Is the RAF Becoming Overstretched? – SDSR Preview

Every 5 years or after each election, Britain conducts a defence review known as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in order to set plans and priorities. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) came off quite well from the 2015 SDSR. The review reversed some of the most controversial decisions made during the 2010 review, namely the purchasing a new maritime patrol aircraft and an announcement that the Sentinel platform wouldn’t be retired post-Afghanistan and remain in service until “at least 2021”. These reversals, coupled with an increase to the frontline strength of the RAF, have allowed for the RAF to continue to evolve to meet threats in an ever-changing world. 

An order for nine Boeing P-8s, known in RAF service as the Poseidon MRA.1, was the main headline for the RAF in the 2015 review. These aircraft, the first of which was delivered in 2019, will allow the RAF to provide much needed long-range maritime patrol for naval operations, thus replacing the capability lost with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 program in the 2010 review. Based on the Boeing 737NG airliner, these aircraft will allow for extended anti-submarine operations as well as supporting search and rescue and exclusive economic zone protection. 

The Nimrod MRA4 is a key example of a vital capability being cut by an SDSR (Photo Airwolfhound)

The 2015 review also announced that older Typhoons would be kept in service, enlarging the RAF’s originally planned fleet. The first Typhoons off the production line, Tranche 1, are the least capable Typhoon aircraft that entered service and the original plan involved either selling them second hand or stripping them for parts as newer airframes entered service. Instead, two new RAF squadrons have been formed using these aircraft; No.12 Squadron based at RAF Coningsby and No.9 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth. As well as expanding the frontline force if needed for combat operations, these squadrons will also serve secondary roles, with 12 Squadron training Qatari aircrew and 9 Squadron operating as aggressor aircraft.

Since the 2015 review, the MOD has announced further significant changes to the RAF. Arguably the most major was the announcement that the RAF would be replacing its fleet of six Boeing E-3 Sentry AEW.1 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft with five new Boeing E-7 Wedgetail aircraft. These aircraft are expected to bring a step change to the RAF’s airborne early warning (AEW) capabilities, with the Sentry fleet not being upgraded in line with those operated by the United States Air Force (USAF).

Combat Air

Perhaps the most important component of the RAF is No.1 Group, responsible for the operations of combat airpower and ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) aircraft. Without No.1 Group the RAF is not a combat force, and therefore its continued funding and operational flexibility are essential to any situation the RAF finds itself in.

The multi-role Eurofighter Typhoon is the backbone of the RAF’s combat fleet. After the type’s first flight in 1994 and declared operational by the RAF in 2007, the RAF’s Typhoon force has seen combat in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Now a mature and well-developed platform, the Typhoon has gone through numerous upgrades to increase its combat capabilities. Adding strike capabilities through Operation Centurion (Phase 3 Enhancements or P3E) is arguably the most important upgrade to RAF Typhoons as it ensured the RAF retained a strike capability when it retired the Typhoon force in 2019. Adding Storm Shadow and Brimstone air to ground missiles to the fleet has been essential to maintaining the RAF’s ground attack capability. In addition, the RAF has enhanced the Typhoon’s air-to-air capability with the long-range MBDA Meteor missile, creating a “no-escape zone” in excess of 60km. 

The RAF’s Typhoon fleet is currently the backbone of the UK’s combat airpower (Photo Steve Richardson)

Continuing to build on the upgrades of Project Centurion is required to keep the aircraft combat-capable until Typhoons are replaced by Tempest, as expected by the mid-2040s. Around two-thirds of the RAF’s Typhoon fleet is kept on day to day operations, with the balance being in what the RAF call the “sustainment fleet.” These numbers are however from 2018 and don’t account for the various sub-marks of the aircraft. Without more accurate data it is impossible to estimate what numbers the RAF currently operates on a daily basis, with little more than an estimated guess and extrapolation being possible. 

