Friday, 19 April 2019
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By Per Andersson - Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, may be deluding himself that he is still a fighter pilot, adorned in a shiny new flying suit in last weekend's Sunday Telegraph, but he is not kidding anybody that the RAF is about to 'take over' the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) any time soon.

Sir Glen's parting shot to stir up inter-service rivalry prior to his retirement next month is based on the 'inevitability' that the RAF would run all combat jet operations. So, what's new? Since the Sea Harrier was retired from service with the RN in 2006 and its handful of fighter pilots and ground crew cross-decked to the RAF GR7/9 Harriers, the RAF have effectively controlled all UK fast jet fighter operations.


The Joint Force Harrier, firmly embedded in Air Command and physically located in Rutland, within the heart of Air Force country, will naturally evolve into the parent organisation for Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), if and when that arrives. In the same way, Land Forces have controlled battlefield helicopters from all three services since the creation of the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) in 2000.

With over 400 fast jets in service, the Air Force is always going to be first choice for any aspiring young fighter pilot with big balls and an ego to match, and in recent decades the RN has struggled to provide enough pilots for its tiny fleet of 18 jets. Moving this niche branch of the Royal Navy to the air power strike experts would appear to be an obvious step in the drive for greater efficiency and effective delivery of capability. But what goes around comes around. A similar argument exists for all elements of Land's JHC to 're-badge' and come under full control of the Army, but this could lead to serious problems with recruitment. The Army could struggle to provide enough suitable candidates as many helicopter pilots are 'failed' jet wannabes.

One way this could be addressed is with truly joint recruitment and training of all military aviators who would then be streamed into whatever service they were best suited to, based on aptitude as well as aspirations. However, it is hard to forecast significant savings from this approach, and whilst the current set-up delivers such plans it will remain filed under 'too difficult'.

Sean Rayment's throwaway comment in the same Sunday Telegraph article that surrendering the Naval Strike Wing to the RAF effectively 'neuters' the FAA is pure nonsense. As any sailor knows, the FAA is primarily a helicopter force. Operating around 130 helicopters, over half of which are dedicated to aviation support of the core elements of the RN - the frigates and destroyers providing a persistent presence on the high seas - the majority of the Fleet Air Arm is about maritime, not air, warfare.

It's fair to say that whilst the allure of the sea-jet certainly attracted a number of aircrew to the RN, in pursuit of their Top Gun dream, the FAA is over the demise of the 'Zoomies'. Of course the capability provided by jet fighters and their floating airbases is still essential to a nation intent on projecting an independent military effect into areas of the world where host nations support is not available; the Falkland Islands 1982, Sierra Leone 2000 and Afghanistan 2001 spring to mind. The provision of in depth air defence for the fleet from embarked fighters is also essential for expeditionary operations. The RN Harrier FA1 proved its worth in this role in the Falklands. Perhaps JSF will be required to do the same, defending British interests in the future conflicts over energy resources.

Assuming the Future Carriers do arrive, is there any reason why the RAF cannot or should not provide the fixed wing fighters? Once airborne, it's all much the same, isn't it?

Well, there are some basic challenges to overcome; the most obvious, landing a jet onto a tiny moving deck, in lousy weather, with no diversion options, perhaps being the easiest. The Joint Force Harrier has embarked RAF squadrons in the past and made it work; they are, after all, the elite within the Royal Air Force, and even experienced Royal Navy fighter pilots found converting to the RAF ground attack Harrier a painful process. But there are issues, principally with manning.

People choose which Service they join for good reasons. Based on historical observation, adventurous souls happy to deploy overseas and endure harsh conditions join the Army; those wishing to travel the high seas exploring the world join the Navy. If you fancy the uniform but want more comfort and stability and certainly don't expect to leave the UK for long periods, the Air Force is for you.

Whilst this tired argument does not reflect the last decade of operational activity, there are still many people within the RAF adamant they did not join to go to sea! Furthermore, their large base mentality has produced a force structure that is not designed for deployment and certainly not for the cramped conditions of a UK 'flat-top', where space is at a premium and consequently manning is ultra-lean. The large ratio of support staff to aircraft, from technicians to administrators, ensure the RAF are well looked after (or pampered, as they are perceived by the other Services), but this does not survive contact with embarked operations. Arguably, the RAF has more to lose from adopting the maritime fighter role through 'efficiency cuts', which may expose the rest of their bloated infrastructure to similar rationalisation.

There is little sympathy for Air Chief Marshal Torpy within the front line community a well known online forum, recognised as the voice of military aviators, has little but criticism of his inflammatory tone. Yet it would appear that it was not his words that were controversial but the journalistic spin, announcing the premature end of the Fleet Air Arm.

The operation of embarked fighters by the RAF is a sensible move if managed correctly, and given the events of this decade, the next generation of Air Force personnel will have no false expectations about the universally deployable nature of their job. If the carriers are axed and the UK is forced to withdraw its defence commitments to operations from the homeland, then all the more reason for RAF supremacy in fixed wing operations as they descend back into the pipe and slippers routine of old...

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