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100 years of air power

Stay with the skies

Maintaining our air power requires technological competency – but above all political will, says John Louth

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

The Royal Air Force is 100 years old and, rightly, the record of air power in keeping the United Kingdom secure and safe since 1918 is a history of airmen and women. It is a hard heart that would regard the Battle of Britain as anything other than this country’s finest hour.

But as well as the young men in action, older men designed the aircraft that were the tools of their trade and, in the 1920s and 1930s, ploughed blood and treasure into research, development and dangerous trials. Clever engineers in factories manufactured complicated machines, and continued to do so at an astonishing pace. Courageous women delivered these aircraft to the front line — fields in Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Kent that, just a few years before, had been farmland. And military commanders constructed a defensive lattice of radar and fighter bases woven into a doctrine of modern warfare that was flexible, responsive and agile. Focused political leadership gave wings to these endeavours and these factors combined to ensure that Britain did indeed survive. In this one story we can deduce the key components for air power to thrive: the human, technological and flexible, along with political will.

The record of people in uniform speaks for itself, though the multi-generational delay in properly recognising the contribution of Bomber Command to victory in the second world war shames the United Kingdom. In contrast, the role of the industrialist as regards air power often remains opaque to the casual observer. The design, manufacture and broader support of air assets have evolved into core private-sector commercial competencies.

At Chadderton in Greater Manchester, for example, the drawings for the RAF’s fleet of VC10 transport aircraft/tankers were known intimately to only a handful of company employees. RAF modifications or doctrinal changes were inconceivable without the wisdom and deep knowledge of these private-sector workers. The Chadderton site, incidentally, was managed by a senior female industrialist who was a role model for a generation of women technology workers and scientists in the north-west. This is nothing short of a testament to the strength of air power as a public-private enterprise to inspire and motivate. The state-of-the-art technical college and training facilities at Samlesbury, where a generation of F-35 workers are learning the skills necessary to manufacture the world’s most complex fighter, continues this tradition for the next generation.

Which brings us to the technological nature of air power. Advanced air platforms are complex machines, forming nodes in a greater network of manned and automated systems permeating a battle arena that embraces air, space, land, sea and the cyber world. The Battle of Britain’s Spitfire had components that were counted in the hundreds. It could be manufactured in days. In contrast, including all the lines of software code, the components of the F-35 could be conceptualised in the high millions or billions, and these aircraft take years to manufacture.

Thus the level of complexity today is a quantum leap from that of yesterday, and that has had a clear impact on price and affordability. In the short term, the RAF may end up operating just two squadrons of F-35B aircraft. In contrast, just one RAF base in the 1980s — RAF Bruggen — possessed four Tornado GR1 squadrons, and there were dozens of Spitfire squadrons in the second world war. This is not an argument about capability or potency: F-35 versus Spitfire is a ridiculous comparison. But it is a conversation about numbers, manufacture, delivery times and price. If we possess small numbers of something that is highly valuable and, in the short term, irreplaceable, what will our attitude to risking it be? The debate in air power concerning trade-offs between the exquisite, expensive and rare and the repeatable, cheap and multiple is not going to end any time soon. Also in the kernel of this ongoing discourse lies the real question about the utility of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, the platform for our F-35s. Expect opinions to diverge rather than converge.

Winston Churchill takes a keen interest in the work, on a Supermarine Spitfire, of a riveter at Birmingham’s Castle Bromwich factory in 1941
Above: Winston Churchill takes a keen interest in the work, on a Supermarine Spitfire, of a riveter at Birmingham’s Castle Bromwich factory in 1941. Top: A crosssection of a Spitfire from the National Archives

Which brings us to my third point — the flexibility of air power. It was born in the first world war from a need for tactical observation and targeting, fairly quickly giving rise to a new domain of warfare in the skies where aircraft attacked aircraft, with ground forces on a frozen front line and support elements at the rear. The ability to carpet bomb large areas of land — ground formations and cities — from distant locations, as seen in the second world war, gave air power its strategic characteristic, something maintained and enhanced through the emergence of nuclear forces.

The ability of air power to scale up and down from the tactical to the truly strategic offers a flexibility that seldom resides in other bodies of arms. Multiple mission profiles offered by a single platform — from the shock and awe bombing of the first Gulf war to the surgical strike of single combatants in our wars against Islamist terror this century — add to this sense of flexibility and responsiveness. Put simply, air power and the RAF offer political decision-makers a utility of scalable responses to threats and risks that eludes the sister services. This seems to be a key point when we consider future investment profiles associated with the UK’s Modernising Defence Programme.

This thought meanders nicely into the final condition necessary for air power to thrive: that of political will. Air power is expensive, systems are complicated, the science and technology challenging, and an extended public-private enterprise is necessary to generate its desired military effects. This takes clarity of decision making in setting a capability requirement, excellence in design, maturing on-shore technologies and programme management. An enduring and healthy workforce with the right skills and competencies to manufacture and maintain those aircraft is also a critical ingredient. Today’s air power proposition is a multi-generational, long-term endeavour that needs to be conceptualised and planned at the outset — and this takes political will.

At a time when other demands on the public exchequer are so obvious and equally political, the case for air power will need to be made again, and again and again. Remembering what it has done for us in the past may not be enough to guarantee air power’s future. But it is a worthwhile beginning.

Professor John Louth is director for Defence, Industries and Society at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. He is also a specialist adviser to the Commons Defence Select Committee.

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