Some planned upgrades have yet to receive funding, with conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) and an AESA radar being the most notable. CFTs would allow the aircraft to increase its combat radius without having to use underwing hardpoints to carry fuel, thus freeing those hardpoints up for weapons whilst also reducing drag. The Eurofighter consortium has previously developed the concept with the first development being in 1998 and wind tunnel tests were carried out as early as 2002.  At the time it was expected that CFTs would be part of the Tranche 3 Block 20 however Block 20 was moved forwards to Tranche 2 with the Tranche 3A aircraft believed to be “fitted for but not with” these fuel tanks. As recently as 2014 BAE has conducted development work on CFTs and the capability enhancements would surely be value for money.

E-Scan or CAPTOR-E is a development of the Typhoon’s existing CAPTOR passively electronically scanned array (PESA) radar into an active electronically scanned array (AESA). These changes, mainly on the front-end of the radar, provide a more reliable and capable radar set than previous PESA radars. Currently, the Kuwaiti Typhoons will be the first to carry the radar in service, followed by the Qatari jets. The fact that export customers are getting a more capable jet than our own forces must lead to question marks over the support given by the government to the RAF. Typhoon’s primary role, above all else, is the protection of British airspace against all threats and therefore the aircraft must be as capable as possible at fulfilling this role. 

The CAPTOR-E or E-Scan radar is a vital upgrade to the Typhoon. Funding being made available for fielding is key to the aircraft’s future capabilities. (Photo Hensoldt)

Originally the most capable Typhoons were to be the Tranche 3B aircraft, however, with the reduction in forces across NATO following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this variant was completely cancelled, with some capabilities being retrofitted to the existing fleet through upgrades. The 2020 SDSR must continue to expand on these existing upgrades, with Phase 4 and 5 Enhancements (P4E/P5E) being the bare minimum required for the foreseeable future. In order to keep the RAF Typhoon force relevant and capable. These upgrades are currently being defined, with the P4E package of upgrades expected to be announced in 2021. Included in these upgrades must be CFTs, E-Scan, and the capability to engage fast inshore attack craft with Brimstone, thus increasing the aircraft’s maritime strike capabilities. The Future Cruise/Anti-Surface Warfare (FC/ASW) missile is also expected to increase the aircraft’s capabilities in this regard, with it being outlined further below. 

It had been speculated previously that the two-seat Typhoon fleet could be utilized as electronic warfare aircraft along the lines of the Boeing EA-18G Growler. This is however now extremely unlikely, with a large number of airframes having been stripped for parts under the reduce to produce program. It is currently unknown how far through this process the airframes are and therefore any increase in capability here seems extremely unlikely.

With the 160th and final Typhoon delivery to the RAF in September 2019,  the focus of the RAF is on bringing the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, known locally as the Lightning FGR.1, into operational service. The fleet declared initial operational capability (IOC) in 2018 which was followed by the first combat operations by the type as part of Operation Shader in 2019. It has been repeatedly stated that the government intends to purchase the full 138 F-35s that it has planned on purchasing, however only an initial 48 have been ordered, with around 20 being in service. Actually ordering the remaining jets must be seen as essential in the 2020 SDSR, with the initial 48 being the required number to arm the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers. These numbers also don’t take into account the fact that initial F-35 aircraft don’t have a combat-capable mission computer, thus reducing the number actually available for operations. 

Seen here conducting tests on HMS Queen Elizabeth, the F-35 Lightning is vital for maintaining an agile and deployable force. (Photo Royal Navy, Crown Copyright)

It is currently believed that the entire British fleet has the required mission computers required to operate the newest software blocks, allowing the full spectrum of missions to be carried out by these aircraft. However, if there are older aircraft in the fleet; Block 2 aircraft only have the computing power to deliver IOC level capabilities, with the UK’s Block 2 aircraft only having the Paveway II laser-guided bomb (LGB) and AMRAAM air-to-air missile available as weapons to them. This is however offset by only using early aircraft incapable of being upgraded to the newest blocks due to having incompatible mission computers as training aircraft. Only aircraft with software from Block 4 onwards have the full combat capabilities, with Blocks 4A and 4B expected to deliver the full spectrum of British munitions on the aircraft by 2023. 

Ensuring that the full 48 aircraft required for carrier operations are equipped with these latest mission capabilities is essential to both the RAF and Royal Navy (RN), with aircraft not being used for training having to be the most capable in the fleet. However, if there are indeed aircraft without these mission computers they will be relegated to second-line roles such as training and therefore shouldn’t be included in the front-line fleet numbers. If cost is becoming an issue due to the need to switch funding to other programs then cost reductions are available within the program. 

