Air Power Under Pressure
Air Power Under Pressure
Editor of Aerospace International, Richard Gardner talked last year with Sir Glenn Torpy about the challenges facing today’s Royal Air Force and its prospects for the future. Read what they talked about here.
When he addressed the Royal Aeronautical Society last year, ACM Sir Glenn Torpy, then Britain’s senior Air Officer, opened his lecture by reminding his audience of the words of his predecessor, Sir John Slessor, who said in 1959, “The aim to which the existence of the Royal Air Force is dedicated is the prevention of war”. These words originally came at a time when Britain had at its disposal operational aircraft and large permanent bases throughout the UK, Germany and across the world. At that time, Cold War tensions were still rising and much of the RAF front-line was at a high state of alert, including a powerful force of nuclear bombers and missile-equipped interceptor squadrons. Overseas, RAF air power played a key role in containing regional insurgencies and threats to newly emerging nations. By maintaining a balanced and credible defence capability, the RAF, alongside its NATO allies, eventually witnessed the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact threat. This led to significant “peace dividend” force reductions, but although the confrontational nuclear era was over, the world didn’t become more peaceful. In the 21st Century the nature of the threat may have changed almost beyond recognition, but a much smaller Royal Air Force is no less potent, and is still providing global air power on a scale that is second only to the US in its ability to project effect, reach and persistence.
RG: Is today’s RAF still capable of carrying out all the operational demands placed on it?
Sir Glenn: Yes it is, but the current volume and pace of UK operations is undoubtedly putting significant pressure on certain parts of the RAF’s frontline. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have also placed greater emphasis on certain capabilities - such as ISTAR - and we are having to adapt the way we operate and fight to take account of the circumstances we face in these demanding theatres. Things are very different from the situation we found ourselves in 25 years ago, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you look back over the last 25 years the character of our major operations – the Falklands, Gulf War 1, Bosnia, Kosovo, Gulf War 2 – were all very different. The conclusion I draw from this is that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. We live in an unpredictable world in which events can change with alarming speed. The Lebanon is a good example, where a tactical level incident – the kidnapping of two soldiers – rapidly escalated into a major conflict that could easily have engulfed the whole of the Middle East. I am, therefore, convinced that the UK needs to maintain a balanced, responsive force structure that has the flexibility and capability to operate across the spectrum of operations, including top end warfighting, counter insurgency operations, humanitarian relief and non-combatant evacuation tasks. This is not easy, particularly in ensuring that we do not unbalance our long-term force structure as we seek to deliver success on current operations. One of the key strengths of the UK Armed Forces has been our ability to operate across the spectrum of operations and this, combined with the political willingness of successive Governments to commit UK Forces to operations, has earned the UK a special place on the international stage. We must take great care to maintain this position, although I accept that sustaining such a balanced force comes at a price. This places increased emphasis on delivering maximum value for money from the resources allocated to Defence.
RG: Are the big changes in logistical, maintenance and training support making a difference to how the RAF performs?
Sir Glenn: I think we’ve made tremendous progress over the last 5 years. A recent NAO report into the logistic support of our fast-jets highlighted that we had saved some £1.4 billion by working more closely with industry and rigorously reviewing the processes and engineering practices we were using on the frontline. This ‘transformation’ process has produced some dramatic results; for instance, the cost per flying hour for a Tornado has been reduced by 50% and for the Harrier by some 40%. On the engine front, the support contract we have with Rolls-Royce will produce savings of £125 million, and has already reduced engine rejection rates by 50% and improved the installed engine life by 50%. One of the key features of this process is the development of a genuine partnership between industry and the RAF, where risk is shared and industry are incentivised through availability contracts to deliver what the frontline needs. Improvements such as this are improving aircraft and engine availability – which is good for the frontline – but the savings can then be used elsewhere, either in the support and development of current capabilities or the procurement of new equipment.
RG: Size is obviously still an issue. Has the RAF got sufficient critical mass?
