The Royal Air Force has retired the Hawk T1 aircraft from frontline service. This iconic jet, which has been in service for nearly 50 years and trained every RAF fast jet pilot since the mid-1970s, has finally reached the end of its service career.
No matter how you look at it, the Hawk has been one of the most successful and important British jets ever built. It has served around the world, both with the UK and many other air forces, and carried out roles from air defence interceptor to strike aircraft to simulated missile exercises, as well as its design role of a training aircraft.
It is worth reflecting on what the Hawk was designed to do, its remarkable life in British service and also what the future holds for both the Hawk and wider MOD training, as well as the wider British defence aviation industry.
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The Hawk has its background in the late 1960s when the RAF was looking to replace its previous jet trainer, the Gnat. Privately developed by Hawker Siddley Aviation, the first Hawk flew in 1974, before entering RAF service in 1976.
The role of the Hawk was to help prepare future pilots for flying fast jets. Having learned the basics in the initial flying training system, RAF pilots used the Hawk as a stepping stone to prepare them for flying fast jets like the Phantom, Buccaneer and Jaguar, all of which were in front line use at the time.
A twin-seater aircraft, Hawk was used for the advanced training of pilots and navigators and for weapon training, particularly at a time when most RAF fast jets had two crews. The main locations where it operated in this role included RAF Brawdy and Valley in Wales and also RAF Chivenor in Devon.
Throughout the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, nearly 200 Hawks were built and used to form a vital part of the RAF and Royal Navy training pipeline, helping ensure trained aircrew were ready to move onto their front-line postings.
Reductions in the size of the armed forces after the end of the Cold War meant that both Brawdy and Chivenor closed their doors to active flying training in the mid-1990s, with all Hawk used in the training role instead being located at RAF Valley in Anglesey.
The Hawk was not just a training aircraft though, and throughout its life has seen a variety of different roles and uses in British service.
The most well-known of these roles was that of the Red Arrows, who operated modified Hawks painted in the vivid bright red colour scheme of the team and which have become an iconic image of the RAF.
In use by 'the Reds', their Hawk aircraft have been based initially at RAF Kemble, then latterly RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and are due to move to RAF Waddington shortly. The team has exhibited in more than 50 countries around the world, providing thrilling air displays and acting as a major source of informal defence influence to help support British foreign policy goals.
Another use of the aircraft was as a second line air defence platform. During the 1980s, work was carried out to renovate around 70 airframes as the Hawk T1a modification to carry gun pod and sidewinder missiles as a last-ditch wartime fighter jet.
The concept was that in war, the Hawks would pair off and work with a Tornado F3, with its highly effective Foxhunter radar, to provide local air defence in the UK against incoming air attacks. Although not hugely effective in the role by all accounts, the ability to turn the Hawk into a reasonably agile fighter aircraft that could provide some 'last ditch' defence capability in wartime was helpful.
The RAF never deployed the Hawk in a formal manner as a fighter though and although exercised, no squadrons ever stood up to provide a formal contribution to air defence. Although the information is sketchy, the role doesn’t seem to have lasted beyond the end of the Cold War in any formal sense.
Even though the Hawk was never formally used in a front-line role by the UK as a fighter, it did play a vital part in training British forces to be ready to go to war. Due to its speed and flexibility, the Hawk was an ideal platform to use for training troops and simulating missile exercises and air raids for the Royal Navy.
In the RAF, 100 Squadron was used to provide what is known as 'aggressor' training, which helped provide aircraft for different training operations for all three services such as target simulation (pretending to be something else to help training), and support to forward air controllers calling in airstrikes. In this role, the 100 Sqn Hawks proved invaluable, providing highly effective training to the forces, particularly given the high costs of flying fast jets and their busy programmes, having a 'second tier' jet available to practise with made a huge difference.
The Royal Navy was also a user of the Hawk, operating it both for training and maintaining flying standards for aircrew, as well as simulated missile attacks on ships undergoing Operational Sea Training (OST) off Plymouth. In this role, the Hawks, flying from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, would be used to support a variety of training serials like air defence (training ships to shoot down aircraft) or as simulated anti-ship missiles, flying at great speed to help train warships how to respond when attacked.
The Hawk though was not just used by the UK, and in fact, became one of the most widely exported British aircraft designs of all time. No fewer than 18 different nations used different variants of the Hawk in a variety of roles – operators have included Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Finland, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, the UAE, USA, and Zimbabwe.
The aircraft has been used in a very diverse range of global roles, including training aircrew, providing a ground attack capability and limited air defence capability, and even being used in the US Navy as a heavily modified aircraft carrier trainer jet. The Hawk remains a highly popular aircraft for many nations and is likely to remain in service for many decades to come.
Given all of this success, and the value of the aircraft, why has the MOD taken the decision to withdraw the Hawk from service now? Originally it was planned that the Hawk T1 would stay in full service until around 2027, some 50 years after it originally entered service. However, as a result of budget cuts in the 2021 Integrated Review, the decision was taken to withdraw it early on 31 March 2022.
