The Ministry of Defence has seen a significant amount of hostile press coverage in January, over the news that roughly one third of the Royal Air Force's fighter jets were unfit to fly at any one time. The concern by commentators was that defence cuts had left the RAF unable to protect the UK, and that it could not afford to keep planes in the air.
Is the UK really that vulnerable, though, or is there more to this story than perhaps meets the eye?
Modern military hardware is extremely complicated, and requires significant amounts of servicing and maintenance in order to be usable. This can vary from fixing unplanned minor issues, through to long-term deep servicing to keep an airframe safe and up to date. This work is complex and can often take time to carry out.
The RAF meets this challenge by dividing its aircraft fleet into two categories – the ‘forward fleet’ and the ‘sustainment fleet’. The role of the forward fleet is to provide RAF commanders with enough aircraft to do the job required of them on a constant basis. There has been some public confusion about what the sustainment fleet exists to do. The sustainment fleet exists as a means of monitoring and ensuring that aircraft are properly maintained and updated, and on occasions put into storage when they are not needed. The reason the split exists is to ensure that the RAF has a steady supply of aircraft to meet its missions while at the same time ensuring they are all properly serviced and safe to fly.
As an example, in May 2018 the RAF had 141 Typhoons, of which 94 were in the forward fleet. The role of the forward fleet is to provide the right number of aircraft to meet all the operational tasks required of the force – so for the Typhoon fleet this includes providing a 24/7 ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ aircraft to intercept potentially hostile aircraft entering UK airspace, and detachments to Cyprus to carry out operations against hostile forces in the Middle East.
It is easy to look at the size of the RAF today and wonder why the UK seems to be buying fewer aircraft than it did in previous years. For example, during the Cold War, the RAF purchased over 300 Lightning fighters and over 900 Canberra bombers.
Yet even in the heyday of the Cold War RAF, there was a significant difference between the total number of aircraft purchased and the total number able to fly at any one time.
Maintaining and repairing aircraft is an issue as old as military aviation itself. Over the 100 years since the RAF was first formed, it has moved from strength to strength with its aircraft, but they have often needed a lot of servicing and repairs. For instance, early jet aircraft often required significant amounts of time under routine maintenance after a flight before they could be used again. What this meant was that planners had to purchase significantly more aircraft than needed in order to ensure overall availability of a much smaller number of aircraft.
Another reason why the RAF purchased more aircraft in the past than before was because of planned attrition rates of aircraft, which is significantly lower now than at any stage in aviation history. In the 1950s and '60s, the accident loss rate for RAF and Royal Navy airframes was enormous. For example, the Supermarine Scimitar (a Royal Navy carrier based fighter) was in service from 1957-1969, and a total of 76 aircraft were built.
In those 12 years, a total of 39 Scimitars crashed (51% of the fleet). In a similar vein, in 1960 the RAF and RN lost at least 18 aircraft in different crashes. These killed over 40 people in just one year.
By contrast, the RAF has so far received approximately 150 Typhoon jets and operated them since the mid-2000s without any aircraft loss to date. As aircraft attrition rates have reduced, so too has the need to purchase large fleets of aircraft to sit in storage as an insurance against losing planes throughout the lifespan of the force.
In the past, the RAF often held large numbers of aircraft in storage as a contingency to replace them when required. It meant that, even though on paper the RAF may have had a large force, the operational availability rate was much lower.
A key reason why aircraft fleets today are smaller than previous generations is the reduced requirement to fight major conflict in large numbers.
Much of the driver for larger fleets in the early Cold War was the need to provide enough air defence aircraft to stop incoming Soviet bombers against the UK mainland, and to attack Soviet forces pushing west against NATO. This would have required many aircraft capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons against a significantly larger threat.
The expected attrition rate against aircraft trying to penetrate a heavily defended air defence network would have been considerable, meaning war reserves were required to help bring units up to strength. This would have seen aircraft drawn from both training units, planned maintenance reduced, and aircraft taken out of storage to help bring up numbers to full wartime establishments. In this worst case scenario, there was a lot of sense in requiring significantly more aircraft in your force than were actively flying.
The other reason why the RAF required more aircraft for wartime scenarios was the far less effective and accurate weaponry that was available then meant military planners needed to assume a far higher number of weapons were required to destroy targets.
An example of this would be the lack of effective Precision Guided Missiles (PGMs), that have become the hallmark of modern RAF operations.
The Brimstone is an exceptionally accurate means of taking out a tank or APC with a minimal risk of wider collateral damage, or the Storm Shadow cruise missile which excels at destroying enemy command facilities.
Today, these capabilities provide planners with a good level of certainty that they will be able to hit and destroy a target in a single strike – which was not necessarily the case for much of the RAF’s history.
The side effect of this has been that fewer aircraft are needed to deliver exactly the same effect – what may have taken a thousand bomber raid in 1944 to drop bombs on a specific target with varying levels of accuracy can now be done by a single aircraft and one bomb. The numbers may have changed, but the desired outcome has not.
If you looked at pictures of the RAF during the Cold War, you would see dozens of aircraft lined up waiting for missions. But this does not mean that the RAF of the Cold War was necessarily more capable than the RAF of today. The combination of more reliable aircraft, better and more accurate weapons and improved availability all adds up to mean that while the UK may only have roughly 100 Typhoons in the front line, they arguably give the RAF far more capability than at any point in its 100-year history.
