Category Archives: Aviation

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.


The end of history and the last drone

Drone quadcopter operated with iPad by Ville Hyvönen

iPad operated quadcopter

On 25 February 2012 the Financial Times published Francis Fukuyama’s op-ed on drones. It addressed how the world may change when “drones are cheap and ubiquitous.” Fukuyama questioned how other countries, private individuals, rogue states, and terrorists may use unmanned and robotic systems in the future.

Access to drone technology will invariably lead to its nefarious use, suggests Fukuyama. He fails to recognize that when transformational technologies become commercially available, their widespread adoption is inescapable. More importantly, historical precedent suggests that all extensively adopted technology is overwhelmingly used for good.

The article is full of other problems and inconsistencies. Fukuyama spends three long opening paragraphs advertising his own do-it-yourself (DIY) quadcopter. His personal story is useful only as a literary prop for the sweeping generalization at the end: “That’s why I want to build mine now, before the government makes them illegal.”

Not quite the end of history, but certainly the wrong conclusion.

After an arduous opening that advertises Fukuyama’s knowledge of the word “telemetry” he proceeds to tell us the big ticket items. The Predator and Reaper drones have been used to strike “deep into Pakistan.” Hurrah. The Air Force will have more drone pilots than F-16 pilots by next year. And imagine this; they will be piloted from “half a world away.” Of course, drone strikes have also killed civilians. And manned fighter or bomber strikes have not?

Let’s not dwell on the overview. Most articles are not aimed for a drone-news-following reader. The issue here is that this introduction is so clumsy and superficial that it is painful to get through.

Fukuyama then plunges us into the future. “Down the road,” he says, “are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim.” And further into the future are “nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.”

This is all true. Although it would be helpful for us all, to start making semantic distinctions between what we call a variety of unmanned and robotic systems. He never claims that this op-ed is all encompassing. But it would seem reasonable to discuss autonomy and its implications if one is to make a leap towards nanobots and lethal toxins.

Fukuyama then enlightens us that privacy is “the chief concern” and proceeds to commercialize how his own drone could “look inside a neighbor’s third-floor window.” Of course he “would never ever be tempted to use it for such a thing.” Come on! This is in the FT, who edits these anyway?

On editing… Fukuyama calls the FAA the Federal Aviation “Authority” instead of Administration. This may be petty, but get it right!

After informing us that drones are used for targeted killings, Fukuyama suggests that as “the defense budget shrinks” using drones to “project power on the cheap” will be attractive. Sure… But the correlation is shaky at best. The proliferation of drones may lead to more targeted killings, but the defense budget – other than being a headline favorite – is really irrelevant here. Drones provide the US military and intelligence community a powerful capability and will be used (for right or wrong) based on overall strategy and tactical objectives. For the purposes of this discussion, we are passed procuring drones on a cost estimate basis. At 7,494 and counting, they are part of the arsenal.

On the other hand, miniature robotic devices do change the dynamics. Soldiers could use them to look into buildings before a raid to minimize losses. And intelligence agencies could employ them for an assortment of missions. However, will this change how they spy or kill? Using drones to deliver deadly pathogens is a possible scenario. But intelligence agencies have been successful at eradicating targets before. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London is a case in point.

Fukuyama is also concerned about their domestic use. This seems to translate into his main argument that eventually the government will outlaw drones. I doubt it. For example, any enthusiast could procure advanced surveillance systems. A simple Google search using “surveillance AND DIY” returns more than 5 million results. There is a plethora of spy toys out there. Having your own drone and using it for degenerate ends won’t make this problem worse.

Fertilizer is used for bombs by some. And others use code for cyber-attacks. The government – rightfully so – now tries to keep an eye on fertilizer purchases. But it sure hasn’t made Java or C++ programming languages illegal. Drones will be used to spy on cheating spouses and to cause harm somewhere. But this should not make us “worried.”

Fukuyama continues. He asks what the world would look like when “other countries [will] operate fleets of drones.” And what would our attitude towards drones be “if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the airplane” or attacked “soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia.” Worse yet, Fukuyama seems concerned that China or Al Qaeda could use drones to target Americans in “Florida or New York.” He is especially petrified that drones in their ubiquity will be harder to trace and “without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down.”

Living in a world where we are “routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.” There is a point here, somewhere. But it is lost.

Stability restored

Yes, other countries are building drones en masse and will continue to do so. And terrorist organizations may try to use them to deliver an explosive. But making them illegal domestically would in no way change this paradigm. In fact, it would make us dramatically less competitive over time. Our systems would become outdated.

How would making drones illegal domestically protect us against these threats? It seems Fukuyama suggests that some dubious activity will be possible because there will be so many of them. That makes sense logically. But as alluded to above, there are websites that give us viruses and guns that are used to kill. Yet, we continue to visit the former and buy more of the latter.

