Richard Gardner looks at how changing priorities in UK defence policy are likely to impact on the role and shape of future UK air power.

14th Feb 2011

UK defence expenditure has been hugely overstretched for years, which is hardly surprising in view of the fact that British forces have been engaged in continuous overseas military operations for over two decades, while defence spending as a proportion of the GDP has been halved over a similar timescale. The true extend of this funding “black hole” only emerged last year and confirmed the gap as being a staggering £36 billion. This was even more significant as the day-to-day extra funding required to sustain the Iraq and Afghan operations came from a national contingency fund and not the regular defence budget. However, the impact of such long and intensive military operations on established force levels and defence infrastructure has resulted in enormous additional pressure on units across the whole of the forces.


Aircraft engaged in strategic re-supply of front-line troops and support units in the combat zones have been flying around the clock for years and such specialised tasking as air-to-air tanking, surveillance and SIGINT/ELINT missions, tactical in theatre air transport and close air support have all been operating to their limits - and well beyond the expected level for which long term funding had previously been agreed. Only by adopting “quick-fix” off-the-shelf procurement solutions, known as Urgent Operational Requirements, have the UK’s forces been able to acquire specialised equipment and weapons more suited to expeditionary conflicts overseas.


What this really means is the prolonged Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, second only to the USA in scope and scale, and conducted in the harshest of operational environments, have hollowed out core long-term global capabilities by re-focusing procurement and planning on short-term regional counter insurgency commitments.


The incoming UK Coalition government in May 2010 promised to re-adjust defence policy to better reflect Britain’s longer term defence needs. The Strategic Defence and Security Review was to be the tool to achieve this, but the reality has turned out to be very different, with the political decision to reduce defence spending emerging as the main priority. When the results of this hurried and highly controversial report were announced in November last, there was a shockwave throughout the UK defence community as the implications sunk in. The new defence budget settlement represented a reduction of 8% in real terms and included the most significant cuts in UK military capability in forty years. With the British Army fully stretched in Afghanistan and other commitments still in place worldwide, it was expected that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would face the biggest cuts this time around, and so it was. With several very expensive long-term procurement programmes needing to be protected, including the next generation Trident nuclear submarines, two large aircraft-carriers, and JSF, there were few options remaining for making cuts on a scale that would help reduce the enormous funding gap that had been running out of control in recent years.


In terms of air power, the most far-reaching and unexpected announcements included the controversial abandonment of the £3billion Nimrod MRA4 programme and the early retirement of the RAF/RN Joint Force Harriers, together with the RN Flagship HMS Ark Royal. While continuing with the two super-carriers and JSF, the most dramatic change in plan was the switch from the STOVL F-35B variant of the JSF to the naval C model. The Royal Navy always preferred this version because of its extra payload and range, but the big UK investment and industrial involvement in the vertical take-off technology on the B model previously dictated that this would be the replacement for the RAF/RN Harrier.


It was claimed by the MOD that a STOVL F-35B could generate greater productivity in terms of missions per day than a conventional naval carrier-based aircraft, but with the B continuing to suffer development delays and reliability problems, with rising costs, it has been decided that the C model offers a safer long-term bet. As a result, the new carrier flight deck design has had to be changed and launch/recovery equipment is to be fitted to support conventional carrier operations, with catapults, angled deck and arrestor wires. The ship design is certainly big enough at 65,000tons displacement to take F-35Cs and the government has stated that a major consideration in making this change is to enable US Navy and French Navy aircraft to cross operate, which was not possible with the ski-jump equipped STOVL carrier deck design.


Air war in Afghanistan


UK commitments to NATO air operations in Afghanistan have built up gradually over many years from an initial deployment of a handful of Chinook helicopters and C-130 Hercules in support of ground troops, to a major multi-role operational capability. This effort has included building the largest single military complex in the country at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, home to several helicopter and air transport units, and now with two runways capable of operating fixed wing transports up to C-17 size.


