F-35B Formation Flying Over UK

Lima Charlie: What Is The Future Of RAF Fast Jets And Will Drones Replace Them?

Is The RAF well placed to face the future and the likely threats we face?

F-35B Formation Flying Over UK

The Royal Air Force has emerged as one of the major winners from the recent UK Integrated Review (IR), with renewed commitments for investment made in the force to help it remain relevant for decades to come.

At the very heart of the RAF capabilities is the ability to deliver fast jet airpower, capable of fulfilling a wide range of combat missions, from Quick Reaction Alert intercepting unknown aircraft, to providing standoff cruise missile attacks, or close air support to troops.

The IR has committed the RAF to ensuring that it is able to continue to meet all these needs for many years to come.

To meet this challenge, the plan is for a Fast Jet force built around two core crewed aircraft types – the Typhoon and the F35 Lightning. The Typhoon has now been in service for many years and is an increasingly capable and versatile platform.

Initially emerging as a requirement during the Cold War, and jointly designed by the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, the Typhoon has been built in three main tranches for UK service. The first tranche is materially somewhat different from later builds (the Tranche 2 and Tranche 3).

Originally the Tranche 1 force was supposed to have been withdrawn some years ago but was extended in service as a result of the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and is currently used in a variety of roles including both provision of ‘QRA’ interception services, and aggressor training (simulating hostile aircraft).

 A key outcome of the 2021 Integrated Review is that the Tranche 1 Typhoons will now be withdrawn from service by the mid-2020s, leaving the RAF with a force of about 140 Tranche 2 and 3 aircraft.

These jets are highly capable, able to operate in both the air defence and air strike mode. Through a variety of upgrade programmes, the jet is now capable of operating in both the air defence and ground attack role and is also capable of deploying the extremely capable Brimstone anti-armour missile and the Storm Shadow air launched cruise missile.

F35B from 617 Squad Exercise Crimson Warrior

Having taken on many of the roles previously carried out by the Tornado force, the Typhoon will form the backbone of the RAF fast jet fleet for many years to come and is likely to remain an extremely versatile aircraft.

The other main jet operated by the UK is the F35 Lightning, of which 48 are currently on order. The F35 is the effective replacement for both the Sea Harrier and Harrier forces, which used to be used for fleet air defence and close air support, respectively. Intended to be operated on land, and at sea, the F35 is a Fifth-Generation fighter jet, and one of the most advanced jets on the planet.

The UK is one of only two ‘Tier 1’ partners in the jet (the other being the USA), with 15 percent of the workshare of all the jets being produced going to UK companies. The plan is for the F35 to take an increasingly prominent role in operations, particularly in the ground attack environment due to its extremely capable sensor suites, and high levels of survivability.

Already committed to operations over Syria in 2020, when operating from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the F35 force is now embarked at sea onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth and has again been conducting operations in this challenging operational environment.

The UK is currently building up its F35 force, which is based at RAF Mahram, and has both Royal Navy and RAF personnel operating it. The force will be staffed by crews from both services and be operated both on land and at sea interchangeably. The intention is to provide enough aircraft to be able to go to sea and provide a full carrier airwing (roughly 24 aircraft) to deploy as required on a carrier, or more routinely to ensure enough aircraft are available to operate a squadron of 12 from each of the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers.

The total number of aircraft likely to be bought is not yet known – original plans called for 138 aircraft to be bought, although this seems unlikely to occur. Instead, the UK plans to order a second tranche in the mid-2020s, which will probably take numbers up to nearer 80 aircraft, providing enough airframes for front line use, training, and an attrition reserve.

Although the RAF only operate two crewed jet types now, there are still plenty of other options out there to deliver firepower if needed. The RAF has been a major user of the Predator drone, a remotely operated aircraft capable of carrying hellfire missiles that can remain on station for up to 16 hours at a time, for many years.

Currently the RAF operates two squadrons of Reapers, totalling 10 airframes, that have been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The force is an invaluable capability as it reduces the risk to pilots from being shot down in hostile airspace, while providing an ability to loiter for many hours at a time monitoring targets of interest.

Reaper Drone CREDIT Sergeant Ross Tilly/MoD

In terms of capability, the Reaper fills a role that previously would have needed large numbers of fast jets to provide, by ensuring long term presence on missions on an enduring basis. To equal this with jets would mean a much larger number of jets (maybe 2- 3 times as many) would be required to deliver the same effect due to endurance issues. This makes Reaper an invaluable close air support platform.

Plans are already afoot to expand and replace the Reaper force with a new generation of Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS), known as the Protector. This aircraft, based on the latest generation of Predator designs, will enter service from 2023, with between 16-26 aircraft likely to be purchased.

This represents a significant capability for the RAF, providing both ISTAR surveillance capabilities, and the ability to launch airstrikes on hostile targets, and also provide long term loitering on a mission. By being operated from control cabins in the UK, and forward supported by maintainers, the force is going to play a central role in many future operations around the world for the RAF for decades to come.

The future looks increasingly exciting for the RAF then with its current forces, but there is also an equally exciting future planned for the next generation of UK fast jet aircraft. The Typhoon is likely to stay in service until the late 2030s – early 2040s, and the F35 probably until well into the 2050s, if not later.

Replacing aircraft though is a lengthy business and cannot be done in a hurry – particularly if you want to design your own and not be dependent on an ‘off the shelf’ purchase.

For the UK, the challenge is how to ensure that it can continue to design and develop advanced aircraft that meet its requirements, and maintain an aerospace industry capable of producing them for many decades to come?

RAF Reaper

The lead time for development is significant – the Typhoon first emerged as a design in the early 1980s, while the F35 entered design in the early 1990s. By the time the last jets leave service, at least 60 -70 years will have passed.

