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Reduced fleet size and weapons integration issues put squeeze on future RAF air combat missions

22nd September 2022 - 10:11 GMT | by Tim Martin in Belfast

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An F-35B gets ready to depart from the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. (Photo: UK MoD)

As the RAF manages NATO missions and faces increased pressure from Russia, defence experts argue that additional fighter jet deployments to the Asia-Pacific to maintain leading strategic ambitions signposted by the UK's Integrated Review looks to be out of the question.

The state of international security and defence has markedly changed since the UK government published the Integrated Review (IR), largely shaped by Taliban resurgence after the withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan, increased Chinese interference and surveillance around Taiwan and most alarmingly Russian forces illegally invading Ukraine.

The strategic implications of these events are already beginning to be unravelled not only from the collective effort across the US and Europe to urgently supply Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, air defence systems, EW equipment, helicopters, tanks, UAVs and loitering munitions to counter Russian expansion but also based on the swift action of Western governments to reshape deterrence and readiness by approving new equipment acquisitions and increase defence budgets.

The UK has consistently sent weapons and military aid to Ukraine, spending £2.3 billion on the cause by June 2022, agreed to train 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and provided regular intelligence updates to the public about the war, including whether or not particular regions are under Russian control.

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It is also likely to have watched on with keen interest at the failure of Russia to gain air supremacy over Ukraine, with a protracted conflict continuing to see VKS fighter jets and rotary wing assets underperform, be shot down or as in the case of the Saky airfield, Western Crimea, suffer the loss of Su-24 Fencer and Su-30 Flanker H jets, caused by a number of explosions.

There are definitely lessons that the UK can draw on from events in Ukraine, according to a former RAF senior officer.

‘Without control of the air, you are going to lose a significant amount of people and material in what will become a lengthy, bloody, protracted campaign,’ he explained. ‘The mercifully small losses the UK sustained in recent conflicts with air supremacy shows an alternative way forward is possible.

‘Traditional air supremacy by attacking heavy IADS still works as a starting point but when there are items like MANPADS complicating matters it no longer gives you the freedom you thought you had to fly around at 3,000ft in a close air support role or with an AH-64 [Apache attack helicopter] because they are always going to be sitting ducks.’   

He also said added that the ‘effect’ of smaller and lighter UAVs in Ukraine is interesting within the context of the RAF working with swarming drones.

Based on test progress made by 216 Squadron, including 20 low-cost UAVs working together against threats, the RAF has proven the feasibility of using swarming drones and plans on eventually declaring two squadrons operational, according to Mike Wigston, RAF Chief of the Air Staff.

An artist's impression of DARPA's Gremlins programme, which is designed to evaluate how groups of UAS can be launched from crewed aircraft. (Photo: DARPA)

Even so, the balance of the RAF’s future fighter fleet and uncrewed aircraft continues to be a leading topic of debate fraught with difficulty largely as a tradeoff between reducing an originally planned F-35B fighter jet force below 138 aircraft, in favour of generating combat mass through adjunct or low-cost UAVs, suggests years of exceeding procurement spending plans have reached a tipping point.

In the near term, funding has been approved for the second tranche of F-35s to be acquired.

‘On current plans, the business case and process for the next Tranche of F-35 is expected to start in mid-2023,’ said a Defence Equipment and Support spokesperson in a statement.

With a delay to the introduction of MBDA’s Selective Precision Effects At Range Capability 3 (SPEAR 3) air-to-surface weapon, however, the aircraft lacks a standoff weapon capability considered indispensable to operating effectively against emerging and future threats.

‘We seem to be almost replicating the difficulties we’ve had with [Eurofighter] Typhoon and getting a range of weapons integrated on time,’ said Douglas Barrie senior fellow for military aerospace at IISS. ‘The same problems are there with the F-35, obviously it is a very capable air-to-surface platform which includes a dual mode guided bomb (Paveway IV), but with the best will in the world, it is not what you want when facing a high threat environment.’

He also suggested that an earlier decision not to integrate  MBDA's Storm Shadow on UK F-35s has diminished lethality.

‘I would assume that [Storm Shadow was cancelled] on cost grounds, because although it cannot be internally fitted the inboard wing pylons or the design stressor made integration possible,’ Barrie explained. ‘Backing away from that plan leaves the UK light at the moment in terms of its offensive air-to-surface capability.’

More fundamentally, the small size of the UK’s fast jet fleet - which will reduce further in 2025 when Typhoon Tranche 1 jets are retired - creates obvious problems when attempting to manage NATO obligations and potentially pivot to playing a greater role in the Asia-Pacific – the latter a specific ambition laid out by the IR.

All 40 RAF Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 3 fighter jets are to be integrated with the European Common Radar System (ECRS) Mk 2. (Photo: BAE Systems)

‘I would say that clearly the UK doesn’t have the ability or will to operate unilaterally in the region and wherever she goes – outside of the Falklands – she tries to be the best friend within a coalition,’ said the former RAF officer.

‘I think the pace of future developments will be dictated by US interests in the region but after the AUKUS pact, there will be a willingness on the part of the UK government to be seen to be pulling their weight in the Asia-Pacific.’

Consideration by the UK should be given to which capabilities it should add to the region on top of the ‘significant weight and effort’ already on show from the US, suggested the ex-RAF source, though any new decisions on that front are likely to be more aligned with deploying naval based assets rather than aviation resources, if political will focuses on upholding freedom of navigation.

‘As the UK sits as the backbone of NATO’s Eastern Flank [airpower], you only have to look at the number of F-35 and Typhoon deployments going on there to realize that the combat air arm is quite well committed already,’ he added.

Development of the UK’s Tempest/Future Combat Air System programme will go some way toward deflecting current combat air shortcomings, especially after the MoD added an additional £2 billion in funding over four years for the next phase of the project, upon release of the IR.

Since then it has also committed to flying a Tempest demonstrator inside five years, though key details including which engine(s) will be used are still to be revealed. 

The overarching plan to eventually field Tempest alongside adjunct aircraft or uncrewed wingmen took an unexpected turn however with the cancellation of Project Mosquito, evidence if any more was needed, that the path to curing all ills during highly contested warfare by letting this new class of UAV roam free, penetrate A2/AD bubbles or permit fighter jets to sit out of range from sophisticated threats, has still to be worked through.

‘It may be the end of the road for Mosquito but it is absolutely not the end of investigating ways of providing combat mass without procuring additional platforms, if there’s a better, more financially viable and it produces a greater operational capability as a result,’ said the former RAF officer.

The threat posed by China and Russian aggression obviously put pressure on the Rapid Capabilities Office to accelerate adjunct aircraft and crewed and uncrewed teaming testing, so it seems fairly plausible that more mature concepts, perhaps like that of Boeing’s Air Power Teaming system, will be of interest in the near term.

Tim Martin

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Tim Martin


Tim Martin is Air Editor for Shephard Media, based in Belfast. 

Tim has experience writing …

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