Fukuyama mentions particle-sized robots in our blood-stream, but fails to imagine technologies that would be able to trace exactly to whom a drone belongs. A network of nanobots – to stay futuristic – would easily trace the origin of other drones.

He does cite the legitimate use of drones for police work and traffic management. But there are so many others. Drones could be used to monitor our electrical grid, to take care of the elderly, to assist during surgeries (or to conduct surgeries), to repair broken tissue, to fight cancer (hey, he went there). On the battlefield their usefulness isn’t perfect, but unquestioned.  And countries will not decide to attack us just because it costs less now than it did before or saves them a pilot or two.

Drones – and robotic systems in general – will soon become part of our daily lives. Already in South Korea they are being used as prison guards and as school teachers. Their proliferation could be as transformational as the spread of the Internet or the mobile device. Fukuyama – after redeeming himself with The Origins of Political Order ­– is sadly on the wrong side of history.

Image source: from Ville Hyvönen’s public Flickr page


Drone activity in progress…

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Two weeks ago 11 street signs appeared in Brooklyn, NY. One read “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress.” The signs were fake. They were posted by an Army veteran turned “radical art student” who remains anonymous.

The message was clear. Over the past decade expectations of privacy have diminished. In fact, most people either did not notice the signs or did not care.

The artist’s warnings are prescient because drones are coming to a neighborhood near you. And their use will vary. Privacy (see 1, 2, 3, 4) – or it’s erosion – may be of greater concern in the long-term, but safety may be compromised immediately.

Days ago Congress passed a bill (Senate 75-25; House 248-169), which will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make drone flights available domestically. The bill awaits the President’s signature. Once signed – and it is expected to be – the bill will mandate the FAA to prepare US skies for unmanned aviation by September 2015.

The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones could operate domestically by 2020.

Congress authorized an unprecedented $63.4 billion to the FAA over four years. $11 billion of which will fund the nation’s air-traffic control system modernization. The system currently uses ground-based radars. It would switch to GPS satellites instead. Modernization has its benefits for the airline industry. Commercial and cargo pilots could set better routes and fly more directly, saving on time and fuel.

Without a GPS-based system, operating drones would be difficult. And there are other challenges. As the Air Line Pilots Association, a body that represents 53,000 pilots, points out “safety issues such as training and certification of those flying unmanned aircraft” are still under question.

One reason drones have been so successful in military operations is because they are primarily used in uncontested airspace. They are not designed to operate in busy skies. Drones are unable to detect and avoid other aircraft. They will need to have this capability before operating domestically.

It is estimated that air traffic will grow by 50 percent over the next decade. And this doesn’t include thousands of drones. Many countries have adopted satellite-based technology. But the US, which accounts for more than a third of global air traffic, “has moved cautiously.”

Remote control

The average American has probably never seen a drone, unless they live near the Mexican border where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses them. Or North Dakota where the Air Force helped local police track down three suspects using a Predator B drone.

Some police departments are already using drones. But currently their use is restricted to public agencies and some of their private partners. Drone use is also limited by size and altitude (below 400 feet). They don’t fly near cities. You sure won’t see one over Brooklyn. The legislation also orders the FAA to “expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies.”

The FAA has already granted “295 special permits for researchers, law enforcement, and the military to operate drones in the US.” And last year a defense bill ordered the FAA to “create six test sites where unmanned flights can operate beside regular aircraft.”

Unmanned systems will quickly expand to other industries. They are great for monitoring pipelines, ports, or power lines. Thus utility and power companies would adopt them immediately. The agriculture industry could use them. They are obviously great for surveillance and emergency response. Google would adopt drones for their Street View program. It won’t be hard to get to 30,000 drones when everyone from the local police department to the tech start-up will want one.

Securing the skies

Balancing security and privacy is a debate we will have for decades. Privacy will dominate headlines as drones begin to hover overhead. So will the threat of terrorists using them. But general safety – caused by accidents and not terrorists – needs to be actively considered and discussed. Drones are not foolproof. In fact, they are accident prone.

Who will train the pilots? Program future autonomous systems with routes and accident avoidance techniques? Manage the air traffic control system? Differentiate between corporate drones and those flown by the government or by enthusiasts?

Considering their expected volume, it is safe to assume most drones will be flown by amateurs and not trained pilots. The FAA’s timeline to modernize is ambitious. It is reassuring to see that benchmarks are set and frequent updates to lawmakers are mandated under the new bill.  But these conciliatory measures may not be enough. The industry and government needs to make sure things work before drones and planes meet unexpectedly.

Also, in a few years, slow down when you see the “Speed limit enforced by aircraft” sign. They are not kidding.


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