Sir Glenn: As I mentioned earlier, I believe firmly in the need to maintain a balanced force structure that has the resilience to cope with the tasks we are mandated by the Government to deliver. I think our current force structure is about as lean as it can get to achieve that objective. Reducing the force from 48000 to 41000 has not been easy and we have had to make some difficult decisions. We have, however, managed to maintain what I believe are critical masses in all our major capabilities. Gaining control of the air remains a key objective for the air component, because of the freedom of manoeuvre it delivers for all three components – Land, Maritime and Air. Fortunately, in recent years coalition Air Forces have been reasonably successful in achieving air superiority – the last time the British Army was attacked from the air was during the Falklands War and in the case of the US Army it was the Korean War. On both occasions it was an unpleasant experience! That said, despite our successes, the Second Gulf War highlighted the difficulties of targeting and destroying mobile Surface-to-Air and Surface-to-Surface missiles, and the way this forced a change to the start of the campaign. Gaining air superiority is not, therefore, plain sailing. It needs investment and training. The introduction of Typhoon will significantly enhance the RAF’s air-to-air capability but the aircraft also has a significant multi-role capability, and in time will take over the offensive role from the Tornado GR4. Looking more broadly, the RAF’s frontline is undergoing a significant modernisation programme, including more C17s, SENTINEL, Harrier GR9, more helicopters, Nimrod MRA4, A400M, FSTA, REAPER and, in time, JSF. As a consequence, I believe we currently have the capabilities required to fulfil our key roles, which I would summarise as: gaining control of the air; rapid deployment and sustainment; battlefield mobility; precision strike and offensive support; ISTAR; Force Protection; and Command and Control. More to the point, there are few other Air Forces in the Western World that have such a range of capabilities - aside from the USAF - and this gives the UK a unique ability to deploy rapidly over strategic distance, either to conduct offensive operations or deliver humanitarian relief.
RG: Are you planning to make good recent losses in the C-130 fleet?
Sir Glenn: You are right to highlight the tremendous efforts of the C-130 force, but the same is also true of the VC10s, Tristars and C17s - they are all doing a tremendous job in sustaining the strategic airbridges to Iraq and Afghanistan. The C130s are also playing a vital intra-theatre role, transporting troops and freight to a variety of austere locations,; indeed, during the last troop rotation in Afghanistan the C130 force flew some 350 sorties into the gravel strip at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. Improving the robustness of our Air Transport force is one of my top priorities. The new C130J fleet is proving a great success. The aircraft’s increased performance is paying real dividends in the hot and high conditions in Afghanistan, and the crews love the glass cockpit and the increased reliability associated with a new aircraft. Our C130Ks have served us extremely well over many years but will gradually be phased out as the A400M starts to come online. The C-17s have been an outstanding success and I am delighted that we have decided to buy the initial 4 we had on lease, and to procure an additional 2 aircraft, which should be with us in 2008. The aircraft is vital for transporting large, outsized loads and like the C130J has proved to be very reliable. In simplistic terms, a C17 carries about 4 times the load of a C130, with A400M carrying about twice the load of a C130. Once the modernisation programme is complete the Air Transport force will consist of 25 C130 Js, 25 A400M and at least 6, and ideally 8, C17s. This, coupled with the air-to-air refuelling and passenger carrying capability of FSTA, will provide the RAF with a robust, modern transport fleet capable of global reach.
