The RAeS Air Power Group offers a summary of the Cranwell Branch’s Trenchard Lecture, a debate on the 2015 Strategic Defence & Security Review.

Introduction of F-35B to UK service will be a leap in capability but lack of numbers is a concern.(Lockheed Martin) 

The first Trenchard Lecture was given in 1958 at RAF College Cranwell by the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle. It was a memorial tribute to Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Hugh Trenchard, the first CAS and founder of the RAF. The Cranwell Branch of the RAeS now holds an annual Trenchard Lecture with speakers of particular distinction addressing topics of great current or historical significance.

In 2011, the implications of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) were debated by three defence experts(1). This year, the issues, options and implications for the 2015 SDSR were considered. The speakers were Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge (RAF retired), Air Commodore Peter Gray PhD (RAF retired) and Lieutenant Lewis Page (RN retired). The event was opened by the Commandant of the RAF College, Air Commodore Chris Luck. He welcomed the speakers and emphasised the importance of SDSR 2015 for the RAF and the whole of UK defence.  

Opening statements

Bullets or welfare? Austerity is set to last until 2017/18. (MoD)  

Dr Gray emphasised that, as with SDSR 2010, the 2015 review will be resource-driven rather than based on high-level strategy concerning Britain’s place in the world. Hence the required military capability to match our geo-political aims will not be attained. However, this deficiency will not be an issue at the next election as ‘there are no votes in defence’. The withdrawal of British combat forces from Afghanistan is timely, as it reduces the immediate operational burden on our military (though contingency operations, such as those in Iraq are now demanding increasing resources). The modern world is characterised by complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. Thus, a few MPs and more than a few senior retired officers opine on a range of options for the UK’s armed forces, including increasing the budget (‘unlikely’) and absorbing the RAF into the other two services.  

Dr Gray emphasised that it was vital to end the inter-service tribal rivalry such that the air, land and maritime debate was focused on capability and not on ownership. Britain’s political and financial conditions must be assessed objectively so that the operational capability we develop will complement our strategic aims and funding levels. Unfortunately, austerity rules out comprehensive satisfaction of all requirements meaning that hard choices will have to be made. The significant effect on the whole of UK defence of some big ticket items must be carefully considered, e.g. the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation combat aircraft and the associated Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) carriers. Major factors include the balance between Britain’s involvement with NATO, the US and the EU; the potential life of Tornado GR4 if its successors are delayed; and the challenge of a potentially resurgent Russia alongside the rise of China with the US re-focusing to the Pacific.


Should the UK invest in more TLAMs for long-range strike, as author Lewis Page suggests? (MoD)

As the sole RN representative on the panel, Lewis Page promised an alternative approach and to speak from the viewpoint of a British patriot trying to identify what would be best for the UK. He offered the junior officer’s perspective, i.e. to identify who are we likely to fight and to set the aspirations and requirements from that. The US views China, now and in the future, as a rival. Yet China’s prosperity and the economic growth necessary to ensure that this continues, is dependent on selling manufactured goods to the West. As such, military confrontation would not be in China’s interest and he therefore regards the US-China conflict scenario as unrealistic. Nevertheless, the West faces threats from advanced weapon systems all around the world, e.g. the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system fielded in Syria. The 2011 Libyan campaign was an interesting case offering a number of lessons. That nation’s air defences (AD) were initially viewed with concern yet, after the first weekend in which several hundred Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAM) were launched against that system, the coalition air forces concluded that they could operate with impunity thereafter.

An option for the future is a fleet of TLAM armed warships offering long-range strike capability. This could be complemented by remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) launched from those ships(2). Libya was further up the combat scale compared to the counter insurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan. Yet TLAM and RPAS could do much of the work in these higher-end scenarios so the question is whether high-end combat jets are actually needed? As a taxpayer, he prefers the lower-cost option. He asked rhetorically, is the RAF’s Tornado GR4 worth prolonging and is the Typhoon FGR4 worthy of further development?  Was the real question actually which of them should be deleted? “You can buy many TLAMs for Typhoon money”, he noted.  