If the RAF is to continue with the full 138 aircraft then it may be wise to split the buy between A and B models to reduce costs. The B model aircraft, that is those with a short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capability, cost around $25m more per aircraft than the A model and also have an increased lifecycle cost due to the more complicated systems required for STOVL. Mixing the buy between variants would increase value for money, even after modifications required for the F-35A to be compliant with the UK’s needs. The most major change required would be the replacement of the A models ‘flying boom’ refuelling system with the ‘probe and drogue’ system used on the B model and throughout the RAF. This is, however, a fairly minor change, with Lockheed Martin surely wanting to work with the UK if they chose to go down that path. 

If the UK is to go down the route of a mixed force then it may be advisable to assign the B model aircraft exclusively to the Fleet Air Arm, with A models being an RAF only enterprise. Not only would this reduce training costs for RAF aircrew, but it would also increase the number of aircraft permanently available for carrier operations, thus being a major capability win while reducing costs for the RAF. However, it is unknown if the RN budget could stretch to cover more F-35 operations than it currently covers in the mixed RAF/RN Lightning Force. 

SPEAR 3 is set to give the RAF a high impact warhead with long-range and low collateral damage capabilities. Four can be carried per hardpoint or bay on Typhoon and F-35 respectively. (Image MBDA)

Currently, the MoD plans to add more munitions to the Lightning fleet, with the MBDA SPEAR 3, Meteor and Paveway IV expected to be cleared for operations by 2023. There is however a need to increase the portfolio of munitions available to the Lightning Force. Long-range cruise and anti-shipping missiles should be seen as essential upgrades, especially considering that Storm Shadow will not be integrated onto the F-35 force. Currently, there is no weapon on the market that fills this role and is compatible with the internal bays of the B model, with even Kongsberg’s Joint Strike Missile, explicitly developed for F-35, being too large for the B models bays. The need to maintain stealth while also carrying a considerable war load means that the FC/ASW program must deliver a missile capable of being carried internally by the B model. 

SPEAR 3 includes an anti-shipping capability however there are doubts as to whether or not the warhead is large enough. While the missile could indeed “mission kill” hostile warships its warhead may not have the required punch to deal with larger surface vessels. Inducting a missile into British service that has the capability to destroy larger targets is vital to maintaining British power projection.

The Anglo-French FC/ASW program aims to replace the Storm Shadow and SCALP air-launched missiles in service with both nations, as well as Exocet and Harpoon in naval service with the two nations. FC/ASW has also been speculated to include an anti-radiation missile capability that the RAF lost with the retirement of the ALARM missile. If the program survives its current concept phase it is hoped that a weapon will be available for fielding by 2030, further adding to the capabilities available to both nations. A quicker solution however would be adding  AGM-88 HARM capability. With the AGM-88E being integrated onto Typhoon by Germany it would also provide a weapon that can be used by both of the RAF’s frontline manned combat aircraft. If this were to happen the RAF would finally be in a position to replace the ALARM missile it retired without replacement in 2013.

Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) is the very latest in jamming pods produced by Raytheon, primarily for the EA-18G Growler. It has however been announced by Lockheed Martin that they expect the jammer to be available for F-35 carriage by 2022 or 2023. Adding NGJ to the F-35s capabilities would help protect air assets from threats in any future conflict and adding it would provide a much-needed escort jamming capability to the RAF. 

The Next Generation Jammer, seen here on a USN EA-18G, could give the Lightning Force a modern, highly capable electronic warfare capability. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bill M. Sanders)

The RAF needs to ensure that the Tempest program does not lead to a reduction in funding for current, in-service platforms. F-35 numbers need to be increased and Typhoon will need continued upgrades to remain relevant. Never before has the RAF been purely based around two, multirole types without a wider gamut of platforms. Instead of having an aircraft mainly as a fighter and another mainly as a strike platform we now have a force that can conduct most roles to a reasonable degree of success without relying on a single platform. This true multirole capability needs to be carried forward into the Tempest program, with the planned plug and play capabilities possibly being the ace up its sleeve.  

