Future RAF: Service Chief Makes Predictions For Year 2040

The Chief of the Air Staff has predicted what the next 20 years could look like for the Royal Air Force.

Addressing the Royal United Services Institute in the 2020 Trenchard Memorial Lecture, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston outlined the significance of space, unmanned aircraft and climate change, among other areas and concepts.

The head of the RAF firstly praised the work of the Air Force, and the military overall, in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Referencing comments made by the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the Air Staff said even prior to the onset of COVID-19, the strategic context was "uncertain, complex and dynamic".

ACM Wigston added: "While that instability brings strategic risk, its uncertain nature also drives innovation and necessitates evolution."

He said the Integrated Review, which is now unlikely to be announced in February as previously expected, provides the chance for a "strategic reset".

The RAF chief continued, stating the RAF must "seize this moment and be radically forward looking, accelerating our vision for an Air and Space Force of the future".

In doing so, ACM Wigston then addressed his audience as if it were the year 2040, and as if he were the 35th Chief of the Air Staff looking back on the previous 20 years to 2020.

Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston spoke of how significant the space domain will be for the UK military in the decades to come (Picture: European Space Agency).
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston spoke of how significant the space domain will be for the UK military in the decades to come (Picture: European Space Agency).

Here are some of the RAF chief's 'predictions', made while he spoke as if he was in the year 2040.

2040: World Stage

ACM Wigston, in the voice of the 35th Chief of the Air Staff in 2040, spoke of how the Carrier Strike Group had played a "vital role in NATO and allied operations around the world, reforging the UK’s place in the world" since the early 2020s.

He added how uncrewed aircraft had supported deployed F-35 fighter jets, while an "ever-increasing array of space-based systems" had been critical to success.

The Tempest concept of futuristic fighter aircraft, he said, faced its first tactical test in 2037, fielded with the "10th generation of Alvina swarming drones and fifth generation of Mosquito combat drones", the latter for which a deal has just been announced.

2040: Changed mindset

ACM Wigston, again, speaking as if it were 2040, said the Integrated Operating Concept of 2020 had been brought to life "physically, and conceptually, driving a change of mindset across the Armed Forces".

This included a "pivotal shift" from crewed to uncrewed systems over the two decades from 2020.

He added: "When you look at the totality of our Lightning, Tempest, Mosquito, Alvina, Protector and the last of our Typhoon squadrons, it's quite remarkable to think that the Royal Air Force combat air force is now more than 80% uncrewed or remotely crewed."

A graphic impression of a future uncrewed combat aircraft as part of the RAF LANCA concept (Picture: MOD).
A graphic impression of a future uncrewed combat aircraft as part of the RAF LANCA concept (Picture: MOD).

2040: Cyber, tech and space

The UK's National Cyber Force, by 2040 in its 20th year, "has gone from strength to strength", ACM Wigston said.

In the RAF chief's prediction, its job has been to tackle and deter adversaries, while protecting data – "our most vital national asset".

The "proliferation of hypersonic technologies" is prominent among threats, while the UK is "on the threshold of some ground-breaking developments, particularly in space".

In 20 years, Space is now a "trillion-dollar economy and space tourism is fast becoming affordable reality", ACM Wigston said.

The UK's AI-driven Aurora software, the first version of which was fielded in 2021, helped to give the world brief notice of "a low-earth orbit satellite collision and the chain reaction collisions that followed" when space "was rendered unusable" in 2030.

The UK Space Industry is "leading the debris clean-up operations that continue to this day".

2040: Climate change

In 2040, environmental considerations are at the heart of RAF operations. This includes "small initiatives, like committing to a plastic-free estate in 2030, to major change programmes, such as R&D in renewable aviation and rocket fuels".

ACM Wigston predicts RAF stations have achieved net-zero emissions, set as a challenge in 2020 – "the first independent air force in the world to achieve that".

Aircrews experience almost all training and non-operational currency flying in Artificial Reality simulators.

This, ACM Wigston said, has reduced fuel consumption, aircraft hours and has allowed training to become more private and "away from prying eyes".

Ending his predictions and returning to 2021, the Chief of the Air Staff concluded his address by saying: "Whether it is 2040, or 2021, air and space power will continue to give our Government the choice to act worldwide, integrated across all warfighting domains, land, sea, air, space and cyber; protecting the UK and our interests; engaging with allies and partners; deterring potential adversaries" to help underpin the UK's "recovery to a strong, prosperous and global Britain, and reforging our place in the world."

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