ISR for situational awareness

Sir Brian began by observing the contrasting expectations for SDSR 2015 of the various stakeholders. There was a dichotomy: would it result in more of the same or be a moment of strategic shift? Should the focus be on homeland security (the most prominent defence issue for most voters) or should it have a wider scope to cope with what was undoubtedly a dangerous world? Within the MoD, each of the single services has a different perspective on this question and, hence, differing preferences. In his view, a pan-service priority is for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability to be sorted out from the tactical to the strategic level; good situational awareness (SA) is the essential foundation to inform decision making for all campaigns and all the forces. Networking all units to ensure a common level of SA is also important.

As for the single services, the British Army is principally concerned about manpower with the number of regulars reduced and uncertain results so far in the recruitment of reserves. The RN lacks manpower, especially in the technical trades and engineering officers, yet it will face two strategic level burdens: the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent (Trident) and the need to maintain 100% availability of a QEC aircraft carrier as recently promised to NATO by the Prime Minister. The RAF’s combat mass had declined significantly. The 1991 Gulf War was debriefed in the same hall as the debate. Then, the air order of battle comprised 36 frontline, fast jet squadrons; today that figure is a mere seven. While the current aircraft are more capable (and further capability was approaching with F-35) this lack of mass is a major concern; no aircraft, however capable, can be in two places at once. Efficient use of limited resources is therefore vital; how do we get more from what we have?  

For UK air power, the notion of full-spectrum capability lives on. The RAF is a small air force and the ability to achieve effect demands real agility for adapting aircraft to meet the requirements. There are siren voices preaching role specialisation(3), but “I would not wager on that.” The financial climate remains very chilly. Germany, the powerhouse of the EU, has had two quarters of recession. Unusually for a western economy, it earns much of its wealth through exports (50% of its GDP) of which 10% went to Russia. Sanctions on Russia would therefore lose 5% of Germany’s GDP, a cost equal to that of its reunification. Defence spending will continue to fall across most European NATO nations and the future of the Eurozone is uncertain(4).

Role sharing = more risk?

Any Trident successor will be an additional strategic level burden for the RN, it was noted. (MoD) 

Therefore, reliance on role sharing would add risk, given the problems that potential allies are likely to face in maintaining the effectiveness and readiness of their armed forces even in areas where they might currently possess credible capability.  However, it is important to develop strategic partnerships, for example, between culturally like-minded nations such as the Nordic countries and between the UK and France. In this latter case, co-operation goes beyond front-line capability to include research and industrial collaboration. Domestically, robust MoD and industry links are a vital building block for the future so as to ensure the achievement of rapid modification given the uncertainty that usually surrounds the precise nature of deployed capability. In the past, urgent operational requirements (UOR) have been the saviour in unpredictable campaigns.

The 2003 Iraq campaign (Operation Telic) involved 193 UORs of which 40 were for aircraft. Fifty UOR for rotary-wing aircraft alone had been achieved for Afghanistan (Operation Herrick). This makes clear the need for a close relationship between defence and industry. Security of supply is essential to guarantee agility in modifications and the surge in availability with a small force faced with combat. The creation of intellectual property on-shore and the related investment in development is a long-term game. For example, the technology in the Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone (a mid-2000s UOR) missile was begun back in 1983: “This is strategic investment” said Sir Brian.  

The debate itself

The Reaper RPAS has proved its worth in COIN — but the discussion noted that autonomy raised new ethical and legal challenges to future use of such systems. (MoD) 

A wide range of topics were discussed in the main part of the evening. This report is not a transcript of the event but offers a flavour of the main subjects and opinions.