Reducing both procurement and development costs for munitions is important to achieve long-term cost savings for the RAF’s Typhoons and Lightnings. SPEAR 3 is critical for hitting precision ground targets at range but is expected to cost in excess of £150,000. Shorter-range, but cheaper weapons already on the market could also supplement other munitions like the £100,000 per missile Brimstone. Potential alternatives like the US Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), provide a large enough warhead for most targets while only costing $USD 44,000 per bomb. The operational cost of a platform, rather than its procurement cost, is where savings need to be found.

While still in its earliest phases Tempest is a gamble to produce an aircraft that can equip the RAF into the later stages of this century. By going straight in and announcing it will be a family of systems rather than an individual platform the program is seemingly going down the route of being designed for modularity and adaptability rather than being focused on just the aircraft. The previously announced modular payload capacity is where the platform could shine, much in the way the Danish Stanflex vessels have in the naval space and Boxer has on the modern battlefield. By equipping with an aircraft that can be converted to differing roles in a short amount of time the RAF would be in a position to deliver more capability with a lower number of platforms.

All of this is very promising, especially considering advances in sensor fusion. By having multiple platforms and systems that can talk to each other the RAF gets an ever-clearer picture of what is going on in the skies and on the ground. All these advances, however, are so far in the future that the RAF needs to maintain and improve the capabilities of current platforms rather than completely switch towards a new platform. The money isn’t there for rapid development and therefore the capabilities of current systems, rather than those of the future should be deemed the priority. If you’d like to find out more about the Tempest article then please check out this article.

The Certifiable Predator-B will enter service as the Protector RG.1, replacing the Reaper fleet. Seen here undergoing tests at RAF Fairford it is the first RAF UAV with the capability to operate within civilian airspace. (Photo Alec Walker, General Atomics)

The most conscientious combat aircraft operated by the RAF are the 10 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operated from RAF Waddington. These aircraft provide British and allied forces with a long endurance presence over the battlefield, allowing for continued surveillance support for troops in contact. Although the Reapers can employ both the Hellfire missile and the Paveway II laser-guided bombs the value of the platform comes from its ability to maintain an overwatch, thus increasing the amount of intelligence ground forces have to operate with. 

It was announced in the 2015 review that these aircraft would be replaced with 20 new UAVs, which in 2016 were announced to be General Atomics Certifiable Predator-Bs, a development of the Reaper. These aircraft will have an increased endurance of 40 hours, as well as the ability to operate in tightly controlled European airspace. Expected to enter service by 2023, the Protector RG.1, as it will be known in RAF service, is slated to be armed with both Paveway bombs and Brimstone missiles.

The released numbers state that the RAF will receive “at least” 20 aircraft, and more systems would likely be deemed a cost-effective acquisition for the RAF. The Protectors are set to be joined in RAF service by new drones capable of conducting swarm attacks against hostile air defences. These drones, to be operated by No. 216 Squadron, will be used to overwhelm an enemy air defence network, allowing more conventional platforms to operate in a much lower threat environment.

Support Aircraft

No.1 Group is also responsible for the RAF’s force multipliers, that is those aircraft whose capabilities serve to increase to combat power of other aircraft and systems rather than being actual combat aircraft. Included here are the RAF’s maritime patrol and ISTAR aircraft, with tankers being detailed below alongside transport aircraft.

The biggest announcement in 2019 was that the RAF would not spend £2bn to upgrade the existing fleet of six Sentry AEW.1 aircraft under the Capability Sustainment Program (CSP) to keep them viable until 2035. Instead the RAF  is set to receive 5 Boeing 737 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) at a cost of £1.5bn. The AEW&C deal involves purchasing five second hand Boeing 737 airframes to be converted to AEW aircraft by Marshalls of Cambridge, meaning that the majority of the airframe work will be carried out within the UK, further increasing the available aeronautical knowledge within the UK. 