RG: To return to your third point, the ISTAR issue…
Sir Glenn: In the unpredictable, complex and ambiguous world in which we live today, accurate intelligence is absolutely vital. This is particularly true during high tempo warfighting operations but the counter-insurgency campaigns we are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are equally demanding in intelligence terms. It is, therefore, no surprise that so much effort is being focused on improving our current capabilities. Despite it maritime heritage, the Nimrod MR2 is proving to be a very capable overland surveillance platform and the specialist Nimrod R1 continues to deliver a valuable product to a range of customers. Looking ahead, I see the Nimrod MRA4 assuming the ISR role currently undertaken by the MR2, but with enhanced capabilities. The introduction of the Sentinel R, with its advanced air-to-ground ASTOR radar, is an exciting new capability which will provide the UK with a much sought after surveillance capability that few other nations possess. The E3 Sentry will continue to give us a sophisticated command and control capability, but I also see the E3 as a key part of our overall network architecture, which I hope will eventually include all our airborne assets. The introduction of Sniper and Litening II advanced targeting pods onto the Harrier GR9 and Tornado GR4 respectively has provided a significant enhancement to both our precision capability and our ability to conduct non-traditional ISTAR (NTISTAR). The increased fidelity of the pods reduces the chances of target misidentification and collateral damage, both of which are key factors in the conduct of close air support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pods have been an instant success with both the troops on the ground and the aircrew, and have done much to enhance the delivery of precise, timely firepower. You will also be aware that we have been operating Predator As with the USAF for the last 3 years. This has given us a unique insight into the operation of UAVs, both for surveillance and offensive operations, and could not have prepared the ground better for our procurement of Predator B – or REAPER as it is now known. Weighing-in at some 10,000lbs, REAPER is a step-change on Predator A. It has an endurance of some 20 hours and is capable of carry a 3000lbs payload, including Hellfire missiles and 500lbs precision bombs. Three platforms are being procured under an Urgent Operational Requirement, in order to provide a persistent ISR capability but with the ability to strike fleeting targets with minimum delay. Although Hermes 450 and Watchkeeper will give the British Army an organic tactical UAV capability the endurance, speed, payload and beyond-line-of-sight capability of REAPER will provide UK and Coalition forces with a significant uplift in capability. Of course, one of the key areas that we develop still further is a robust data link network that will enables us to cross-cue sensors and rapidly exploit the vast amount of information collected by the various ISTAR assets.
RG: What is being done to address the current shortfall in battlefield mobility?
Sir Glenn: As is well known, we are currently flying our C-130s and support helicopters at a very intensive rate in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our people are doing a tremendous job under extremely difficult conditions. We have sufficient helicopters to carry out today’s task, but we could always use more. The procurement of an additional six Merlins from Denmark is a very welcome initiative and these aircraft, together with the decision on the eight Chinook Mk3s, will provide a significant boost in our rotary-wing capability. As I mentioned earlier, the C130Ks and Js are a vital part of the tactical mobility jigsaw, without which it would be impossible to prosecute the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. All these air assets are operating in high threat areas and we have spent a considerable amount of money on added protection systems, including defensive aid suites, extra armour and machine guns. Although the protection of key air assets tends to dominate the headlines the protection of our main bases and airfields is just as important, especially in the type of environment we find in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gone are the days when rear-bases can be considered relatively safe-areas. The RAF Regiment has the lead for protecting both Basra and Kandahar, and has been doing an incredible job. This is dangerous and challenging work and those involved deserve the highest praise for their efforts in extremely hostile conditions.
RG: So are you getting what you need as activities ramp up in Afghanistan?
Sir Glenn: I’ve mentioned some of the new programmes that are being introduced for Afghanistan, all of which will improve our ability to prosecute what is an extremely demanding operation. Of course, as activity rises, so does the complexity. This is especially true regarding the airspace over Southern Afghanistan. The creation of a strengthened airstrip at Camp Bastion in Southern Helmand will add to the level of fixed wing, fighter, helicopter and UAV traffic activity in the area. In addition, the use of long-range artillery – with ranges of some 70kms and operating altitudes well above 25,000ft – presents another significant dimension to the already complex airspace management task that needs to be undertaken. The deployment of the RAF’s mobile Air Defence Radar (1 ACC) has provided an important means of delivering a robust airspace coordination function, which also makes use of Australian and US radars. We have also worked hard to improve the way we conduct integrated air/land operations, both in providing timely and accurate close air support but just as importantly, ensuring the air power is used effectively to shape the battle space as part of the overall ground scheme of manoeuvre. This has involved placing additional RAF personnel in the various Army HQs, and in ensuring that ground units have the opportunity to conduct their pre-deployment training with the type of air assets that are likely to be available in the operational theatres. The close coordination of Apache, Chinook and fixed-wing aircraft - such as Harrier – is an area where we have paid particular attention, but we have also focused on the standardisation and training of Tactical Air Control Parties, who provide the vital link between the pilot in the cockpit and the man on the ground. The introduction of new weapons has also allowed us to deliver a broader range of effects, from non-kinetic ‘shows of force’ to 1000lbs precision guided bombs - all of which helps to reduce unwanted collateral damage. The increased complexity of our operations requires a sophisticated, flexible and responsive Command and Control system based on robust communications and information systems and a comprehensive data link network – the latter is an area that we need to develop still further.
