A new, improved RAF Air Power Conference this summer will help set the stage for the Service’s 100th anniversary in 2018 - with a goal to broaden the debate of air power in the 21 century. TIM ROBINSON reports. 

Speaking in early March, then Assistant Chief of the Air Staff Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton said that the revamped conference will be: “An opportunity for us to challenge ourselves about the state of power, how it's going to evolve and how it's going to develop. It gives us an opportunity to debate where air power is today and to help, jointly, with our allies from around the world to develop that air power thinking.”

While in previous years the RAF Air Power Conference has always been an annual fixture for military professional, academics, industry and the specialist media, the 2017 event sees the UK’s Air Power Association (APA) partnering with RUSI to produce the two-day event on 12-13 July.

The conference usually has no problem attracting high-level speakers thanks to its calendar proximity to the Royal International Air Tattoo, and this year will see the Chief of the Air Staff ACM Sir Stephen Hillier, Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon MP and the USAF Chief of Staff General David Goldfein (significant since his own service celebrates its 70th anniversary this year) all set to speak. Additionally the conference, to be held at the IET in London is expected to draw over 30 -35 representatives of foreign air forces, many of these their own chiefs.

Broadening the air power debate

The theme of the Conference this year is 21st Century Partnerships - a highly topical subject given the global political, geostrategic and operational changes in the previous 12 months that have shaken the news. Drones, the introduction of fifth-generation platforms and the 'high ground' of space add to the technological challenges. What, then, is air power, the politicians ‘go to’ tool of choice, place in this fast-moving, connected world?     

Yet while the academic rigour and expert speaker line-up can be taken for granted, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this years event is the goal to develop new air power advocates, not just in the UK, but internationally by critical and thought-provoking discussion. 


Our hope is we make the UK's air power conference THE leading air power conference in the world - it is very much a stepping stone for the RAF into 2018"

This year, with new organisers in the form  of APA, and a countdown to historic milestone of the centenary of the RAF in April 2018, the conference aims to stimulate and widen the debate about the utility of air power beyond the usual ‘bubble’ of senior officers, MoD civil servants, industry executives and air power analysts.

The organisers plan to harness social media, as well as build on last year’s Air Power conference where presentations were livestreamed to RAF stations with a wider audience this year, engaging international partners. It may be potentially a bold move to open up debate in this way with some red-hot topics such as ‘how air power integrates with irregular forces’ or ‘autonomous systems’ however the RAF believes that the benefits of increased engagement, challenging debate and wider participation are worth the risks.

The event, which also plans to incorporate more ‘operational’ presentations, with speakers pulled directly from the cockpit (or ISR cell), is also not to be seen in isolation and forms part of a wider programme within the Service to rekindle doctrinal thinking. The RAF’s desire to stimulate critical airpower thinking, generate ideas and listen to even its lowliest airman/woman can be  seen in the ‘Thinking to Win’ conceptual initiative that was launched in 2016 by the previous CAS. In addition, the organisers are keen to see the online ‘conversation’ about air power both precede and carry on after the actual conference itself, especially as the RAF counts down towards its 100th birthday in 2018. A dedicated hashtag, #airpower17 is already up and running on Twitter. 


In short then, it is highly appropriate that the World’s oldest independent air force is aiming high ahead of its second century with a refreshed and challenging new vision for global air power debate - and to push the boundaries of air power understanding, deliver thought-provoking debate and develop new advocates. As AVM Knighton noted: "Our hope is we make the UK's air power conference THE leading air power conference in the world - it is very much a stepping stone for the RAF into 2018."

The RAF Air Power Conference 2017 will be held the IET in 12-13 July.


Tim Robinson
14 March 2017

Comment title