Boeing’s 737 AEW&C Wedgetail is set to give the UK a once in a generation upgrade in aerial surveillance capabilities. Seen here at RIAT 2017 the aircraft is already in service with Australia, Turkey, and South Korea the aircraft has proven itself in combat operations against Daesh (Photo Alan Wilson)

Wedgetail, as the aircraft are colloquially known, is already in service with the Australian, Turkish, and South Korean air forces and will be utilized in much the same way as the existing Sentry fleet. Question marks have been raised by the way the deal was reached, with no competitor to the Wedgetail being considered by the MoD.  To make money for the deal two of the Sentry fleet have been retired early and the AEW fleet is being reduced to five Wedgetail aircraft, a number of questionable usefulness given the commitments the RAF is required to meet. A force of eight or nine aircraft should be the minimum considering the UK’s needs to control the North Atlantic while also providing AEW support over the continent in the event of large scale conflict. 

Judging by the fact that they will be by far the most capable European AEW aircraft when they enter service the Wedgetail force will be in high demand, meaning that five aircraft may not be enough to meet commitments. However, with such a ubiquitous aircraft being chosen the RAF has the advantage of being able to leverage existing civilian 737 supply chains, further lowering the maintenance costs while simultaneously enabling a higher serviceability rate. 

Also based on the 737 airframe, the Boeing Poseidon MRA.1 will form the backbone of the RAF’s maritime patrol fleet, with nine examples being procured. Much like the aforementioned Wedgetail it is based on Boeing’s 737NG family of civilian airliners, although the airframe is a role specific one combining the fuselage of the 737-800 with the wings of the larger 737-900. Only these changes, and those required to produce a maritime patrol aircraft, differentiate the airframe from that of a civilian 737-800. This, coupled with the existing UK 737 supply chain, allows the RAF to operate the aircraft for a lot less than most equivalent platforms. 

The Poseidon MRA.1 will at last replace the maritime patrol capabilities lost with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 program following the 2010 SDSR (Photo Cpl Lee Matthews RAF, Crown Copyright)

Being the world’s most modern maritime patrol aircraft the Poseidon has been developed from the ground up with network-centric warfare in mind. It has been argued that the Nimrod MRA.4 it succeeds is a better single aircraft anti-submarine platform however with the move on the P-8 towards sharing data between platforms the P-8 is in a much better position given the amount of data it can receive. However, the small number of airframes is a serious bone of contention, especially considering the number of deployments the Nimrod fleet carried out. The network-centric capabilities of P-8 may only be fully utilized when on combined operations with the UK’s American partners, and when conducting UK-centric operations the fleet may not be in a position to provide enough in numbers to conduct operations. 

Given that the UK is an island nation, relying on the oceans for trade, maritime patrol has been seriously neglected for years. Given that one aircraft needs to be on standby for search and rescue, another on standby for hostile vessels entering UK waters, one or two will be deployed as a minimum, and one or two will be in use for training the UK is not ordering anywhere near enough airframes. Around double, the number currently on order should be the long term aim of the program, with the protection of UK shipping a must for any future government, especially in the post-Brexit world.

If cost is the major driver towards being unable to procure more Poseidons then the MQ-4C Triton from Northup Grumman should be considered in lieu of more airframes. Around half the cost and fully compatible with Poseidon, the Triton would allow for long maritime surveillance operations to be carried out without the need for a crew, as well as being cheaper all round compared to Poseidon. 

Airseeker R.1, operated by USAF as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, provides the majority of the UK’s aerial electronic intelligence capabilities. (Photo Sgt Si Pugsley RAF, Crown Copyright)

The replacement of the Nimrod R.1 electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft with three RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, known locally as Airseeker, was arguably the best decision of the 2010 SDSR. The aircraft, converted from redundant USAF KC-135 airframes, are set to provide ELINT services to the UK until at least 2040 and as such no change is needed in their future plans. The move to a common system operated by the US will allow for continued updates and upgrades without any development costs, maintaining the viability of the platform for the foreseeable future. This is made possible by the fact that both the RAF and USAF have similar requirements, therefore making a common system viable. 

The future plans for the Sentinel R.1 fleet have gone through a number of changes over recent years. The 2010 review announced that the aircraft would be withdrawn following the end of combat operations in Afghanistan however this was later changed to “the next decade” and then to 2021. Withdrawing the aircraft in the current plan would be a mistake, with the aircraft being in high demand in operations against Daesh and in support of French operations in Mali. This high demand is due to the aircraft having the highest resolution radar system of any ground surveillance aircraft. It has been speculated that the radars may have been upgraded to provide an extra maritime surveillance capability, however, despite a development contract being awarded in 2015 no further news has been forthcoming. 