RG: You have recently phased out the Jaguar. Is the Typhoon going to be a cost-effective close support aircraft, or would it be better to use a simpler type like the A-10?
Sir Glenn: The A-10 is a good weapons platform but it fills a particular specialist role and has limited utility across the broad range of air power tasks that platforms like Tornado GR4, Harrier GR7/9 and Typhoon are able to undertake. This returns me to one of my previous themes – the need for a balanced force structure that has the flexibility and adaptability to operate across the spectrum of operations, and not just in niche areas. I don’t think it’s realistic – or necessary – for the UK to be thinking about procuring a dedicated close air support aircraft. Our Tornados and Harriers are delivering a quality product to our troops on the ground – especially now they’re equipped with Litening and Sniper pods – and I have every confidence in Typhoon’s ability to do just the same. As you know, we are already developing the multi-role capability of Typhoon, and with Litening III, Link 16, Enhanced Paveway and the gun, it will provide an excellent close air support capability. Although we tend to focus on the kinetic effects delivered by air power we should not underestimate the psychological impact that fixed-wing aircraft have on the Taliban, which is significant. In conducting operations, therefore, we should be seeking to exploit the combined effects – both kinetic and non-kinetic - of fixed-wing close air support assets and attack helicopters.
RG: How are you safeguarding the RAF ethos as more support services are contractorised?
Sir Glenn: Maintaining the heritage and ethos of the Service is a central plank in developing the future of the RAF. People join the RAF because they want a career in military aviation and are attracted to the lifestyle of the Service. We give that up at our peril but we must also be aware that society has changed and people’s aspirations change with time – and we need to adapt to these circumstances. We also need to accept that during the course of an individual’s career their requirements are probably going to change. At the start of their careers, people are likely to be more willing to move from one base to another but with time family life is liable to demand a more stable lifestyle, for all the obvious reasons. We need, wherever possible, to meet these aspirations whilst at the same time retaining the ethos of Service life. As you rightly say, the increased use of contractorised support could, if we are not careful, undermine the ethos that I believe is essential to the success of the Service. So far, that has not been the case, and we now have a fair amount of experience operating with contractor support. One of the areas where we need to be particularly vigilant is in the training environment. As you know, we are about to embark on two major projects, the new Military Flying Training System and the Defence Training Review, both of which will be delivered in partnership with a civilian contractor. In each case, Service ethos will be safeguarded through the wide-spread use of military instructors and by ensuring that the training environment reflects the standards, values and demands of the Service. I do not underestimate the challenges that this will bring but we should also not be afraid of making use of contractorised support – where it makes sense. It is up to use to preserve the ethos of the Service, and we should also remember that many of the people employed by contractors are ex-military personnel. Indeed, as we look more critically at the through-life career development of our people I sense that we will wish to consider a closer association with industry, both in terms of exchanging personnel and better understanding how we can effectively work together.
RG: Will reorganisation of the national Search and Rescue helicopter services under a contractorisation initiative have an adverse impact on the RAF’s public image or in providing rescue tasking for military aircraft?
Sir Glenn: The RAF’s contribution to the UK’s Search and Rescue (SAR) organisation is vital in capability terms, as witnessed by the magnificent efforts during the recent flooding, but it also has a very beneficial effect in raising the profile of the Service. As now, the new organisation will consist of a mix of military and civilian helicopter crews, with the military element providing skills not currently available within the civil sector. In terms of the military rescue task, I see little change to our peacetime capability. On operations, combat search and rescue is conducted as part of the routine support helicopter role, calling where necessary on additional support such as fixed-wing close air support and attack helicopters. I don’t, therefore, see the new SAR arrangements having an adverse effect on our capability, provided we retain the right number of military crews in the organisation.
RG: Are you happy with the progress on FSTA?
Sir Glenn: In recent weeks we’ve achieved a significant milestone in the programme – in going to the financial markets for the project funding. Once this process is complete we should be in a position to close the deal, and the Air Tanker consortium can get on with delivering what I believe is an essential part of our overall capability. Our VC10 and Tristar fleets are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to support. I therefore very much forward to the introduction of the A330, which will provide just what we’re after – a modern, long-range, high capacity tanker, which also has a significant passenger carrying capability.