Close air support and top cover has been provided since the start of in-theatre flying by regularly rotated detachments of both Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harriers, flown by RAF, RN and Royal Marines pilots. This role has now been taken over by a detachment of 10 Tornado GR4s. As with the Harriers, Tornado close air support missions against Taliban positions can often make a big impact relieving International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ground units just by flying overhead at high speed and low level without having to drop any ordnance.


This so-called “non-kinetic” response can often encourage hostile elements to make a quick departure rather than awaiting the inevitable arrival of more lethal force. Where fire support is requested however, gun attacks and precision weapons, including Paveway IV and Brimstone, can have a devastating effect, directed from the ground or a helicopter under the guidance of Army forward air controllers using laser targeting equipment. Great care is taken to limit collateral damage, especially in populated areas, where the Taliban often seek refuge. The Tornados have been equipped with the Terma advanced defensive aids system which gives added protection at low level against missile threats. The advanced Raptor reconnaissance pod can also be carried, capable of collecting high resolution images and distributing them to suitable ground units in real time. If live motion imagery is required the Litening III targeting pod can also be carried with images downloaded via datalinks to ground forces.


Providing immediate close air support for UK Army and Royal Marine ground actions has fallen increasingly on British Army Apache attack helicopters. Since their deployment to Afghanistan, these very capable machines have accompanied all transport and reconnaissance helicopters over hostile territory providing added aerial firepower if ground fire is encountered, being able to respond with Hellfire missiles, high explosive rockets or the devastating cannon fire from the nose-mounted Gatling gun. Because of the high risk involved flying over large tracts of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in particular, hardly any solo helicopter missions are flown, just in case one aircraft gets into difficulty. There have been many incidents where this procedure has been shown to be a necessary precaution.


Another important aircraft, but that is not so visible most of the time, is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper armed remotely piloted air system, as the RAF prefers to describe their UAVs. This type has become a key I-STAR asset to ISAF commanders providing essential timely data on ground movements and being closely integrated with land forces. The RAF is building up to a 10-strong fleet of Reapers and uses them to not only identify, track and record ground activities, but also to launch air attacks on confirmed high-value targets of opportunity, where quick-reaction times might be crucial. Commanders can see via its high-resolution radar images and day or infrared camera pictures, exactly what is happening over a selected area.


If required, a precision-guided bomb can be launched from altitude, homing onto a clear target image. The only real concern over UAV missions expressed in some RAF operational quarters is the fact that transit times for propeller-driven drones can be lengthy. Where visual confirmation is required in double-quick time it is pointed out that a Tornado with a Raptor pod can cover almost anywhere in Afghanistan in the same time that a Reaper will take to traverse just Helmand Province. But there is no hiding the enthusiasm for the way in which a relatively small number of Reapers can provide a continuous armed vigil around the clock. This is revolutionising the ability of ground commanders to gain uninterrupted access to aerial reconnaissance over areas of particular interest. This persistence makes it far more difficult for irregular ground forces to plant explosive devices and other booby-traps without being spotted. 


Eyes in the sky


Operating over a vastly wider area, five Bombardier Global Express platforms serve the RAF’s No 5 Squadron with one of the region’s most up-to-date and sophisticated surveillance systems in service, the Sentinel R1. This is an airborne stand-off radar platform which can cruise above 50,000ft to look as far as 300 miles away and locate, track and identify thousands of moving and fixed positions. Their exact positions can be tracked automatically by the Raytheon-supplied systems and all data can be transferred real time to ground stations. Intelligence from data libraries can be accessed within the mission system to compare ground movements with known targets and routes so anything unusual can be quickly highlighted and tracked over extended periods.