The Sentinel R.1, seen here with the Red Arrows, provides the UK with long range ground surveillance in much the same vane as the USAFs E-8 JSTARs (Photo Kevin Lyle)

The least known aircraft operated by the RAF are the Defender and Shadow ISTAR aircraft. Little is known regarding the operations of the two types, with them believed to operate in time critical surveillance and overwatch operations where drones are impractical. The Defender aircraft were previously operated by the Army Air Corps and have been witnessed conducting operations against Republican dissidents in Northern Island as well as assisting the Metropolitan Police in counter-terror operations.  The Shadow fleet meanwhile has conducted operations in Afghanistan, for which it was acquired under an urgent operational requirement (UOR). UOR programs provide capabilities directly from the Treasury’s coffers, with the money ending when the operation draws to a close. Due to this the Shadow fleet has since been integrated into the core RAF budget, with major upgrades planned to keep them in service until at least 2030.

Tankers and Transports

The last few years have bared witness to the largest change in air-to-air refuelling (AAR) within the Western world for decades. Rather than procuring and operating a new refuelling platform, the MoD opted to contract out the procurement and maintenance of the then-named Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA). AirTanker was announced as the winner of the £13bn contract in 2005 and the first of the Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager aircraft entered frontline service in 2013. Fourteen aircraft have been procured, with nine available constantly to the RAF for operations in what is known as the core fleet. The other five airframes are available to the RAF at 24 hours notice in what is known as the surge fleet, with them otherwise being available to be leased by civilian companies. 

Only seven aircraft in the core fleet are also those equipped with a centreline refuelling point, required for refuelling larger aircraft, with the other seven aircraft only being fitted for two wing refuelling pods. The major issue with both variants is the lack of a “flying boom” as used by USAF. If possible the AirTanker contract should be modified to add this capability to at least some of the aircraft. By modifying several surge fleet aircraft and then bringing them into the core fleet, RAF requirements could be sustained.

The RAF’s Voyager fleet whilst highly capable has had serious question marks raised by commentators regarding the way the aircraft have been procured. (Photo Cpl Tim Laurence RAF, Crown Copyright)

The need for a flying boom equipped tanker has continued to grow over the years, with the C-17 fleet having never been cleared to do AAR in RAF service and Airseeker, Poseidon, and Wedgetail are all incompatible with the probe and drogue system currently in RAF service. In addition, this would allow for greater NATO interoperability as many current and future aircraft fleets use the Flying Boom refuelling method. The USAF’s KC-10 and KC-46 for comparison have both drogue and “flying boom” refuelling options which offers the best of both worlds.

If however the contract cannot be modified then the RAF will be left in a lurch. The contract is slated to run until 2035 and the RAF is required to pay compensation every time a fixed-wing RAF aircraft is refuelled in the air by another, non-contracted aircraft. It is also believed that the contract doesn’t differentiate between flying boom and probe and drogue refuelling, thus further reducing the options available to the RAF. A more detailed look at the future of the Voyager fleet is coming soon, with it currently awaiting an MoD Freedom of Information Act response before completion so stay tuned for that. 

Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III, first delivered to the RAF in 2001, provides the UK with a rapid reaction strategic airlift capability that had previously been lost with the retirement of the Shorts Belfast in 1976. The initial fleet of four aircraft was leased, with the aircraft being purchased in 2008. The fleet was then expanded over time to its current eight airframes, and they have served the RAF well. The RAF themselves have stated that they were “delighted” with the aircraft. Unlike the US the RAF doesn’t use the aircraft in a tactical role, rather preferring to use them on strategic taskings. The aircraft don’t yet have an official out of service date and they are expected to serve the RAF well into the foreseeable future.

