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Rising to the challenge

The UK Royal Air Force has been faced with a succession of major international operational commitments during a time of significant cutbacks to its infrastructure. How is it coping?

These are busy times for the UK armed forces, with ongoing commitments requiring the detachment of personnel and equipment to operational theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to meet the demands of long-standing postings in locations such as the Balkans and the Falkland Islands. For the Royal Air Force, this high operational tempo also comes at a time of deep rationalisation through the retirement of ageing aircraft, a reduction in personnel and squadron numbers and the closure of infrastructure, including command facilities and airbases, as the service becomes ever leaner.

The RAF’s BAE Systems Harrier GR7/7A and Panavia Tornado GR4 combat aircraft are today flying on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, supported by service equipment including transport aircraft and utility helicopters. On average, the air force had almost one-third of its aircraft deployed on operations over the 12 months to May 2005, along with up to 20% of its personnel, which on 1 May totalled almost 49,000 of the UK’s full-time armed forces strength of 188,000. RAF manpower will drop to 41,000 by 2008. This high level of commitment is expected to continue for some time, extending a period of activity that has barely paused through the Kosovo campaign in 1999, the Afghanistan conflict in 2001 and the Iraq war in 2003 – the last of which at its height involved the assignment of more than 130 RAF aircraft. Increased need, not only for warfighting, but also peacekeeping duties, means that the air force – along with the other UK armed services – is always in demand.

The RAF has undergone a striking transformation in the years since its combat involvement in the Balkans, and during the recent Iraq campaign its aircraft deployed a greater percentage of precision-guided weapons – 85% – than the US armed forces. The ongoing procurement of smart weapons, capable of use in all weather conditions, has removed the flaws discovered in the clouds above Kosovo and, with MBDA’s now combat-proven Storm Shadow cruise missile, the RAF has a world-class strike asset to augment the UK Royal Navy’s Raytheon Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. The Storm Shadow’s debut in the opening salvoes of the Iraq war included attacks on key enemy targets, and the weapon will have an assured future if system enhancements planned by its manufacturer receive customer support.

But the current Harrier and Tornado detachments do not represent the only offensive air capability fielded by the RAF during strike missions against insurgent groups – late last year the UK joined the USA in conducting offensive missions with unmanned air vehicles. Earlier this year the RAF said it had conducted its first air strikes with an armed, US Air Force-owned General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAV over Iraq (Flight International, 8-14 February). Predators are operated by the RAF’s 1115 Flight from Nellis AFB, Nevada, with the unit comprising 44 personnel, including seven pilots and eight sensor operators. “They are performing a crucial operational role to the highest standards,” says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. “But they are also building up a reservoir of UAV experience, on which we intend to capitalise in years to come.”

Other types in regular use supporting strike aircraft fleets and the wider armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are four Boeing C-17 strategic transports flown by 99 Sqn and Lockheed Martin C-130K/J transports used for tactical resupply. The RAF typically operates about six C-130s from Basra, southern Iraq, and is close to completing operational clearance activities with its new-generation C-130J. “The aircraft is cleared for roles bar special forces, and it won’t be too long before we do that as well,” says Sqn Ldr Don Macintosh, officer commanding 24 Sqn, the operational evaluation unit for the type.

The RAF’s AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin HC3 utility helicopter made its Gulf debut in Iraq last February and the four aircraft in theatre have achieved an 89% availability rate in more than 800 flight hours, says Sqn Ldr Andy Turner, officer commanding 28 Sqn, which operates 22 of the aircraft. The Merlin detachment replaced five Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC2 transports and has also been declared available for combat search-and-rescue tasks. “We are on point to do the job for the UK now,” says Turner.

The Merlin can be deployed over a 2,400km (1,300nm) range within 12h or flown 8,000km within 48h without support, which Turner says increases mission flexibility and reduces the transport burden on the UK’s C-17 fleet. The EH101 “steps around the world like a [Boeing] 767”, he adds. The RAF will next month deploy two Merlins to Nairobi in Kenya for a four-week exercise, where the type is expected to amass 300-400 flight hours.

A significant milestone was achieved early this month when 29 Sqn, the RAF’s operational conversion unit for the Eurofighter Typhoon, relocated to RAF Coningsby after conducting initial operations from BAE’s Warton site with the support of the manufacturer and engine supplier Rolls-Royce. The 1 July event followed the arrival of the RAF’s 17 Sqn Typhoon operational evaluation unit in April and is a key step in a process that will culminate in the new fighter providing a quick reaction alert capability from mid-2007. Armed with Raytheon AIM-120C5 AMRAAM medium-range and MBDA ASRAAM short-range missiles, the Typhoon will provide “a really potent air-to-air capability”, says Air Chief Marshal Brian Burridge, commander-in-chief Strike Command. A multirole capability – initially adding a targeting pod and laser-guided bombs – will follow from 2008, boosting the new aircraft’s combat potential. Compared with current fighters, the Typhoon “is an order of magnitude ahead in agility and carefree handling, and the radar works extremely well”, he says.

The Typhoon will be a key element of the RAF’s future strike fleet, with 144 of a required 232 aircraft now under contract. Its future combat aircraft mix is also likely to include up to 150 Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) – currently seen as being F-35B short take-off and vertical landing aircraft, but potentially carrier variant F-35Cs – which are planned to achieve initial operational capability in December 2014. The later-than-anticipated availability of the JSF – which has suffered a two-year programme slippage – has forced the UK to reassess its future requirements and restructure its Future Offensive Air System programme office as the Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicles (Experiment) integrated project team.

