The RAF has adopted the role of an expeditionary air force

Stewart Penney/LONDON

Air power will nearly always be the first option for governments that want to apply pressure to truculent regimes. Recent experience, particularly over the Balkans, has underlined that, according to Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns.

Arguments about the ability of air power to triumph on its own are "imprecise and sterile", he says, because what is important is the best balance of forces to achieve the desired result. If the balance is not correct, the military force will be operationally ineffective, logistically complex and likely to be prohibitively expensive.

Air power was the predominant factor forcing Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO's demands, he says. As a joint operation, aircraft were operated from ships, and naval forces deployed cruise missiles, which were integrated into the air attack plan. Land forces in neighbouring Albania and Macedonia operated unmanned air vehicles over Kosovo, provided humanitarian support and prevented the conflict from spreading. "In any joint operation, one element may well have a predominant role," Johns adds.

"The key responsibility is that the job of air power is to gain and sustain control of the operational airspace. Without that, the job of surface forces will be more difficult. That is a simple fact. Once air forces have control and can demonstrate that control, they can help ground forces shape the battlespace," he says. Air power is more than bombing the enemy - strategic mobility, rapid reinforcement, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and contribution to humanitarian operations are also part of the remit, says Johns.

During the Cold War, the RAF operated primarily from large fixed and permanent bases with the primary purpose of deterring conflict. Now, in response to a different strategic environment, the service has adopted the role of an expeditionary air force. "We've just got the job done."

There is still work to be done, says Johns, not least in providing good accommodation for those operating away from home and with the supply of primary equipment packs, the logistical packages that support deployed aircraft. He says: "It is to the immense credit of the RAF that availability of [deployed] aircraft has never dropped below 90%".

New equipment

The RAF is due to receive a lot of new equipment in the near term, including the multirole Eurofighter, Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transport, updated British Aerospace Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, airborne stand-off radar and the EH Industries Merlin and more Boeing Chinook medium-lift helicopters. The service continues to seek a short-term strategic transport capability.

Johns is "absolutely determined" that accepting new aircraft into service will not stretch the RAF. "We cannot sustain our high level of operational output during major equipment changes. A lot of thought is being applied to future training and conversion."

The RAF is "vigorously addressing" several requirements, three of which are: the Short Term Strategic Airlifter (STSA), Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) and a replacement for the BAe Hawk trainer. Of the STSA, the competition for which was abandoned last month, Johns says: "We haven't given up our efforts." The RAF continues to look at alternatives, he adds. FSTA, a replacement for ageing BAC VC10s, is further downstream.

The Hawk trainer, which has been in RAF service for 25 years, is approaching the end of its useful life. It is receiving life-extending fuselage modifications, but a new aircraft will be required in the next decade. "The Hawk has done marvellously well and its replacement is undergoing detailed examination. This links in with preparatory work for the Eurofighter."

RAF specialists are studying the requirements for a Hawk replacement, before a formal competition is launched. The Hawk "is superb," says Johns. "For my money, its track record is second to none. The problem is that it is 25 years old." Its record means that a Hawk with improved systems and updated avionics "is the sort of thing that would probably meet our requirements".

The RAF will continue to train most of its pilots, although some will do later stages of their training with the NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) scheme. Johns says: "It is imperative that we keep our hands on the future direction of our flying training."

He acknowledges that, initially, there were problems at RAF Valley - where Hawk training is based - when civilian contractor BRAMA took over engineering and support, but "we are now satisfied with BRAMA's performance". But as Valley will not be able to meet the whole training requirement as well as carry out its other instructional tasks, 20 pilots a year will be sent to NFTC.

Source: Flight International