IAIN McNICOLL FRAeS, Chair of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) Air Power Group, comments on the publication of the Government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015.


The Government's long-awaited Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 was published on 23 November.

The Prime Ministers statement to the House of Commons on Monday 23 November, unveiling a more strategic, threat-based approach to determining military capability, which can more easily and successfully counter shifting situations and more diverse threats is welcome. It also places the Governments investment pledges for air power in Monday’s announcement in sharp focus, not because the air power capabilities being promised have a direct relation to an imminent air strike campaign, but because the Government is right to spend money on the development over time of a more flexible, agile and technologically-advanced air force, capable of evolving and adapting to unforeseen and changing circumstances between five-year reviews. The outlook for air power over the next 10 years is a very positive turnaround from the cuts to equipment in 2010, which left worrying, unsustainable gaps in essential capability. Ministers have clearly learned a valuable lesson from the resource-driven approach to the 2010 SDSR. The approach set out by the Government five years ago rapidly became obsolete with the emergence of unforeseen threats from so-called Islamic State (IS) (a threat which did not feature at all in SDSR 2010) and a resurgent Russia.

We must avoid becoming prisoners of the present. Only the development of a more flexible, agile and technologically-advanced military, that can be readily and rapidly deployed in times of crisis, will ensure the UK maintains vital national security and influence on international issues whatever the geo-political situation. The Governments pledge to close the critical capability gaps left over from the 2010 Review, especially given our severely depleted fast-jet capability a much-needed boost and delivering a multi-mission aircraft kitted with the full suite of maritime reconnaissance equipment, comes as a great relief.

On Typhoon life-extension and F-35s

The Uk is to acquire 24 F-35s and upgrade its existing Typhoons (Lockheed Martin)

The number of fast-jet squadrons will be increased on todays numbers albeit the real rise in numbers is one more squadron in a decade and improved in quality, with the acquisition of 24 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to support the deployment of the two QE2-class aircraft carriers in 2023 and by re-energising the Tranche 1 Typhoons for air defence. Where possible, equipment must be multi-role with the full suite of capabilities to avoid making expensive investments that would not be useful in multiple scenarios, and the Government is now on a firmer footing to achieve this goal.

The Royal Aeronautical Societys SDSR submission highlighted the importance of providing sufficient fighter aircraft with the most advanced radar and missiles to be fully effective and so as not to undermine the whole investment. The days of dedicated air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft are over, so the Governments commitment to fit Typhoons with highly capable radar and the full suite of weapons, and acquire planned F-35 Joint Strike Fighters with a full air defend and ground attack capability is crucial to providing the flexible force of the future. With the number of fast-jet aircraft squadrons at an all time low, we are pleased that Ministers see the value in creating additional squadrons for our combat air capability, so that it will be better balanced with the rest of the UKs forces. However, the long-term increase in squadrons is small, with only nine in 2025 up from eight today.

On Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA)/Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA)

A USAF Boeing Poseidon P-8 seen at the recent Dubai Air Show.

The announcement of a £2 billion programme to purchase nine Boeing P-8s to fill the gaping hole in maritime patrol capability left with the retirement of the Nimrod MR2 in 2009 and the cancellation of the MRA4 replacement in 2010 comes with a big sigh of relief. The Royal Aeronautical Societys SDSR submission concluded that the gap in maritime patrol and ground surveillance aircraft was unsustainable and must be filled as soon as possible. Local and wide area maritime surveillance against both surface and sub-surface threats is essential for the UKs freedom to operate the future aircraft carriers and our nuclear deterrent, to protect our coastal waters more effectively, and to ensure the UK has an independent long-range search and rescue capability. The Government is absolutely right to prioritise the delivery of these new aircraft and to demand more from the next generation of maritime patrol aircraft, including in due course a ground surveillance function.  Similar to our combat aircraft, they should be able to participate in multiple missions.

On air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR): 

The RAF's R1 Sentinel fleet is to remain in service into the 2020s. (MoD)

Another important outcome was the announcement extending the life of UK air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability key to providing air, ground and maritime forces with vital situational awareness.  The Sentinel R1 fleet due for retirement following the end of operations in Afghanistan will remain in service into the 2020s (when P-8 should be able to cover the role), and the E-3D Sentry airborne warning and control system and Rivet Joint will continue to play a role in ISR operations until 2035.  The intention to double the number of intelligence gathering unmanned aircraft is also to be applauded.

Air ISR is essential for providing air, ground and maritime forces with vital situational awareness, and can provide benefits to domestic security and law enforcement. We welcome the commitment to extend the life of ISR aircraft, and to upgrade Sentry E-3D. The proposal to double the number of intelligence gathering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is also to be applauded. The inclusion of the Zephyr ultra-long endurance UAV, currently under development, will not only boost ISR capability but also provide the UK with world-leading technology highly attractive for exports. However, we would have liked to have seen more detail on how ISR will be optimised across all the platforms, with a view to convergence in the longer term to reduce the overall cost.

Unanswered questions

An infographic from the 2015 SDSR report summarising Britain's upgraded defence capability.

Despite the more strategic nature of this SDSR, questions remain how all these important assets will interact and be balanced against each other in the long-term for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  With so many ISR platforms and potential overlaps in capability, could they be combined into fewer, common platforms capable of participating in different types of missions?  And what of striking the right balance between the numbers of manned and unmanned aircraft?  Unmanned might be lower cost than manned aircraft but potentially less flexible, as they have so far been used principally in uncontested airspace.  We trust Ministers have considered these questions as part of the Review process in order to guarantee the success of the strategy and to ensure the UK will be ready to deal with a variety of unforeseen threats like those posed by Syria.

Equipment is only one half of the story; and we await to see what will be the effect on personnel of the £9.2bn of savings required from the MoD which was announced in Wednesdays Spending Review (including reductions to the civilian headcount) to determine whether the Government will provide sufficient specialist manpower, appropriately remunerated, to ensure that we avoid ending up with a hollow-force.

However, even with much needed investment, Ministers are right to continue to bear down on equipment development and acquisition costs over the next five years in order to provide value for money to the taxpayer. The progress made during the last Parliament has at least made the current equipment plan affordable and therefore deliverable. The Government must continue along the path of efficiency savings to avoid having to backtrack on these new equipment proposals.


25 November 2015