2018 was a big year for the RAF, marking the 100th anniversary of its formation, but in many ways 2019 has been even more significant with some fundamental changes as the RAF adapts for the future.
The year saw the retirement of Tornado and the operational debut of the F-35B Lightning. It saw a return to an old domain in the maritime and some modest steps in the new one of space. It also saw some significant changes in people too: a new Chief of the Air Staff and the appointment of the first female 3* in the UK armed forces. Finally, it saw the sprouting of facial hair across the service as, for the first time, RAF personnel were permitted beards!
In March the venerable Tornado retired after 40 years of service. Designed to penetrate Warsaw Pact defences during the Cold War, The Tornado earned its spurs in the Iraqi desert during the 1991 Gulf War and saw service in nearly every UK operation since, from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Libya to Syria. Under Project Centurion Tornado’s attack capabilities have been transferred to Typhoon which adds the Storm Shadow cruise missile and Brimstone anti-armour missile to its repertoire. Indeed, February saw the first use in anger of Brimstone by Typhoon when it destroyed a Daesh boat on the Euphrates.
As the Lightning force grows, it will assume more of the burden from Typhoon, but in 2019 the RAF hit its combat air nadir leaving the Typhoon force stretched. In addition to picking up Op Shader (Iraq & Syria) from Tornado, the Typhoon force had a busy detachment in Estonia from May to September conducting Baltic Air Policing for NATO and making 21 interceptions of 56 Russian aircraft over the space of four months. In November, Typhoons from 1(F) Squadron deployed to Iceland, marking the first time the RAF has undertaken Icelandic Air Policing. These commitments were in addition to maintaining UK Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in Britain and the Falklands Islands, as well as supporting the UK’s increasing defence engagement in the Far East with an exercise in Malaysia.
The Lightning force achieved some significant milestones during 2019 after declaring Initial Operating Capability (Land) at the beginning of the year. In May, 617 Squadron deployed to RAF Akrotiri, proving the aircraft’s deployable capability. The deployment went so well that the decision was taken to use the aircraft on live operations and it flew its first Op Shader mission on 16 June. In July, 617 Squadron deployed again, this time to Amendola to train alongside Italian Air Force F-35As while 207 Squadron (the Operational Conversion Unit) came home from Beaufort in South Carolina to take up residence in its permanent home at RAF Marham. October saw Lightning deployed on WESTLANT19 with Wg Cdr Adam Curd becoming the first pilot to land a UK jet on HMS Queen Elizabeth. This successful RAF/RN partnership sees the UK return to carrier operations and we can only hope 2020 will see an end to ill-informed commentary about ‘carriers having no planes’ or ‘the RAF being unable to operate at sea’.
Staying with the maritime theme, 2019 also saw the RAF take delivery of its first P-8A Poseidon. ZP801 flew for the first time in July and was handed over to the RAF in October, having been fitted out with her mission equipment. She will remain in the US, flown by RAF crews training there, until February 2020 when she will fly to the UK and we should see the force declare Initial Operating Capability in Spring. The RAF will reassume a responsibility for maritime patrol which has been filled by allies since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) axed Nimrod. The Poseidon is a potent aircraft that gives the RAF the ability to ‘find, fix and finish’ both surface and sub-surface targets, something that will be welcomed by the RN.
As well as seeing the RAF return to the maritime domain, 2019 saw limited progress in the new domain of space. In July, it was announced that the RAF would partner with the US to launch a small satellite constellation under Project Artemis as well as joining Op Olympic Defender, a US-led coalition to deter hostile actors in space. Disappointingly, 2019 did not see a Defence Space Strategy, first promised by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, in May 2018, but yet to appear. Given the increasing recognition of space as a warfighting domain – including by NATO in November – the pace of progress should hopefully pick up in 2020. A new Space Command was in the Conservative manifesto and we may see that long-promised Space Strategy as part of the SDSR.
The air mobility force has also had a busy year supporting UK operations and exercises across the globe as well as the French-led Op Barkhane in Mali. In March an A400M delivered 20 tonnes of aid after cyclone Idai hit Mozambique and the Support Helicopter force was similarly engaged with Chinooks also supporting the French in Mali and civil authorities at home as Wainfleet flooded in June and Whaley Bridge in August.
Tornado was not the only retirement in 2019 with the Tucano also leaving RAF service. Built by Shorts in Belfast to an Embraer design, this aircraft has trained hundreds of pilots since entering service in 1989 (including the author!) Superb fun to fly she was loved by all, notwithstanding the ergonomic quirk of having the Emergency Shutdown Lever placed next to the Flap lever which led to some exciting moments for some. Tucano has been replaced by the Texan at RAF Valley under the troubled Military Flying Training System contract, which at least now seems to have turned the corner.
2019 saw two significant milestones on the people front. In February Air Marshal Sue Gray was appointed the Ministry of Defence’s Director General of Safety and in doing so became the first female British 3-star officer. The RAF is the most gender diverse of the services but 15% female representation is widely recognised as being too low as the 21st century enters its third decade. This will be one of many issues on the agenda for Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston who assumed command of the RAF from Sir Stephen Hillier in July.
Finally, on the first of September the RAF changed its dress regulations to permit the wearing of beards. The reasons for the change were given as promoting inclusivity and diversity as well as recruitment. Whist time will tell how much impact it actually has in these areas, the change has proved popular with serving airmen and facial hair can be seen sprouting at RAF bases across the world. Whilst some in dark blue expressed irritation that beards are no longer the sole privilege of the Navy, it should be welcomed as a reflection that the RAF retains some DNA from its Naval as well as Army parents.
What will 2020 bring for the RAF? It is likely to be yet another significant year and top of the agenda will be the SDSR. With a new Government emboldened by a large majority, ambitious spending commitments in other Government Departments, economic uncertainty against a backdrop of Brexit, and an MoD deficit of between £6B and £14B over the next 10 years, SDSR20 could be as drastic in some areas as SDSR10.
However, the RAF will be keen to continue adapting to the new strategic landscape along with its sister services. It will be after further investment in the increasingly important – and contested – domain of space. It will also wish to increase investment in uninhabited air systems, not just bringing Protector into service, but also exploring developing a ‘loyal wingman’ for Typhoon and Tempest.
The RAF also will be keen to ensure that Lightning numbers continue to grow, with enough F-35Bs for the carriers, but possibly adding some cheaper and more capable (but carrier incompatible) F-35As to the mix.
2020 will see Poseidon achieve Initial Operating Capability and it can expect to be heavily tasked as Russian activity continues to increase in the North Atlantic and Arctic. Meanwhile Russian long range aviation will continue to probe QRA and ‘Global Britain’ will be keen to demonstrate global reach meaning another busy year for the air mobility force. This is before the inevitable crisis’s – both natural and manmade – arise.
The RAF may look back on 2019 with some satisfaction, but the strategic landscape is changing and the RAF will be keen to ensure that it is able to adapt fast enough to meet whatever the new Government, and world events, demand of it in 2020.
The author, Andy Netherwood, served 26 years in the Royal Air Force with operational tours flying the C-130 and C-17 as well as staff tours in Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development and on the Directing Staff at the UK Defence Academy.
You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyNetherwood