The collapse of British air power

British air power has declined. If the UK does not adjust to this reality it will find its relevance as a military power questioned.

The implications are twofold. First, the United States may begin to doubt Britain’s value as a major ally in international operations. And its leaders may begin to treat British involvement more as a cost burden or even a liability. Second, British decline in its ability to project force – similarly to the country’s woes on the high seas – will invariably cause its industrial capability to fall precipitously.

Current headlines suggest that a decade of conflict and a global – well Western – economic recession have placed immeasurable pressures on military procurement. And this is true. But what’s important to analyze is that the degeneration of British air power has occurred over several decades and has been almost systemic.

The order of battle

In the 1980s – shortly after The Falklands War – the Royal Air Force (RAF) foresaw a future fleet of 30 fast jet squadrons for the 1990s.

At that time, the following aircraft would comprise these groupings: seven Tornado ADV, eleven Tornado IDS, three Harrier, four Phantom FGR-2, three Jaguar, and two Buccaneer squadrons. The RAF at that time planned to replace all nine of the Buccaneer, Jaguar, and Phantom squadrons with another aircraft that has become the Typhoon (Eurofighter). The RAF hoped for 385 Tornados, 250 Typhoons, and 96 Harriers; for a total of 731 jets.

These aircraft were not the only ones the UK planned on in the 1980s. The British Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA) operated two Sea Harrier squadrons comprised of 51 aircraft. Thus the UK could call on a total of 782 jets to project power.

In support of this highly formidable force the RAF flew 34 Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. And pilots had the luxury to train on a fleet of Hawk trainers of which 72 Hawk were equipped to carry AIM-9 Sidewinders.

There was a strong tanker and transport fleet as well. The UK operated approximately 20 Handley Page Victor’s as tankers, around 20 VC10s as refueling and transport aircraft, and  nine converted Lockheed Tri-Stars. Finally, the UK could also rely on 60 C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

At some point between 1990 and today, Britain went through multiple strategic reviews. Each one incrementally decreased its air power. Today, these decisions seem devastating and irreversible.

Defense reviews and systemic decline

The first four defense reviews (1990 Options for Change, 1998 Strategic Defense Review, 2002 SDR New Chapter, and the 2003 Defense White Paper), along with some sporadic decisions in between, cut down UK fast jet squadrons from 30 to 12. And the fleet of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was reduced from 34 to 12.

The next review would continue the incremental cutting but would also strip out some core capabilities.

The 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) removed all remaining Harriers, leaving the UK with no carrier capable aircraft.

The SDSR also reduced the Tornado fleet by two squadrons. This left the RAF with only eight fast-jet squadrons comprised of five Tornado and three Typhoon units. The ratio is slowly changing to the Typhoon as more Tornados are retired and Typhoons built.

But the dance continues. In December 2010, the Air Vice-Marshal of the RAF, Greg Bagwell stated that his organization was headed toward a scenario where it would have just six fast jet squadrons left consisting of five Typhoon and one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) squadron that would replace the final Tornado unit.

The issue here is bifurcated. Not only is this scenario unconfirmed, but the uncertainty over the F-35 program or its procured quantities remains unsettled. The decisions over the F-35 will not be finalized until 2015. And recent news makes the whole adventure questionable. It is unlikely that the UK will operate many more than 50 JSFs, down from its previous requirement of 138.

It is, however, expected that the Typhoon force will be stabilized at 107 aircraft.

And thus, after all these strategies the UK fast jet force has been reduced to just one quarter of the 32 fast-jet squadrons the UK military planned on in the 1980s. And if Greg Bagwell is right, then this number would actually fall to under 20 percent of previously expected levels.

Can it get any worse?

Yes it can. At some point in 1990, British citizens expected 782 fast jets. By 2016, they will likely have 150. And here is the kicker. Not only does Britain currently not have an ability to project air power from carriers – or carriers for that matter – but the island nation no longer has a maritime patrol program since the SDSR obliterated the Nimrod.

