Savage Cuts for the RAF in UK Defense Review

 - March 25, 2021, 6:43 AM
The Royal Air Force’s Sentry AEW.Mk 1 fleet has been under strain in recent years, and is to be the first victim of the defense review, being retired this year. (Photo: Crown Copyright/OGL)

The United Kingdom’s recent defense and security review, and the Defence Command Paper Defence in a Competitive Age that followed it, aimed to identify and understand future threats and to invest in the capabilities needed to defeat them. The review process was shaped more by budgetary constraints than by military necessity and ended up imposing a series of cuts to force size, structure, and equipment.

The Royal Air Force was hit particularly hard, despite optimistic-sounding statements from senior officers. The Freeman Air and Space Institute, an initiative by London University’s King’s College, predicted that the review would follow the usual pattern: highlighting new technologies that would enable the UK to act as a major world power with smaller armed forces; before realizing that this was unaffordable without significant additional investment or scaling back ambitions; and then trying to fund the new equipment and capabilities by cutting force size and retiring existing equipment.

The review committed to growing the UK’s fleet of F-35B fighters beyond 48 aircraft, though this implies that this will fall far short of the UK’s original commitment to 138 F-35s. Subsequent to the review, it was suggested that any additional aircraft would be to maintain the existing fleet size through to its out-of-service date, rather than to significantly grow it.

The Euorfighter Typhoon force will be reduced by 24 aircraft through the premature retirement of older Tranche 1 jets by 2025, though the review stated that the RAF would “continue to grow its combat air capacity over the next few years as we fully establish all seven operational Typhoon squadrons.” This would seem difficult, with just 107 Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 Typhoons to equip test and training units, as well as the seven front-line units.

The RAF’s fleet of E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft (once seven-strong but depleted in recent years) will be retired this year, to be replaced by a fleet of just three Boeing E-7A Wedgetails from 2023, down from an original plan for five. The E-7As, to be based at Lossiemouth in Scotland, are unlikely to be available for expeditionary operations, and may struggle to fulfil UK quick-reaction alert (QRA) taskings.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the RAF will retire the C-130J Hercules transport aircraft in 2023, despite the aspirations for UK forces to be agile and deployable, and operating on the world stage. Some 13 stretched Hercules C.Mk 4s and a single short-fuselage C.Mk 5 presently fly about 5,500 hours per year—about the same as the A400M and the C-17A. The review says that the A400M Atlas force will “increase its capacity and capability”, though there is no indication as to how an additional 5,000 flying hours will be generated, and there are, as yet, no firm plans for assuming the Hercules’s Special Forces role.

About 36 Hawk T.Mk 1s used mainly for adversary training will be retired (replaced by virtual training), though the type will continue to be used by the Red Arrows display team. Nine of the UK’s oldest Chinooks are to be retired, and the Puma helicopter will be replaced by a new type, which will also replace the remainder of the UK’s disparate fleet of medium-lift helicopters, thus reducing four platform types to one.

Balanced against these cuts, more UK weapons are now expected to be integrated onto Lightning II and investment will ensure that its software and capabilities are updated in line with the rest of the global F-35 fleet. Money will also be made available to bring the upgraded Radar 2 and Spear Capability 3 deep strike weapon onto the Typhoon.

Nine Reaper remotely-piloted air systems will be replaced by 16 long-range General Atomics Protectors from 2024, while the Future Combat Air System will receive £2 billion of investment over the next four years, and development of the LANCA loyal wingman system will continue.