able to patrol into the Norwegian Sea and the edges of Greenland to the north, Poland to the east, Gibraltar to the south and the Mid-Atlantic to the west.

The Eurofighter Typhoon will remain the UK’s principal air defence fighter.

The Eurofighter Typhoon is most suited to this role due to its considerable combat range, top speed, agility and ability to carry up to ten air-to-air missiles.  Two Squadrons at Lossiemouth share peacetime northern QRA and two at Coningsby provide southern QRA.  This is the minimum necessary to provide continuous peacetime coverage.

UK air defence could be further supplemented by an upgraded and armed training, aggressor and exercise support aircraft.

The Hawk T1 is due to be out of service by 2020.  In its aggressor and support role it could be replaced by secondhand F-16s (of which there is a plentiful supply) or by new Hawk 200s.  In its role with the Red Arrows it should be replaced by a version of the Hawk 200 so that they can continue to promote British industry.  See for more.

Together with the Hawk T2s currently being used for advanced jet training these aircraft could be upgraded with a basic AESA radar and armed with Meteor and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles to provide an important secondary air defence.  In an emergency the F-16 would be more than capable of supplementing the Typhoon in the air defence role while the Hawks could be assigned the specific task of escorting AWACS, ISTAR and tanker aircraft.

Further support would be provided by the new Land Ceptor which replaces the Rapier for short-range air defence (up to 20 miles) around valuable potential targets such as air bases.

Upgraded F-16s or Hawk 200s with basic AESA radars and armed with Meteor BVRAAMs could provide improved aggressor training and an important secondary air defence.

Belgian Air Force F16

Hawk 200

The Royal Navy’s role is to keep our territorial waters and shipping routes open and safe.  Three battle groups with nine escort destroyers/frigates and either four or six Squadrons of F-35B Lightning IIs from the joint RAF:FAA force would fulfil the bulk of this requirement.  Positioned within reach of the RAF’s land based air defences to provide additional security, two battle groups could cover the area from Greenland to Norway while the third covers the Western Approaches.  All other available destroyers, frigates and patrol vessels would form two patrols of the areas not covered by the battle groups, with the highest priority going to the approaches to Faslane.

In times of major threat two of the battle groups would be based around a Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier each equipped with 36 F-35Bs plus maritime/AEW helicopters.  The third group would be based around amphibious ships solely equipped with helicopters.

If there were six Squadrons of F-35Bs each QE carrier would operate one Naval Air Squadron in the fleet air defence/anti-shipping role in both peacetime and conflict situations.  These would be supplemented by two RAF Squadrons in heightened situations which would specialise in operating against land targets with a secondary anti-shipping role.  An upgraded long-range Storm Shadow missile would make a capable weapon in an anti-shipping role.

An alternative would be for one of the QE carriers to operate more as a helicopter carrier in either an amphibious or ASW role.  In this case it would only operate one Naval Air Squadron of F-35Bs together with 30 helicopters.  That would result in the number of F-35B Squadrons dropping from six to four.

Even with three battle groups there would still be a lot of the North Atlantic not being patrolled.  There is a clear requirement for a dedicated specialist long-range Maritime Patrol Aircraft to cover these gaps.  This could be met by equipping one Squadron with Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon or Kawasaki’s P-1 aircraft.  These would be equipped with multiple sonobuoys and torpedoes in a specialist anti-submarine warfare role and an upgraded version of Storm Shadow for a significant secondary role against surface vessels or land targets.  They would also be capable of using their powerful radar and electronics, suitably modified, to support land ISTAR operations and this would enable them to eventually replace the Sentinel R1 with a second Squadron of aircraft.

The UK needs a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft such as the Boeing P-8 Poseidon or Kawasaki P-1.


In addition, the UK should evaluate the Triton UAV and a Sea Reaper UCAV to see whether either can add to the capabilities and reach of whichever aircraft is selected in the MPA role.

Any MPA selected could be supplemented by the Triton UAV or a Sea Reaper UCAV.

MQ-4C Triton SDD-1

There is also a requirement for an anti-shipping strike fighter to operate out of the range of the carriers.  This could be met by a small number of Typhoons (such as a Flight made up of aircraft from the Operational Conversion Unit) supported by aerial tankers.  These could be equipped with two upgraded long-range Storm Shadow missiles with an anti-shipping capability.  Even with a full strike load the Typhoon is still capable of carrying an additional six air-to-air missiles so this unit could also fulfil a secondary role of providing fighter escort for the MPA Squadron.

To provide a minimum effective defence of the UK requires:

  • 5 Typhoon units – 4 air defence Squadrons plus 1 anti-shipping Flight
  • 1 E-3 Sentry AWACS Squadron
  • 1 A330 Voyager aerial tanker Squadron
  • 2 upgraded aggressor Squadrons – either secondhand F-16s or Hawk 200s
  • 2 AESA equipped and Meteor capable Hawk Squadrons
  • Land Ceptor surface-to-air missiles to replace Rapier
  • 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron – possibly supplemented by UAVs
  • upgraded Storm Shadow missiles with a long-range anti-shipping capability
  • 2 QE class aircraft carriers
  • 4 F-35B swing-role Squadrons
  • 18 destroyers/frigates and 3 patrol vessels
  • 4 Merlin HMA Squadrons and
  • 2 Wildcat HMA Squadrons.

UK Air Defence – the white areas could be covered by Typhoons operating from RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Coningsby and RNAS Culdrose, the blue by carrier based F-35Bs and the yellow by F-16s operating from the Shetlands and RAF Leeming.  Hawks could operate from Orkney and RAF Scampton.

UK Air Defence

The rest of the series

1 – Introduction

2 – Defence of the UK

3 – Other Sovereign Territories

4 – NATO

5 – A Southern or Middle Eastern Threat

6 – An Eastern and Northern Threat

7 – Global Intervention

8 – Land Command 2025; Appendix 1 – Army 2025

9 – Naval Command 2025; Appendix 2 – Royal Navy 2025

10 – Air Command 2025; Appendix 3 – RAF 2025

11 – Conclusion – The Options for Change; Appendix 4 – An Abundance of Riches: MoD Procurement 2015-25

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