And the UK almost decided to take the Sentinel out of service, albeit this decision may be reversed after the Libya operation, and ongoing Afghanistan missions, where the country used it successfully.

Transport fleets – another critical element of power that the UK would need to project force – have also been reduced. The C-130J fleet will be taken out of service by 2022, taking 25 transport planes out with it. Instead the UK will rely on the A400M, quantities of which have been reduced from 25 to 22. And the country will maintain only eight C-17 and 14 Airbus A330 multi-role tankers.

Drawing a parallel

The cumulative effect of these cuts has reached a tipping point. India, for example, now has more than 32 squadrons and is planning for 42 by 2022. Australia has five fast jet squadrons, and plans to re-equip three of them with F-35s (pending any cancellations). And across the channel, the French Air Force will operate ten Rafale squadrons from land and three from the sea. Even Norway retains three F-16 squadrons that will be entirely re-equipped with JSFs.

Looking for a pulse

It is undeniable that jet counting is an imperfect metric. In the past 20 years aircraft have improved substantially. New jets are able to locate and strike targets exponentially better than their predecessors. New sensors such as the RAPTOR or Lightening III pods for fast jets coupled with new weapons such as the Brimstone or Storm Shadow radically enhance combat jet performance.

In addition, whole new facets of air power have been added. Most notably, the UK installed the Tomahawk cruise missile on its nuclear attack submarines. Sadly, however, this program has suffered its own reductions. To provide strategic and tactical targeting five Raytheon Sentinel surveillance aircraft have entered service, following a procurement program that began in the 80s.

The British Army has also acquired 67 WAH-64D Apaches which it can now (as it did in the Libyan campaign) deploy from Royal Navy helicopter carriers.

And the country has made investments in drones. The RAF will soon stand-up it’s second MQ-9 Reaper squadron. And the Army Air Corp is starting to adopt the Watchkeeper UAV. It expects to have 54 aircraft in total.

An empty throttle

These programs, however, hardly make up for the 75-80 percent reduction in the number of UK fast-jet squadrons. Neither do they make up for UK’s complete sacrifice of maritime patrol capability, the elimination of the carrier based vertical and short take-off and landing (V/STOL) Harriers or the near halving of the transport aircraft force.

All of this will change Britain’s place in the world. And its closest ally – the United States – may feel slighted that its partner can no longer punch its weight. Let alone above it. This should reverberate throughout the Pentagon. The US is currently operating under the assumption that its partners will close the gap it is about to create. It should think again.

Industrial malaise

And finally, such reductions in air power will likely correlate with a dramatic decline in industrial capability. Knock-on effects are unavoidable. The Typhoon, for example, albeit a multinational project, was heavily dependent on research and development work undertaken in the UK. The radar was derived from a Ferranti research project and the engines from work by Rolls-Royce. And BAE built a canard delta demonstrator.

The Tornado too was mostly designed in the UK. And while the French, for example, have gone out of their way to maintain Dassault through the sale of the Rafale, the UK has scrapped its flagship Harrier.

The UK has no indigenous 5th generation fighter program. All while Russia, China, India, Japan, and even South Korea (with Indonesia) do. The UK is, however, doing some work on advanced UAVs such as the Taranis and Mantis programs.

The Taranis, for example, resembles the Northrop Grumman X-47B and may provide the basis for a new UCAV slated to enter service only in 2030 (the stated out of service date for the Typhoon). Although UK firms have won a range of other UAV-related technology contracts, it is uncertain that they will provide much capital power to the industrial base.

Job losses have already begun. BAE confirmed 845 layoffs at its Brough site in March 2012. More will come when Typhoon production ends in 2017.

After the Cold War there was an impetus to reduce defense expenditure and inventories, but the UK has systematically slashed its air power to a point that it can no longer be considered a major force. And its once praised aerospace and defense industry will invariably suffer a similar fate. These trends are seemingly irreversible.

It will take strong government leadership and tough choices to – at the very least – sustain the country as a worthwhile partner to the US both militarily and industrially.


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