Improved capabilities

It is not only in the strike arena that the RAF is acquiring capabilities, with new intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets also on the way. To achieve full operational capability with 5(AC) Sqn in 2007, the UK’s Raytheon Sentinel R1 airborne stand-off radar aircraft project is advancing rapidly, with the first of five modified Bombardier Global Express business jets having recently had its synthetic-aperture radar/ground moving-target indication sensor integrated in the USA.

Meanwhile, BAE will this month submit pricing data on the planned production of 12 Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaissance and attack aircraft in a key continuation of the RAF’s surveillance heritage. The Ministry of Defence could, in time, increase this buy to 14 airframes and possibly order additional platforms to meet its Project Helix requirement to continue the capability now provided by the RAF’s three Nimrod R1 electronic intelligence aircraft (Flight International, 24-30 May).

Next year, the UK will retire its remaining English Electric Canberra PR9 photographic reconnaissance aircraft followed in 2000 by its last Sepecat Jaguar strike aircraft will follow in 2007. The important mission now conducted by the PR9 is expected to lapse for several years – an event referred to within the MoD as a “capability holiday”, with the replacement Project Dabinett likely to be met in part by an unmanned system. The RAF’s retirement of the Jaguar will come around 21 months after the French air force removed the type from its inventory on 1 July. The UK’s removal of the Jaguar will also lead to the closure of the type’s current home at RAF Coltishall as part of an ongoing review that seeks to cut the number of air force facilities in use from a total of around 50.

Although its does not involve an RAF asset, the retirement next year of the Royal Navy’s BAE Sea Harrier FA2 interceptors will see the UK’s Joint Force Harrier (JFH) transition to a fleet comprising the RAF’s upgraded Harrier GR9, to be flown by a mix of air force and navy pilots. A success story for the close co-operation demonstrated by the UK armed forces, JFH will early next decade start transitioning to the JSF, which is intended to operate from land bases and the RN’s two planned Future Aircraft Carriers.

The RAF’s tanker-transport fleet will be rationalised in October, with Vickers VC10-equipped 10 Sqn disbanded and its aircraft and personnel integrated into 101 Sqn. Three VC10s will then be retired, reducing the RAF’s fleet of the aircraft to 16, although its tanker-transport inventory also includes nine 216 Sqn-operated Lockheed TriStars at RAF Brize Norton. The UK’s replacement Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) – the Airbus A330-200 – is some years from replacing the VC10 and TriStar fleets, with a contract with EADS-led AirTanker not anticipated until 2006. Brize Norton will build on its status as the RAF’s main transport hub on arrival of the FSTA fleet, with the base to receive a fifth C-17, 25 Airbus Military A400Ms and the service’s current 25 C-130Js on the closure of RAF Lyneham.

Extending operations

The delayed availability of the JSF and funding required to field a replacement for the RAF’s current frontline strike aircraft, the Tornado GR4, will require the armed forces to continue longer than expected with current equipment – possibly until 2020 or beyond. Part of the UK’s ability to extend the operation of older aircraft stems from the increasingly close relationship between the armed forces and industry. In the air sector, this relationship is primarily established between the RAF and BAE, the original equipment manufacturer and design authority for most of its fixed-wing aircraft types. Old-style procurement meant buying aircraft with large spares packages, but the UK’s new era of so-called smart procurement has led to a much closer relationship between the services and their equipment suppliers. A recent example of this is the Case White introduction into service model for the Typhoon, under which operations of the fighter began from BAE’s Warton manufacturing site with company and air force maintainers working side by side to support more than 1,000 sorties.

The UK Defence Logistics Organisation is looking to improve the efficiency of military support from procurement to disposal, and a growing trend is seeing the RAF make its support mechanism more streamlined and efficient. Long-term logistics partnering agreements are in place with BAE to support various aircraft types, including the Harrier, Nimrod, Tornado and VC10 fleets. Logistics transformation is expected to save billions of pounds, which will be channelled into the MoD’s procurement and operations budgets.

For example, by establishing the Joint Upgrade and Maintenance Programme for the Harrier GR7 airframe at RAF Cottesmore, the time required to support the fleet has been cut and availability at the frontline has improved. In contrast to earlier practices, all “depth” repair of the Harrier now takes place at Cottesmore and nearby Wittering, which conducts engine and avionics support work. Before the introduction of this working concept, the same activities were replicated at three sites. “We are better able to meet urgent operational tasking under this set-up, and there is better availability for Strike Command,” says UK chief of defence logistics, Gen Sir Kevin O’Donoghue.

From May 2005, the six-phase Harrier pulse line at Cottesmore will reduce the previous two-year process to just four months and cut work from 58 steps to 16. “We no longer expect to fight from our main operating bases and don’t need the logistics set-up of the Cold War,” says Air Vice Marshal David Rennison, Strike Command’s chief of staff for support. The pulse line earlier this year comprised 80 BAE and 20 RAF personnel and by later this month will reach peak capacity of seven aircraft on the line at any one time.

Logistics advances have been so great that the RAF has been able to retire several Nimrod MR2s and VC10s early because of the better availability assured under the partnering framework. BAE’s ability to back up the Nimrod MRA4’s projected support costs with proven performance data on the current Nimrod fleet could play a pivotal part in it securing a production contract. It is seeking similar contracts with the MoD to support the introduction of the Typhoon and JSF.

The RAF’s recent importance in combat operations will not be forgotten in the UK, with Stirrup earlier this year confirmed as the country’s next Chief of the Defence Staff – a post he will assume in May 2006. His challenge will be to continue to promote the needs of air power at a time of increased demand to develop the capabilities of the British Army’s land forces and to boost the fleet strength of the Royal Navy, while also developing the UK’s emphasis on joint operations.

CRAIG HOYLE / LONDON

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