This means that designers for the next generation of jets now need to be thinking in broad terms about technology that, based on current trends, could be used on aircraft that could easily be in service well into the 2090s, and possibly the 22nd Century.

To that end the UK has established the funding for Project Tempest, which will represent the next generation of RAF fast jet aircraft. The aim of this project is to develop the necessary groundwork to design a new fighter that can enter service to replace the Typhoon and augment F35 in due course.

No decisions have yet been taken on how many aircraft will be bought, or whether it will be crewed, uncrewed or a mixture of types that enter service. There is a lot of analytical work to be done to work out the right force needs, and whether uncrewed aircraft are a viable investment.

The challenge facing planners is one of cost and complexity – it is easy to build a lot of cheap drones and use them on long term missions like the RAF has done in Iraq or Syria. In those cases, you are operating in a relatively benign low threat environment and not facing a comprehensive air defence network or modern enemy aircraft as a threat. In these circumstances, a cheap drone force makes a lot of sense.

But if you want to plan to conduct operations at the outbreak of hostilities, operating as a peer partner of the US and other nations, which is arguably a key UK policy goal, then cheap drones do not really cut it.

At this stage you need aircraft capable of being integrated into a massive strike package, entering hostile airspace, and surviving long enough to conduct their mission, and then return safely.

This calls for either a crewed aircraft, capable of being operated by humans able to understand the environment around them, or an uncrewed aircraft that has very advanced technology able to spot challenges and prevent problems. The cost of these highly capable uncrewed aircraft will probably be significant and may even end up costing not far off the same as a crewed jet.

This means planners must think carefully about the force mix that they will be looking to buy. Do they want to invest in a crewed jet, knowing this requires a lot of long-term investment in fast jet training pipelines (e.g. basic trainers, replacements for the Hawk trainer and so on), and the associated challenges this brings in terms of basing?

Or do they invest heavily in new and unproven technology now to bring forward really advanced uncrewed aircraft into service that can be world leading in their field and provide significant military benefits? There is a wider picture too that if the UK can develop an effective uncrewed aircraft, then it may be in prime position to sell this more widely, helping not only reduce overall costs (the more you sell, the cheaper costs become), but also help sustain and reinvigorate the UK aerospace industry.

At this stage the debate becomes as much about industrial policy as it does defence policy. The UK wants to retain its position as one of the world’s leading aerospace industrial powers. The UK aerospace industry is the second largest in the world, in 2019 it had 17 percent of the global market share, worth some $45 billion (about £33m) of deals, and securing tens of thousands of jobs across the country.


Ensuring this sector survives is critical, but it requires difficult investment decisions – if the UK decides to invest in a crewed fighter jet for Tempest, then this secures the future of military aircraft building at sites like BAE Warton for many decades to come. This in turn helps secure many jobs and helps with export orders too.

But, investing in crewed may reduce the resources available for the development of uncrewed aircraft, which could cost the UK the chance to gain an early lead in this industrial sector. The risk is that if it makes the wrong choice, it could have a long-term cost to jobs and export opportunities and do real damage to the industry as a whole.

So, the planners have a really difficult job on their hands, trying to decide what is right for the UK militarily, but also ensuring that in doing so they keep the aerospace industry going too. At the moment the UK is looking for partners to share the costs of developing Tempest, and its likely a number of international partners will join the program to reduce overall costs.

On paper then, the future looks really exciting for the RAF fast jet force – it has extremely capable aircraft in service now, and the plans for Protector and Tempest show that it will continue to acquire world beating technology to keep it as one of the worlds most advanced air powers.

In terms of what the next few years hold operationally for this force, it is much harder to say. The only operations unlikely to remain unchanged are that of keeping ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ aircraft ready in both the UK and Falkland Islands to respond to unexpected intruders towards UK airspace. This mission is unlikely to change and will continue to require a major commitment of jets.

Beyond that it is likely that the Typhoon force will be deployed to support NATO QRA operations in various member states. In recent years, the Typhoons have deployed to Iceland, Romania and the Baltic States to provide additional air defence in nations which cannot always afford modern fighter jets. This is a highly visible commitment from the UK, showing that as a leading NATO member it is prepared to help keep other members of the Alliance safe, even if they cannot afford to do so themselves.

More widely the F35 force is likely to spend a significant period over the next few years at sea embarked on Royal Navy aircraft carriers. The goal will be to help really reinvigorate maritime carrier strike, ensuring that the UK remains one of only two nations able to deploy a 5th generation jet carrier airwing at sea, alongside the USA.

Beyond this it is hard to predict where deployments will occur, or what form they will take. As the world evolves, and missions change, then there will almost certainly be new deployments for the Typhoon, F35 and Protector forces. It is almost impossible to predict where these will occur, or what will happen on them.

F-35 Graphic of Spear3 Missile

More widely in the short term there is likely to be increasing use of new technology to provide additional capabilities to the front line. Already the UK is looking at a range of drones to use in different circumstances and is considering fitting catapults to the Queen Elizabeth class to help launch fixed wing drones at sea as part of the airwing. There will almost certainly be more developments like this that will help ensure the UK retains an effective technological edge while waiting for aircraft like Tempest to enter service.

Overall then the next few years look like being an extremely positive period for the RAF and wider UK services when it comes to fast jet capability. After years of work the RAF has now got two exceptionally capable fast jet forces in service, which are among some of the most potent and capable military jets on the planet.

It is well placed to embrace the exciting technological challenges ahead and bring in new capabilities like Tempest that will help keep it at the very forefront of military air forces, and do this while operating globally.

When combined with the wider investment in strategic airlift, new surveillance and intelligence aircraft and also focusing increasingly on space-based threats and technology, it is clear that the RAF, and wider UK Services, are incredibly well placed to face the future and the likely threats we face.