Lewis Page advocated the wide use of RPAS in his opening statement. Dr Gray noted that the University of Birmingham had conducted an 18-month study of the issues(5). He questioned this enthusiasm for RPAS and stated that it was not proven that they were any cheaper, let alone more cost-effective, than manned aircraft. Lewis Page replied that the UK often chose overly expensive options and proposed that automated take-off and landing made it unnecessary for a qualified pilot to control a RPAS; a systems-operator would suffice; a saving in itself. Dr Gray questioned RPAS utility in roles such as maritime patrol. For example, a Reaper RPAS or similar could not release and exploit a field of sonar buoys. Sir Brian expressed doubt that RPAS would be suitable for the air defence of the UK and for gaining air superiority elsewhere. He also noted that the RPAS policy commission had identified a legal body of knowledge that raised the bar with regard to challenges such as system autonomy(6).

Dr Gray agreed, commenting that the MoD view that Reaper and similar RPAS are “just the same as any other platform” has missed the degree to which the ethical and legal debate has changed. Lewis Page defended RPAS utility by stating that a remote operator was suitable for controlling air-to-surface roles. He accepted that manned aircraft may be required for air defence but advocated increasing the numbers of automated systems to regain the mass that UK defence had lost. Dr Gray stated that few people advocate a complete change from manned aircraft to RPAS; he believed that the combat fleet will be mixed for at least another ten years(7).

Value for money?

The QEC carriers will help maintain the UK as a ‘full spectrum’ force, it was argued. (MoD)

The issues of cost effectiveness and value for money were then considered. Sir Brian stated that the UK is a world leader in availability contracting for combat aircraft. The 2002/03 decision to simplify the levels of maintenance and initiate a greater integration of industry to support flying directly had saved £1·6bn with the Tornado GR4 fleet over three years. This sort of successful capability is marketable worldwide. However, the American support solution for the F-35 Lightning II was set to cost over $1 trillion and would be much more expensive than the UK approach. Lewis Page was unconvinced of UK MoD efficiency overall and commented that “We get less than we pay for, so how can we be more efficient?” Sir Brian opined that the UK had the most capable medium-size air force in the world, a point with which Lewis Page disagreed.

In reply, Sir Brian pointed out that the RAF still fielded three Tornado GR4 attack squadrons and was continuing investment in developing Typhoon FGR4 into a true multi-role aircraft. In addition to the six Type 45 air defence destroyers, both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers were to be fielded with the Lightning II stealth fighter. In short, the UK remained ‘full spectrum’ compared to other medium-size air forces. Dr Gray emphasised that some nations have combat aircraft but no ISR, no air refuelling (AR) and limited air transport (AT). In short, they were far from being a balanced force and, therefore, lacked independent capability. The 1999 Kosovo campaign had been a wake-up call for most European NATO nations which could field interceptors but little else. During that operation, the Adriatic was the best defended airspace in the world, given the large number of fighters deployed there when, in fact, the need was for reconnaissance, tanker and attack aircraft.  

Post-Afghanistan missions

The chairman then invited the speakers to consider the implications for UK defence of the post Afghanistan campaign return to contingency. Sir Brian did not see this as an original issue by any means, regarding it as a repeat of the ‘Options for Change’ defence white paper of 1990; “We have been here before”. It was very similar to General Colin Powell’s8 view on the post Cold War world, i.e. that if military involvement were deemed vital, then the approach should be ‘Go first, go fast, go home’. That had been the aim in Bosnia in 1995, yet the UK still had boots on the ground there 13 years later. In short, problems in the modern world cannot be quickly resolved and our involvement will inevitably be prolonged unless we can handover the longer-term work to other (local) nations. An example of the new reluctance for overseas engagement was the 2013 vote in the House of Commons against the military involvement in Syria. Lewis Page suggested that the long term, ‘hands-on’ nature of stabilisation required more troops yet the UK was cutting the army in order to pay for expensive equipment; he proposed the reverse.

Dr Gray said that Syria was also a wake-up call. He doubted that there was any political appetite over the next two decades for involvement in prolonged COIN campaigns. A COIN case such as Bosnia needed a carabinieri(9) rather than a full spectrum land force. However, more demanding operations were entirely possible and would require the greater capability of a conventional army. He also commented that ‘COIN to contingency’ is a term of no real value in the force structure debate (“buzzword bingo”); it offered alliteration but not enlightenment.  