RG: With so much emphasis on synthetic ground-based training will future pilots have enough real flying training experience?
Sir Glenn: It is vital that we get this balance right, but I strongly believe that we need to invest more in Distributed Synthetic Mission Training. I say that because as we gradually introduce a more networked way of operating I fear that our current live training will become increasing less able to replicate the way we fight. I see little opportunity – aside from large set-piece exercises such as RED FLAG – for routinely gathering all the key capabilities (fighters, ISTAR, C2, UAVs etc) together to train in a realistic environment. Modern simulation can increasingly provide this type of training, and significant progress has also been made in integrating live and virtual players into the synthetic environment. We have already taken a step down this route with a concept demonstrator at RAF Waddington, which is proving to be a very useful development test-bed. At the moment this consists of four Tornado cockpits, four Typhoon cockpits and our E3 simulator, all of which are networked together. We are also able to link the installation up to similar USAF facilities in the US, and have the ability to conduct Forward Air Controller (FACs) training; indeed, the demonstrator is already being used to provide pre-deployment training for FACs destined for Afghanistan. Distributed Mission Training will, I am convinced, be an extremely effective way of preparing operational crews for real operations but there will still be need for aircrew to conduct live flying. Through development of the concept demonstrator we will be able to better judge the long-term balance between live and synthetic training.
RG: How do you value the Air Cadets in today’s fast moving world?
Sir Glenn: I am a very strong supporter of the Air Cadet organisation. At some 41,000, the Air Training Corps is one of the largest Youth organisations in the UK. It plays a vital role in teaching youngsters about aviation, both civil and military, but it also serves an important function in developing leadership and team working skills through adventure training, the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, other initiatives and, of course, the opportunity to fly. The organisation also provides a recognisable RAF presence in many areas of the country where there are few - if any - RAF bases, which helps enormously in maintaining the profile of the Service. We also hope, of course, that some of the youngsters who join the Air Cadets will eventually join the RAF, but I do not see that as the main function of the organisation.
RG: How important is first day stealth capability in a new air platform?
Sir Glenn: Increasingly important, which is why JSF is so important to the RAF. The proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missiles and fighters will place a premium on advanced low observable capabilities but we should not become fixated on this as a ‘first day’ capability. JSF will be able to attack highly defended ‘first day’ targets but the aircraft will also be able to conduct the full range of air power tasks. It will also be an extremely capable ISTAR platform because of its advanced radar and sensors, much of which has been developed from the F22. Of course, to exploit this latent capability we will need a comprehensive network to facilitate the rapid exchange of data to other platforms and systems. I am, therefore, convinced of the need for a low observable capability and I believe the combination of Typhoon, JSF and, in the future, low observable UCAVs will provide the balanced defensive and offensive air capability that the UK requires for the future.
RG: Can the UK remain an effective deliverer of air power after so many force reductions over the years?
Sir Glenn: Our allies certainly think so. As I mentioned at the start, the RAF continues to deliver a very credible – and battle proven – capability across the range of air power roles. Importantly, we possess key capabilities that are always in short supply, even with the likes of the USAF. As an example, during Gulf War 2 the RAF provided 112 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters to the Coalition effort; including 4 E-3Ds, 11 air-to-air refuellers (40% of the fuel off load went to US assets), 51 offensive fast-jets (including Tornado GR4s with Storm Shadow) and a range of ISTAR assets. Few other nations have the ability to field and sustain such a comprehensive force. We also train hard and have a significant bank of operational experience derived from involvement in numerous operations, not least some 16 years of operating over Iraq. It is, therefore, no surprise that the USAF view the RAF as its partner of choice. One area where we might need to do more is in space. TOPSAT has shown what can be done for relatively modest outlay, and we are looking closely at emerging small satellite technology and new sensor technology to see the scope for delivering a national ISTAR space capability at affordable cost. Meanwhile, Skynet 5 has provided a welcome boost to our global military communications capability, which will be absolutely vital as we introduce new systems with ever increasing data exchange requirements.