The only other aircraft in-theatre with a similar role is the USAF J-STARS platform. One of the RAF’s most secretive squadrons for over 35 years, No 5 has operated specially modified Nimrod R1s in the Signals Intelligence and Electronic Warfare role in just about every conflict the UK has been involved in since the end of the Cold War. Packed full of intelligence gathering, communications and jamming equipment and with an outstanding but still classified endurance, the Nimrod R1 will soon be retired and is to be replaced by three US-supplied RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint platforms.


In 2009 the RAF ended the use of Nimrod MR2 Nimrods over Afghanistan, where their Westcam electro-optical imaging turrets and comprehensive communications fit was used successfully, adapted from maritime to over land use. They were replaced by four new Beech 350ER Shadow R1s, and flown by No5 Squadron crews, alongside the Sentinels. Equipped with a host of external radio aerials and sensor pods, details of the equipment and tasking of these aircraft has never been confirmed.


High above the blistered surface of Afghanistan, the RAF maintains a near continuous stream of VC10 tanker aircraft which not only top-up UK combat aircraft, but also fighters and other military air platforms from many NATO/ ISAF air forces. One of the biggest users of the VC10s is the US Navy, which shares the probe-and-drogue refuelling system used by most NATO operators. During the 2010 Afghan national elections there was a surge of VC10 air tasking and on one sortie an RAF tanker delivered 66,000lbs of fuel to two US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets and two EA-6B Prowlers, while a second aircraft delivered 41,000lbs of fuel to four more F/A-18s. The VC10s provide the main RAF tanking capability but Lockheed TriStars can also be used, though these large transports are mostly called upon for strategic transport. In due course they are due to be replaced by 14 Airbus A330 tanker/transports, similar to those ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force, but with a third, ventral, refuelling pod rather than a refuelling boom as on the RAAF aircraft.


Herculean tasking


The RAF’s venerable C-130K fleet has been refurbished and upgraded and re-built over forty years, and it is planned that this variant will eventually be replaced over the next few years by 22 new Airbus A400M transports. Twice as large as a Hercules, the A400M will be a very useful addition to the RAF air transport fleet, though the type will not enter service for another two years. The 24 newer C-130J Hercules have been heavily used since entering RAF service ten years ago and now provide the backbone of tactical supply operations in the Afghan theatre.


Much heavy freight is flown in from the UK by civil charter aircraft to airfields in nearby friendly Middle East countries, where it is transhipped to RAF Hercules for onward delivery to Kandahar, Kabul, Camp Bastion and elsewhere - including forward upcountry airstrips. Flying into such remote sites has its added dangers and several C-130 aircraft have been damaged by mines and planted devices, and subsequently have had to be stripped and destroyed as they could not be economically repaired or removed. Special Forces operations mostly take place at night with landing areas checked out in advance, and protected by ground forces. The RAF maintains specialist C-130s allocated for SF use and these are equipped with extra equipment for such missions. Maintaining a lengthy air bridge between the UK and Afghanistan is the fleet of seven Boeing C-17s. These are in daily use and carry troops, heavy equipment and vehicles, repatriated war-casualties and helicopters on rotation.


With so much concentration on Afghanistan operations it is easily forgotten that Britain’s depleted and overstretched armed forces are still deployed around the world and in addition the country maintains a large fleet of nuclear submarines, capable of conventional or nuclear response. Helicopters and transport aircraft support Army training bases in Canada, Cyprus, Kenya and Brunei and other deployments take place regularly to the USA and widely within Europe and the Middle East.


This all requires a big investment in infrastructure and training and it remains to be seen how much capacity for extended military operations overseas will remain after the new round of defence cuts takes full effect. The UK government claims that it will still be able to maintain a global capability even after the reductions and that its commitment to new aircraft carriers, the JSF and amphibious Commando operations is evidence that it will continue to fund key big-ticket programmes. In January, during a visit to Auckland, Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox expressed his desire that the UK should strengthen its military cooperation with Australia and New Zealand.


This is a welcome expression of intent, but its prosecution will not have been made any easier by the major reductions in front-line RAF air strength that are now being implemented.

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