The reason for this is partly financial, as withdrawing an entire aircraft fleet from service is a good way to save a lot of money long term. This is because not only are airframes taken out of service, but spare parts no longer need to be bought, maintenance contracts no longer apply and the training pipeline no longer needs to provide skilled people to maintain and fly the jet. Withdrawal is a good way to save a lot of money over a long period of time.
The wider reason too is that the T1 Hawk is very much an older aircraft – an analogue jet in a digital age. It was increasingly less capable against the sort of threats and challenges facing the UK in the 21st century and was less relevant as a training tool. For example, the Hawk T1 had not been used to support flying training since 2016, as it was less relevant to the modern generation of jets like the F35 and Typhoon.
The retirement of the T1 does not mean that the Hawk story is over in the UK though. Even though the majority of the T1 aircraft have been retired, a small number will remain in service with the Red Arrows for many years to come. They will not be used in a front-line role though and will purely do air display work. It is likely that the Hawk T1 will remain very much in the public eye for some time to come through its thrilling aerial aerobatic displays.
Meanwhile, the Hawk aircraft will remain in service at RAF Valley through the T2 variant, which is the more modern and up to date version of the Hawk. The RAF has bought 28 Hawk T2s, which although called Hawk are internally vastly different to their T1 predecessors.
The modernised variant contains glass screen displays, rather than analogue dials and is far better suited to helping train pilots in an era when RAF jets are advanced single-seat fighters, where the pilot also operates the weapon systems. The T2 is a much better aircraft at preparing them for this role, as it is designed to better emulate the experience of the jets these pilots will eventually fly. These aircraft will remain in service for many years to come, helping form the core of the jet training force and preparing pilots for service on the front line.
The wider question is what will happen to the work done by 100 Squadron now that the Hawk T1 has been withdrawn from service? The MOD has just put in place a temporary solution for the next three years involving the Czech L159 aircraft, which will be flown by contractors Draken International to provide 'red air' support to exercises.
The role of the contract is to ensure that modern representative aircraft are available to support operations, for example providing dogfighting training with the F35 or Typhoon or helping simulate hostile aircraft for exercise purposes. The planes will be flown by ex-military pilots and will not form part of the RAF order of battle and based at Teeside international airport.
One reason for using foreign jets is that this means the platform is not something that UK pilots are familiar with, making it harder for them to know what the airframe can do in simulated combat. In turn, this gives them much better training than flying against an aircraft they already know.
This contract is part of the wider means by which the MOD tries to outsource the provision of training in some areas. The MOD already uses Draken to provide simulated electronic warfare training through the Falcon business jet, ensuring that ships and aircraft have experience in working in these complex environments. Fusing both the aggressor and the Electronic Warfare training provides a single supplier to handle all these outsourced needs on behalf of the MOD.
The advantage for MOD of this sort of arrangement is that it only pays for the services it uses, rather than having a lot of extremely expensive assets sitting idle if not being used. It represents a highly effective value for money solution that ensures that the RAF gets the training it needs but doesn’t have to pay a lot of additional costs for kit that it won’t use all the time.
In the medium term, the MOD plans to issue a new contract called the 'Next Generation Operational Training'. This will aim to provide a longer-term basis for training aircrew and other air support activities. Part of the challenge will be to get the right blend of physical training via aircraft and working out what can be done in simulators and synthetic training environments.
Computer technology has moved on rapidly and it is now possible to carry out huge amounts of incredibly realistic training via flight simulators. The advantage these bring is that they are much cheaper to operate than flying aircraft for real and enable aircrew to practise tactics and manoeuvres which may be difficult or risky to do in peacetime. For example, carrying out air combat manoeuvres that could significantly reduce the fatigue life of an airframe for real due to the stresses it places on it.
From a security perspective, simulators provide a much better alternative as they enable tactical training to occur using all manner of highly sensitive capabilities that, if used publicly, could be picked up by a hostile power. It enables the RAF to preserve the element of surprise and ensure that if it has to go to war, the enemy is unlikely to know the full range of capabilities that its jets possess.
As operations become more complex, and move away from one aircraft dogfighting another or dropping a bomb on a target, and instead become about working in international groups with ISTAR, drones, and other enablers and in a complex electronic warfare environment, simulators are perhaps the best way to train pilots for the operations they are likely to carry out in future. Of course, there is no substitute for flying for real and there will always need to be proper flight time built into the training syllabus.
It isn’t yet clear what the replacement for the Hawk T2 or the Red Arrows will be. The decision on what is required is still some years away, and it isn’t clear if it will be an entirely new aircraft design or an updated Hawk that will be built.
There is some media suggestion that the British firm Aeralis, who have designed a modular aircraft intended to provide a truly modular aircraft capable of training, aerobatics and military operations, could be front runners to replace the Red Arrows and possibly the Hawk T2s as well. Any decision is likely to be sometime away, but it is unthinkable that a non-British jet would be used for the Red Arrows to fly.
The decision could have a significant impact on the UK aviation industry, which is still building Hawk T2 for export orders, but as the last Typhoons enter service, is starting to fall short on new build orders (the F35 is assembled in the US, even if parts are built in the UK). This means that any new order could be critical to securing the future of the UK aviation industry, helping provide longer-term orders both at home and abroad.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.