More widely, moving away from the capability of individual aircraft, and it is important to understand how wider MOD practises have changed too since the Cold War, for all the Armed Services.
One of the key changes in the modern military is the move away from maintaining vast stocks of equipment held as ‘war reserves’.
For example, in the 1980s, the UK held considerable amounts of military hardware theoretically in a reserve state for a crisis. In theory this made sense, were a crisis to happen then the stocks could be brought back into use and issued to troops as needed.
The challenge with holding large amounts of obsolete equipment in reserve though is both the cost of maintaining it, and also the cost of keeping it usable and relevant.
While it may sound a good idea to keep enough older tanks available to kit out an armoured brigade as a contingency, the sheer cost of keeping the supply and maintenance chain going to ensure they were usable if required, plus the need to keep soldiers qualified to use them would be considerable.
Every pound spent maintaining obsolete equipment as a last-ditch contingency option is a pound not being spent on modernising existing in-service equipment to keep it relevant.
Over the last 20 years, the MOD has made a real shift in its attitude and stopped relying on keeping elderly vehicles and obsolete ships in reserve as the reality is keeping them involves spending money on things that will never be used again, and which have practically no relevant combat value.
Instead of maintaining obsolete equipment in reserve, the Army has instead chosen to change how it makes use of its vehicle fleet. Rather than keep all its vehicles active, large amounts of the vehicles owned are not actually used but are instead held in storage for contingency.
For example, in Germany one of the main bases that will be retained after the final departure of most UK troops will be a vehicle storage depot that will house vehicle fleets in climate-controlled conditions. These vehicles will be held centrally for exercises and wartime use, rather than being used at a local unit level, hopefully increasing availability when required.
This means that the number of vehicles active at any one time is often a relatively small proportion of the overall fleet.
This does not mean that defence cuts prevent the tanks and APCs from working, rather that the plan to use them is very different and a small group worked heavily as a core, and the rest are held back and ready to use when required.
For the MOD, the big challenge they face as individual capability of aircraft or tanks improves, is working out how many to buy. The MOD works out how many aircraft it requires by looking at the operational roles that need to be covered, identifying the likely maintenance, training and attrition rates that could be expected over the lifetime of the aircraft and then seeking to turn this into a quantifiable number.
Over time, as maintenance has improved and attrition rates declined considerably, this has meant less aircraft are needed for the force.
Additionally, as the accuracy of weapon systems has improved, you also need fewer aircraft to deliver the same effect – e.g. one aircraft now can do the job of four or six aircraft from previous generations.
This naturally means that overall airframe levels will reduce. This does not make the RAF less capable but does mean that the future loss of an individual aircraft would be more keenly felt compared to 20 or 30 years ago.
The challenge for the MOD though is working out how to afford the numbers it needs as costs have grown.
The modern Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) costs nearly $100m (£77.5m) an aircraft, and while it can deliver a huge amount of capability, it also costs a lot of money.
The decisions that planners have to balance off is whether it is better to invest in ultra-modern aircraft like this, but in smaller numbers, or accept a reduced capability and buy slightly less advanced aircraft but which is overall more affordable (sometimes seen in the argument that the UK should be F18 rather than JSF).
On the one hand, the advantages of purchasing ultra-modern aircraft is that they provide the UK with the same capability as the US military, enabling the RAF to work alongside their US peers as genuine partners.
This provides a level of influence and access that is vital when trying to lobby the US and help support wider UK interests. It also helps open the door to collaborative projects as an equal partner too – for instance the UK is a ‘Tier 1’ partner on the JSF project, which guarantees that 15% of the overall workshare for the entire JSF project (which may well total thousands of aircraft) comes to UK aerospace companies.
This means that the decision to invest in ultra-modern aircraft can have a big impact on both how the UK operates with its allies, and also helps provide long term support for the UK aerospace industry, ensuring tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs are protected.
By contrast, buying older less capable aircraft makes it less likely that the UK will be treated as a peer partner by the US, and also has the potential to damage the long term future of the Aerospace industry – because the production lines for older aircraft are unlikely to move to the UK, and the supply chain already exists to provide spare parts. While such a move may ensure the UK could afford more aircraft up front, they would be less capable, so would need more servicing and support, and be more vulnerable to being shot down, putting the pilots at greater risk.
While it may be tempting to assume that for the cost of a squadron of JSF, the UK could afford 40 F18s (for a purely hypothetical example), the decision that the MOD has to make is which aircraft provides better long-term capability, availability and survivability, and which one is best for sustaining the long-term aerospace industry in the UK?
The answer will surely almost always be the most modern aircraft.
Overall though the RAF today is in an excellent position.
With modern equipment and some of the world’s most advanced jets currently entering service, it has managed to create a level of availability for fighter aircraft that beats most other modern air forces.
With roughly 70% of the force available to fly at any one time, this compares very well to the French and German air forces, which have struggled to sustain 50% availability of their aircraft fleets.
The story of RAF jet availability is a genuinely impressive story of how over the last 15-20 years it has improved aircraft availability rates, while significantly reducing attrition and doing so while keeping both the Tornado and Typhoon forces on near constant operational deployments across the world.
This is an enviable record that few Air Forces can match and is testament to the outstanding efforts of the personnel responsible for making it happen.
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.