Intervention or isolation?

The Airbus Defence and Space A400M Atlas is set to boost RAF AT — but will it face a reduced political appetite for interventionary operations? (MoD)

Dr Gray also noted that overseas operations are viewed with concern by many as to their effectiveness. Some commentators believe that intervention can worsen matters rather than solve problems, resulting in an increased terrorist threat to the UK. To those of this view, this made homeland defence more important than power projection. (Lewis Page intervened to emphasise the importance of trade to the UK and hence the need to protect it. Dr Gray agreed with this point). Dr Gray questioned our readiness and rationale to intervene overseas “in order to improve homeland security” with those who advocated such action often being unable to prove the claimed causal links.

Lewis Page advanced the view he expressed in his book, Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, that the post-Cold War Royal Navy was essentially identical to the Cold War version. The same point applies, he claimed, to the British Army and RAF. To the old school, a ‘full spectrum’ army meant having an armoured brigade, whereas younger generation army officers believe that the main battle tank (MBT) is no longer required, though they accept the crucial role of air power. In his opinion, fourth generation combat aircraft, such as Typhoon FGR4, are similarly based on a concept from the past: “It has had its day.”

Sir Brian had commanded an all arms force(10) and knew the value of being able to blend, mix and match a full range of capabilities. SDSR 2010 “took my breath away” as it resulted in a lack of combat power in the UK’s force structure. The aims of SDSR 2010 were intended to be realised in the Future Force 2020 but it was probably not affordable to achieve this in full. The 1998 Defence Review was preceded by a one-year consultation period involving industry and academia, as well as the military. In contrast, SDSR 2010 was rushed through and focused on saving money. The years of austerity will last from 2010 to at least 2017/201811 and the ability to project UK military power around the world is regarded by many as of questionable importance.

Lewis Page expressed astonishment at the waste in MoD spending. He pointed out that £38bn in annual budget is substantial and advocated greater buying off-the-shelf for better value for money. Sir Brian asked for an example and Lewis Page suggested that SDSR 2010 should have retained the Harrier GR9 force for carrier operations, deleted the Tornado and Typhoon and leased the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet as a stop gap until the F-35 reached the front line. Sir Brian doubted the likely saving of such an option pointing out that the through-life costs would be broadly similar but that the F-35 brought greater capability. He also stated that the ‘cat and trap’ option for the QEC carriers was not an off-the-shelf option(12).  

Regaining MPA

Only the Boeing P-8 Poseidon met the UK's MPA requirements in full, according to ACM Sir Brian Burridge.  (Boeing)

The chairman then asked the panel to consider two issues: the options for the UK regaining a MPA(13) capability and the need and means for power projection. Sir Brian expressed the view that the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remained essential and, hence, so were all its support platforms. He regarded it as implausible to secure the deterrent without a MPA capability. It was not a case of ‘if’ but rather ‘how’ for regaining a MPA fleet. In his opinion, only the Boeing P-8 Poseidon(14) met the requirement in full: long range and endurance, surface search radar, sonar buoy release and exploitation as well as sufficient weapon carriage (six torpedoes). Aircraft such as the C-295 were smaller with lesser capabilities making them unsuitable for the UK’s requirements. Lewis Page asked why the P-8 was not bought in the first place instead of the MRA4. Sir Brian replied that the MRA4 programme was the result of ministerial direction and not the outcome of the investment appraisal.  
Dr Gray noted that there were anti-MRA4 views even in the main contractor, BAE Systems. Ultimately, it had been the MoD’s own fault for suggesting that the Nimrod (i.e. de Havilland Comet) platform be continued for yet another generation(15).

With regard to power projection, Dr Gray expressed the view that it is another buzzword and that the imperative is often not focused on a strategic goal but instead on a short-term, political requirement to be seen to be doing something in a region attracting media attention. Essentially, “Go somewhere and get this issue off the headlines.” In practice, the result was the retention of a range of roles and platforms such as heavy lift AT, attack and ISR. Lewis Page commented that for the RN, power projection equated to the QEC carriers which are now fundamental to the Navy’s existence. Sir Brian emphasised that the front line must have the means of achieving the required types and levels of effect when deployed, i.e. applying power effectively following the projection of the assets.

