SDSR 2015 – Issues, analysis and recommendations going towards the review
Royal Air Force
Fast jets and squadrons number
It is SDSR time, and it is evident in the news. Suddenly, something that we have know since at least 2011 is making the headlines as newspapers and publications grasp the fact that the UK is running down a steep slope that could bring the total number of fast jets all the way down to a paltry 127 or so by 2020, in as few as 6 squadrons, one of which probably not even fully operational and built up by that date.
The totals are easy made: 107 Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons in 5 frontline squadrons, plus around 20 F-35Bs in 617 Sqn (plus OCU and OEU). The exact number of F-35Bs by 2020 is not known because government has yet to detail how many british aircraft will be purchased in LRIP 11 and in the Full Rate Production Lot 1. LRIP 11 aircraft would be delivered over the year 2019, with Full Rate 1 jets following during 2020, assuming that the F-35 production ramp-up is successful and there are no delivery delays.
18 F-35Bs should be in british hands by end 2018, according to JPO documents. LRIP 11 will add a yet unknown number. By 2023, some 48 F-35s should be in british hands, which, if confirmed in these terms, would mean spreading the purchase of 30 aircraft over LRIP 11 and Full Rate Lots 1, 2, 3 and 4. An average of 6 aircraft per year.
Anyway, by 2020 the fast jet fleet will indeed count a mere 127 or 130 or 131 aircraft, whatever it might be. The difference is marginal, and would still equate to just 6 squadrons, with a seventh (809 NAS) to follow by 2023. Longer term figures entirely depend on the number of F-35s to be purchased beyond 2023, but there is every reason to be fearful that if the number of jets is allowed to fall so low, it will then be very complex to rebuild.
The fall to such a low number of jets (and squadrons) will be determined by the loss, by 2019, of the 52 surviving Tranche 1 Typhoons (one written off in 2008) and the withdrawal of the remaining Tornado GR4 fleet, planned for March 2019.
Is there any way to put a limit to this dismantling process?
The Tranche 1 Typhoons are far from out of useful airframe life, but they are extremely limited in their multi-role capability, and increasinly less comparable to Tranche 2s and 3As. The aircraft cannot be upgraded to current standards unless they are vastly rebuilt, in a process which would cost billions.
The Typhoon Tranche 1 is effectively stuck to AMRAAM and Paveway II, and both weapons are on the way out. The latter is being replaced by the lighter, more modern and capable Paveway IV. The AMRAAM will be replaced by the Meteor.
None of the two new weapons can be employed on Tranche 1, nor can the old Typhoons be upgraded to accept them at an acceptable cost.
An indirect help to Tranche 1 comes from the Meteor's and F-35's delays, however. It is to be assumed that the RAF will once more life-extend its (limited) stock of AMRAAM missiles to ensure that the F-35 has an air to air capability at entry in service and into the first five years of 2020. Meteor is expected to be integrated with the F-35 Block IV software (it should be confirmed later this year, hopefully), but it could take out to 2026 before it is operational. It is to be hoped that the RAF will not accept years of gap with the F-35 capable to employ only 2 external ASRAAM missiles.
Indirectly, a life-extension to the AMRAAM stock would benefit the Tranche 1 Typhoons, ensuring that they have at least one operational weapon (again, in addition to ASRAAM).
Thanks to an AMRAAM extension, it is theorically possible to talk about delaying the Tranche 1 OSD, putting the aircraft into one or two "air to air only" squadrons, with the other five employing Tranche 2 and 3 machines in a multi-role fashion, with special focus on air to ground due to Tornado GR4 leaving service in 2019 as currently planned.
The advantages of a Tranche 1 run-on, potentially, are:
- Confirmed elimination of one logistic and training line (Tornado GR4)
- Up to two extra squadrons going into the 2020s, albeit only good for air to air and at a progressively declining level of combat capability due to the rest of the Typhoon fleet moving on to Meteor
- It will be somewhat easier to argue for more F-35s if the number of squadrons is kept up. Replacing the equipment of existing squadrons is one thing. Rebuilding squadrons after losing them entirely is a different story, especially in the Treasury's eye.
The alternative is, of course, delaying the OSD of Tornado GR4. This is likely to be what the RAF actually hopes to obtain. The GR4 is useless in air to air, but has a complete air to ground capability which is in far higher demand.
It is already deployed on operations against ISIS.
And it has RAPTOR. This point is particularly relevant since the RAF is so far still refusing to seek integration of RAPTOR, or of another recce pod, on Typhoon. The RAPTOR is used constantly, and its contribution is appreciated and praised: with the Prime Minister and top brass voicing their support for ISTAR spending, surely the risk of losing RAPTOR without an immediate replacement in 2019 will add weight to the RAF's calls for a Tornado run-on.
The Tornado GR4 is more immediately useful and better responds to what the UK currently needs and is likely to continue needing in the near future: air to ground capability, including excellent tactical imagery reconnaissance with the RAPTOR system.
The Tranche 1's help would instead consist only of providing an (increasingly sub-standard, but arguably good enough) air defence capability, enabling the rest of the Typhoon fleet to be more swing-role, and to take up the job from the outgoing Tornado.