The Atlas C.1 as the Airbus A400M is known in RAF service forms the backbone of the RAF’s tactical airlift fleet. Twenty aircraft have been delivered with another two currently awaiting handover to the RAF. The Atlas sits between the C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130 in terms of size and capability, with it being the smallest aircraft capable of lifting the British Army’s new Ajax and Boxer vehicles. Coupled with a rough field capability, this gives a large amount of capability when it comes to the rapid deployment of forces, specifically the army’s new ‘Strike Brigades.’ However, the number is again an issue as is so often the case with the RAF, with 25 originally required. If airframes can be acquired for a reasonable price an increase to at least the original number should be pursued. 

The majority of UK military airlift is provided by the Atlas C.1. (Photo Cpl Tim Laurence RAF, Crown Copyright)

Originally slated to be replaced by the Atlas, the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules was given a reprieve in the 2015 review. The aircraft have been undergoing upgrades to keep them relevant until at least 2030, with no replacement plans announced. British Army commanders lobbied to have the Hercules kept in service due to the Atlas being unable to fulfil certain tasks. Also widely used by special forces, the Hercules has been in service since 1967 and could well see its service life extended further. All but one of the smaller variant in service, the baseline C-130J, have been sold on to other nations, with the majority of the fleet now the C-130J-30 variant.

If possible the Hercules fleet should have an AAR tanking capability added to allow for the in-flight refuelling of helicopters. Some of the RAF’s Chinook fleet is already fitted for probes and an imminent contract for 16 additional helicopters includes the required plumbing and strengthening required to mount a probe. The FAA’s Merlin HC.4 helicopters are also fitted for probes, with them sometimes being seen with them fitted. The Hercules did previously have a tanking capability, with the aircraft having it fitted during the 1982 Falklands Conflict due to a lack of tankers available.

No. 32 Squadron operates the RAF’s fleet of VIP transport aircraft which consists of the BAe 146 and A109SP helicopters. Used by government officials and the Royal family, the squadron’s 146s are set to be retired in 2022 with the majority of their tasks being fulfilled by a modified Voyager. A cheaper small aircraft may, however, be advisable to reduce operating costs on domestic flights. A modern business jet costs a fraction of the Voyager to operate and as such, this would vastly offset any purchase cost. 

Support Helicopters

While the RAF operates both Chinook and Puma helicopters its aircraft are placed under Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), itself reporting to Army Headquarters at Andover rather than Air Command at High Wycombe. The Chinook fleet consists of sixty aircraft of various marks and the Puma force is twenty-four aircraft. The RAF previously operated twenty-eight Merlins in the battlefield support role however in 2015 these aircraft were transferred to the Fleet Air Arm and their Commando Helicopter Force

In the ‘90s, prior to the Merlin entering service, the RAF had planned for a heavy-lift helicopter capability consisting purely of the Boeing CH-47 Chinook but due to political expediency ended up with a mixed force of Merlins and Chinooks. Being the largest helicopters in the UK military, the Chinook force is in constant demand and has taken part in almost all conflicts the UK has participated in since the ‘80s. 

Chinooks have seen operations at home and abroad for decades. Here an RAF Chinook assists in emergency flood defence repairs near Doncaster during the 2019 floods. (Photo Cpl Rob Travis RAF, Crown Copyright)

Entering service in 1980, all but one of the five Chinooks sent south during the Falklands were lost on the Atlantic Conveyor. The remaining aircraft, known by tail code Brazo November, has gone on to see its most recent service in Afghanistan and is rare in having a reserved spot at the RAF Museum due to more medals being won flying her than any other aircraft in RAF service. The force as a whole is set to be enlarged, with an order for sixteen MH-47G special forces aircraft expected to be concluded this year. This would bring the Chinook force up to seventy-six airframes however it is expected that the oldest HC.4 airframes will be retired. This may however not be necessary as the aircraft could be upgraded to allow for another twenty years of service. 

Unlike the Chinook force, the RAF’s Pumas need replacing in the not too distant future. Twenty-four upgraded Puma HC.2s entered service by 2014 and the aircraft are expected to serve until 2025, therefore making replacement an immediate priority. Perhaps the best option is Leonardo Helicopters AW149 medium-lift helicopter. Already in service with the Thai Army and on order by the Egyptian Navy the AW149 has the advantage that Leonardo already has a production facility in Yeovil that has supplied helicopters to British force since the 1940s. This, coupled with the fact that it has already been developed, make a very interesting proposition for the MoD to consider. 

Leonardo’s AW149 could be the perfect replacement for the RAF’s Puma fleet. The aircraft can be built at the manufactures Yeovil facility and has already been fully developed. (Photo Leonardo Helicopters)

Given the fact that the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) is ending there are question marks over the UK’s search and rescue (SAR) capabilities, which were privatised and taken away from the RAF in 2015. Not only does this mean that the peacetime skill set is no longer being maintained but this also degrades combat search and rescue skills. The AW149 would be ideal for both SAR and medium-lift and has already been proposed as a SAR helicopter for the Italian Air Force and its civilian development, the AW189, is already operating the UK SAR contract on behalf of HM Coastguard. 


No changes are expected to the British military’s flight training program, with the contract for the Military Flight Training System (MFTS) expected to run until at least 2030. This service, delivered by a consortium of Lockheed Martin and Babcock known as Ascent Flight Training, provides all of the British military’s flight training apart from advanced combat jet training and operational conversion. Having only been fully operational for less than a year we are yet to see what benefits if any, this system brings. Elementary flight training is provided by the Grob G 120TP, known locally as the Prefect T.1, operating out of Cranwell and Barkston Heath. The Prefect is replacing the Tutor T.1 in this role, with those aircraft continuing to be used by University Air Squadrons and cadet Air Experience Flights. Twenty-three aircraft have entered service under the MFTS contract.

After completing elementary flight training pilots are streamed to fast jet, multi-engine, or helicopters. Initial fast jet flight training is provided by ten Beechcraft T-6 Texan IIs flying from RAF Valley. These aircraft have replaced the Shorts Tucano that previously operated from Linton-on-Ouse, with a reduction in airframes made up for with an increased amount of synthetic training.

Pilots then move on to the BAE Systems Hawk to complete their advanced jet training. These aircraft are not supplied as part of the MFTS contract but are rather owned by the RAF. The Hawk T.1 is now primarily used by the RAF Aerobatics Team (The Red Arrows) and for training pilots of allied nations whereas the Hawk T.2 is the primary training platform for RAF and FAA pilots. Upon completion of the Hawk course pilots are then fully qualified and receive their postings to an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).

For the first time all training other than on Hawk and frontline types will be carried out using aircraft supplied by contractors. This means that the UK has been able to replace its whole training fleet without large capital expense. (Crown Copyright)

Multi-engine pilots on the other hand progress from the Prefect to the Embraer Phenom 100. These aircraft replaced the King Air in the pilot training role, with rear-crew training also transitioning between the two types. With the reduction in rear-crew being trained due to the drawdown of the Tornado force, the RAF is now in a position to use fewer aircraft to deliver the same quality of training, again due to an increase in the amount of synthetic training now being possible.

Helicopter training has also undergone major changes as part of the MFTS contract. The Squirrel fleet has been replaced by twenty-nine Airbus Helicopters H135 Juno HT.1s. The move from a single-engined to a multi-engined trainer represents the fact that only the Gazelle remains in UK service as a single-engined type. The Jupiter HT.1, the local designation for the H145, shares a common flight deck and as such allows for more streamlined training following it replacing the Bell Griffin HT.1 as the larger helicopter training. With the concentration of training on the Juno fleet, with only three Jupiters replacing 10 Griffins.


The RAF is a premier fighting force that has been asked to perform a wide variety of missions with an ever-shrinking number of aircraft and aircraft types. It is clear that what the RAF requires more than anything is numbers. Continuing to further stretch a force decimated by post-Cold War cuts seriously risks its ability to project UK airpower around the globe. If the government is serious about wanting the UK to have an ability to fight its own wars then numbers really do matter as much as individual capabilities. With the reduction of combat air and force multiplier aircraft the RAF is beginning to look a fraction as powerful as it did in the past. 

If numbers are to be increased then it is obvious that an uplift in personnel is also necessary. The number serving in the RAF has gone from 40,000 in 2012 to less than 33,000 in 2019. This continued reduction in manpower is a serious threat to the RAF, which for years has relied on recruiting the best and brightest. If the RAF is not in a position to offer these careers then not just the quantity but the quality will suffer.

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