RAF faces challenges at home and abroad (video)
The Royal Air Force is going through a significant modernisation period with several new platforms, such as the F-35, being introduced to service. However, the service's efforts to maintain a credible level of air power is being challenged not only by new adversaries but also budgets at home.
In a wide-ranging interview with Shephard the UK's Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (ACAS) addressed those challenges – including the reduced number of aircraft the RAF now has in the fleet – and explained that the service's investment in high-end technology has offset a shrinking inventory.
'It is perfectly reasonable to expect that we can replace mass with capability and we have done that for many years,' said AVM Richard Knighton. 'If we look back at raids in the first Gulf War, and then compare that to Vietnam War, as we project forward with the development of F-35 and the UK Typhoon, our aircraft and people [have] become considerably more capable.'
One issue with increasingly complex capabilities will be the ability to control costs and ensure that prices do not spiral out of control.
Knighton said that the RAF remains 'absolutely committed' to transferring the capabilities of the Tornado GR4 aircraft to the Typhoon – including integration of the MBDA Brimstone missile - before the former platform is retired in 2019. The upgraded Typhoon will then be joined by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as that platform joins the fleet in the 2020s.
'Beyond that, we recognise that even the F-35 won't be in service forever,' said Knighton. 'So what we've got to do is develop new technology and new capability to enhance the force structure that we've got.'
'Autonomy, autonomous systems, automatic target recognition - all of those sorts of technology will be essential for our future combat aircraft in whatever form it takes,' he continued. 'I fully expect that for the rest of my lifetime, and certainly for the next 50 or so years, there will be a mix of unmanned systems and manned systems.'
As well as budgetary challenges a growing issue for the RAF and other western air forces is the emerging capability of potential adversaries around the world. This is particularly true in areas such as advanced fighter aircraft and area-denial weapons.
'Our adversaries aren't standing still, they understand the tremendous capability of western airpower and are working constantly to try and avoid that,' he said. 'It's a constant game of cat and mouse as we develop airpower in order to counter any countermeasures they've developed.'
Despite cost pressures, Knighton said that the RAF fleet remains the 'envy of the world', particularly the transport fleet consisting of C-130Js, C-17s and A400Ms. For intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the RAF has also brought online the RC-135 Rivet Joint and will take delivery of the P-8 Poseidon at the end of the decade.
The service will hold its annual Air Power Conference in London in July that will focus on the theme of '21st Century partnerships', which is expected to explore working in coalitions and fighting alongside allies.
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