Royal Air Force needs more planes, air chief admits to MPs

Watch: The RAF needs more planes, according to the head of the RAF.

The head of the Royal Air Force has said that his service needs more planes.

Appearing before MPs on the Commons Defence, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said: "If you are asking the Chief of the Air Staff if he needs more aeroplanes, Mr Chair, the answer is 'yes'.

However, speaking about previous defence budget cuts that were made, ACM Wigston said that they were justifiable at the time, and he would not disagree with them.

When challenged by Labour MP Derek Twigg whether he agreed that "you [the RAF] are underfunded and hollowed out", Sir Mike said: "Historically."

"When I look back to 2010 and earlier and look at some of the decisions our predecessors... were forced to take, I wouldn't disagree.

"But with the decisions that were made in 2015 to grow the Typhoon Force by another two squadrons, bring back Poseidon Maritime Control, the decisions that were made in 2021 to set up Space Command, to continue to grow the F-35 force beyond 48, so up to 74 aircraft, to continue to grow the Atlas Force with around another six platforms later this decade, that's not hollowing out, that is growth for a future, more uncertain, world," the Chief of the Air Staff said.

According to the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft, the RAF's current active aircraft inventory consists of 475 units.

The force's airpower capability, specifically the fast jet capability, splits into two: the Typhoon Force, which the Chief of the Air Staff told MPs is an "established force, which is still a growing force" and the Lightning Force, a "force in growth still".

Typhoon Force

ACM Wigston informed the committee that the Typhoon Force currently consists of 137 aircraft on seven squadrons, the operational conversion unit, and the trials unit.

Last year, the force flew more than 21,000 hours, 5-10% more hours than in a normal year, and the RAF chief highlighted that "what was most significant was that it was almost a 100% increase in operational hours".

He added: "When I talk about the backbone of the Royal Air Force, it's those seven combat air squadrons on Typhoon."

"In the context of Ukraine facing activity, and Nato, over the last 12 months, they have flown over 500 sorties, from the north of Norway all the way down through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean."

F-35B Lightning Jets from 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) taking off from RAF Marham 11032022 CREDIT MOD Crown Copyright.jpg
The F-35 is so "unbelievably more capable" than previous aircraft it "makes up for that absence of mass" in the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Wigston told MP's (Picture: MOD Crown Copyright).

Lightning Force

The F-35 force is a "force in growth still", according to ACM Wigston.

The RAF has taken delivery of 30 aircraft now, and, "sadly", after losing one in 2021, they are down to 29, and will continue to build the force up to 47 by 2025, according to the RAF chief.

He added: "Aligned with that is building the technicians that get the aeroplanes in the air and the pilots that fly them.

"Pleased to say that we are, just this week, going to graduate another two pilots, so we will be up to 34 trained UK pilots, another seven will graduate by August."

ACM Wigston added that "a second Lightning squadron will stand up this year", meaning there will be two frontline Lightning squadrons, taking the RAF to nine in total.

Defence Committee chair Tobias Ellwood questioned the lack of mass in the force, recounting that there were far more ready squadrons in the past.

Mr Ellwood said: "World is getting more dangerous, not less, you [ACM Wigston] really are going to be stretching what you have now, the extra duties that are going to come the RAF's way, would you agree with that, unless you were able to upgrade."

In response, ACM Wigston said: "A combat aircraft today, something like the F-35, is so unbelievably more capable than the aircraft that we were flying even 20 years ago, let alone 30 years ago, and that makes up for that absence of mass.

"We've also got aircraft like the Reaper, soon to be the Protector, which, again, brings lethality to the frontline."

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