SDSR15 recommendations

There was disagreement between two speakers whether it was worth developing the Typhoon FGR4’s full set of air-to-ground capabilities. (BAE Systems)  

Finally, the three speakers offered their priorities for SDSR 2015.

Sir Brian proposed three requirements. 1) Fully develop the capability of Typhoon FGR4: AESA radar, conformal fuel tanks, full weapon integration (Meteor AAM, DM Brimstone and Storm Shadow).  2) Rapidly move to a single aircraft platform type for all ISR roles using AESA radars. 3) Ensure cyber security for UK defence and infrastructure.

Lewis Page advocated buying many more TLAM and fielding them on a greater range of platforms including the surface fleet. He urged greatly increasing the numbers of unmanned systems so as to regain mass. As for manned aircraft, he suggested the deletion of the Tornado fleet and advised against the development of the Typhoon FGR4 air-to-surface capability.

Dr Gray addressed an issue other than platform types and numbers. In the post-COIN world, he stressed the need to assess the requirements of personnel and infrastructure. He had two questions?  What scale of defence estate was affordable? What is the best balance between uniformed personnel and contractors in achieving defence capability? One issue for the latter was that, as the RAF and RN shrank, the outflow of skilled personnel would be insufficient to meet the contractors’ staff requirements. Sir Brian took up this issue to stress the need to maintain extensive expertise if the UK is to retain a viable defence industry. Adopting an off-the-shelf approach with no regard for operational sovereignty would wipe out an industry that, in 2013, earned £9·3bn for the UK in defence exports, mostly in aerospace; defence spending had economic as well as military benefits.

The APG committee hopes that this account will prompt further debate and invites comment on the views expressed and suggestions of options for the defence review.


1. Prof Eric Grove, Dr Peter Gray and Dr David Jordan. See The Aerospace Professional October 2011 for an account of the debate.  
2. Lewis Page spoke of these operating autonomously though in doctrinal terms, this means operating without human oversight or control. At present, the UK does not field any autonomous military systems; all UAV are under human control.  
3. In role specialisation, a nation gives up a capability to focus its resources on those remaining while relying on an ally to fill the gap. See the APG committee paper on this topic in the December 2014 edition of AEROSPACE (also Sep 2011 The Aerospace Professional).  
4. An uncertainty increased by the recent Greek election with the anti-austerity party Syriza coming to power.  
5. Sir Brian and Dr Gray were commissioners in the University of Birmingham RPAS study.  
6. Whereas an automatic system is relatively constrained in options and so is reasonably predictable, an autonomous system has far more freedom of decision, so making its actions and the outcomes much less certain.  
7. The APG committee shares the views of Sir Brian and Dr Gray regarding RPAS in the MPA and air defence roles.  
8. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm.  
9. Essentially, a well armed military police force but lacking heavy equipment and weaponry.  
10. ACM Burridge was the deployed operational commander in Operation Telic, the UK element of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  
11. The Home Office has had its budget cut by 29% and the Department for Justice by 35%.  The Treasury is pushing for a 7% cut in UK defence expenditure over the period 2016 to 2021.
12. Lewis Page pointed out that the carrier procurement cost was higher (he claimed 50%) to enable relatively low-cost adaption to cat and trap if required. When this option was taken after SDSR 2010, the conversion cost was found to be equal to the original total procurement cost. Hence the reversion to the STOVL F-35B after the brief interlude with the F-35C.  
13. See the APG committee paper on UK ISR in the January 2012 edition of Aerospace International.  
14. Sir Brian stated the P-8 Poseidon unit procurement cost to be $130m.  
15. Apparently, the Nimrod MR2 airframes allotted for MRA4 conversion were found to differ in length by 30cm.



13 March 2015