The Tornado run-on means facing all the costs of a separate fleet with its own logistic and training needs. The availability of a very large sustainment fleet can help somewhat in covering logistic costs, but the financial impact is still likely to be important.
The Tranche 1 eurofighters, albeit increasinly different from later aircraft of the same name, would still fit within the Typhoon pipeline, instead.
In other words: capability wise, the running on of Tornado is more desirable than the running on of Tranche 1. The problem is the added complexity (and cost, presumably) or running a third fleet with a different logistic and training pipeline. The Tornado GR4, unlike Typhoon and F-35, also requires a specific training pipeline for the rear crew.
The signs that the RAF hopes for a longer life for Tornado, in my opinion, are:
- The refusal, voiced by RAF officers at RIAT, to commit to a reconnaissance pod for Typhoon, saying that integrating RAPTOR for now is not on the cards and "leaving the decision for the SDSR"
Tornado Raptor recon pod not included in Typhoon upgrades - but AM North hints its ISR capabilities will be looked at in SDSR planning.— Tim Robinson (@RAeSTimR) 17 Luglio 2015
- The seeking of an Helmet Mounted Cueing Display system for the Tornado GR4. Helmet mounted cueing was already introduced back in 2012 as an Op Herrick UOR, but now the RAF is asking for a fleet-wide installation of a system which must be compatible with all weapons employed by Tornado, including the ASRAAM. It is true that these devices greatly help the crews in conducting their missions, and that if deemed essential they should be made available to the crews even in the imminence of the OSD, since they are engaged in real combat. But the requirement seems a bit excessive, if the assumption is for less than three years of use before the aircraft goes out of service.
- Recent, consistent investment in upgrades for the Radar Frequency self-protection capability, by means of rebuilt Skyshadow pods which also introduce modern Towed Radar Decoys.
- Rumors of a renewed RAF focus on rear-crew training, via exploitation of the Royal Navy's Observers training pipeline at 750 NAS (althouth the entry in service of Rivet Joint, the running-on of Sentinel and the expected purchase of an MPA might be enough of an explanation, admittedly)
It seems pretty certain that the Tornado force will get another temporary boost, with the further extension of the service life of the third squadron, originally planned to disband this year but then extended out to 2016. But another one-year extension will not be enough to alter the long term figures. More will be needed.
As always, the outcome depends on money, and despite some (way excessive, i fear) optimism shown by service chiefs themselves, the 2% of GDP committment has been officially exposed as being made up at least in part by financial gimmicks and inclusion of voices of expenditure which used to be separated.
As with other NATO allies, from time to time we update our approach to ensure we are categorising defence spending fully in accordance with NATO guidelines, seeking to capture all spending contributing to delivering the defence of the United Kingdom. Our 2011-12 NATO return was £36.6 billion. This included the Ministry of Defence budget, the cost of operations, and the Armed Forces Pension Scheme but did not reflect all UK defence spending. Our 2015-16 NATO return of £39 billion also included Ministry of Defence-generated income which directly funds defence activity, elements of the Government's cyber security spending, parts of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund relating to peacekeeping, war pensions and pension payments to retired MOD civil servants.House of Lords written answer, 20 July 2015, exposes the new expenditure voices included to secure the 2% target is formally met.
Lets be clear once more: to even achieve 2% without gimmicks, it would still mean decline in percentual terms. We are forced to take the 2% as a good news only because the alternative was even worse, and by far.
The pressure on the forces' budget is not going away, and expecting miracles will only result in disappointment and tears. However, if we believe to the words of Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS,
We had entered into the intense bargaining that surrounded SDSR 2010 with a request for twelve squadron. It was believed that we would in the end get nine and yet that belief ended up being just seven on an accepted basis that this would grow to nine.
Nine squadrons would cohincide with the up to 96 aicraft, 4-squadron F-35 force which was aired as long term target at the time of the switch to the F-35C.
Around 80 F-35Bs in four squadrons would be a good force, and they would be numbers which would give value to the investment made in the aircraft carriers. A fast jet count of some 187 would be nothing extraordinary: keep in mind that France is aiming for 225 in the long run, with quite a few more than that in service in 2020 (247, according to the documents). Even the Italian air force is planning for some 165 aircraft in the long term (with some 75 Typhoons after much of the Tranche 1s are withdrawn, and 90 F-35s). 127 is quite dramatically low.
Nine squadrons should be the magic number to aim to. But there are currently only 8 squadrons, so that adding one would already count as "neat growth", hard to fit into the budget, into the manpower, into the Treasury's vision.
If the number of squadrons is allowed to fall even further, arguining for additional F-35 squadrons will become harder and harder. Don't destroy with the hope of rebuilding later: "ham tomorrow" too often ends in tears.
It is important, for many reasons, that the number of fast jets is kept at decent levels. 127 is not a decent level. And assuming that there will be a recovery after such a sharp fall risks being terribly naive.
Immediate operational needs and long term considerations both impose that the number of aircraft and squadrons is kept up. Temporary running on of Typhoon Tranche 1, or better still of Tornado GR4, as a ramp leading to an acceptable number of F-35s, is something that should feature prominently in the SDSR.
The news we see in these days, even the (rather obscene, if you ask me) comparisons of the current anti-ISIS efforts to the battle of Britain, are hopefully part of the RAF's attempts to obtain a better settlement.