Can harnessing tech sector innovation and agility help the West regain its military edge? TIM ROBINSON reports from the RAF Air Power Conference, held in July.

"The long expected challenge to air power supremacy has arrived” warned the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier addressing fellow air force chiefs, RAF personnel, academics, industry and media at this year’s RAF Air Power Conference in London last month. Hillier was referring to an new strategic era where Western air superiority, perhaps assumed to be incontestable by public and politicians in the post-Cold War, has now ended.

The highpoint of this supremacy, of course, was in Iraq in 1991 when the World's fourth largest army and sixth largest air force, and a largely Soviet-designed air defence system was systematically taken apart and destroyed by the US and allies using lessons from Vietnam along with superior training, stealth fighters and new precision weapons. It was a strategic shock to Moscow that its doctrine, equipment and training which it exported to other nations was so far behind the US. 

Since then, that overwhelming US and allied dominance of the skies has been repeated over Serbia and Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya - giving the impression that US and NATO coalitions can take air superiority for granted. Yet a new era is upon us. Instead of the ‘permissive environments’ of recent conflicts - control of the air will now have to be fought for, and won just as aircrew did in WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam and the Falklands. 

Losing the Edge

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Russia has been modernising its military while the West has focused on counter-insurgency. (Sukhoi)

This represents a major doctrinal shift and a realisation that certain capabilities and skills have been ignored or run-down in the past couple of decades, while competitors and threats have evolved.

Those who have read BBC Newsnight Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban's pithy tome 'The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West coming to an end' will be familiar with the argument. Defence underfunding since the Cold War, a rise of peer (or near-peer competitors), a focus on COIN and counter-insurgency land ops and the rise of 'disruptive' technology has left the West’s forces looking old, hollowed-out and unready to fight tomorrow’s battles. As AVM Rocky Rochelle, Chief of Staff Capability, RAF, admitted at the conference: “We’ve lost that competitive edge and we need to regain it - fast.”

In parallel, the relentless growth in defence equipment costs have left western governments unable to replace fighters or frigates on a one-to-one basis, shrinking force levels to a highly vulnerable critical mass. A reduced number of types at fewer and fewer bases may allow for more efficient savings in maintenance and support, but it also leaves air forces more vulnerable to precision missile strikes, terrorism, saboteurs or even bad luck (a crashed aircraft blocking the runway at a critical time).  

Will the next high-end conflict mean that expensive high-end fighters, such as Eurofighter, Rafale, F-35 or F-22, will now be equivalent to the Dreadnought of WW1? Fearsome in firepower yet so few in number and so costly that even when a conclusive battle was offered (Jutland) both RN and German navies were reluctant to force a decisive action?

Threats and competition

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China is becoming a major exporter of armed UAVs - with this Wing Loong II reportedly half the price of a Reaper. 

While some RAF speakers at the Air Power conference were reluctant to put a name on the future threats - just referring to ’the competition’- there are no prizes for guessing that a revitalised Russia, increasingly confident China, North Korea as well as ISIS are uppermost in many minds.

While the US and coalition partners have been diverted with COIN Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya over the past decade and a half - elsewhere others have been making up for lost ground.

After the penniless 1990s, Russia has invested heavily in military modernisation, with upgrades of existing highly capable platforms (such as the Su-35), new combat aircraft (such as its PAK-FA stealth fighter) closing the gap in technology between it and Western equipment. It has also, in some aspects, raced ahead of the west in battlefield EW (demonstrated in east Ukraine) and combining multiple UAVs with rocket artillery to provide highly lethal directed fire. Its operations in Syria, meanwhile, saw the deployment of S-400 SAMs, attack helicopters, Su-33 naval fighters, Su-34 strike aircraft along with Bear and Backfire bombers launching new cruise missiles - as well as demonstration of new targeting and ISR capabilities, that in the 2008 Georgia war, it sorely lacked.

In addition, the deployment of its Flankers as escorts to ground-attack aircraft over Syria sent a message to the West and its coalition partners that control of the air over friendly forces can no longer be assumed. Regular Russian aerial incursions and probing from the Baltics to Japan, not seen since the Cold War, have reinforced the message that air superiority cannot be taken for granted.

Meanwhile, in Asia-Pacific, China is emerging fast as a new military superpower, with modernised forces and new equipment. Its defence industry has developed two stealth fighters (J-20 and J-31), as well as an aircraft carrier. It has also been boosting its readiness with realistic ‘Red Flag’ style training for its pilots - again closing the gap with the West. And while some may scoff that Chinese equipment is just inferior copies of Western products (eg the Wing Loong II Reaper-a-like or the Y-20, a C-17-style transporter) most worrying for the West is the highly innovative capabilities such as the DF-21F 'Carrier Killer' missile, QUESS quantum cryptography satellite, wing-in-ground effect (WIG) UAV and an AWACS drone that have no equivalents in the West. In replacing large numbers of obsolete 50s era aircraft, China has had the advantage of being able to leap ahead and create an advanced modern air force.   

Finally - the sudden rise of ISIS, ongoing insurgencies and conflict in the Middle East such as Yemen and elsewhere has seen a new breed of non-state threats appear that, in the future, might be allied to peer or near-peer threats. Indeed, as one speaker pointed out at the conference, it may be difficult to separate state from non-state actors - Russia's 'hybrid war' in East Ukraine being a prime example. While the fear of these groups gaining access to WMD remains a potent one, recent years have seen these groups exploit cheap, ubiquitous consumer technology to help achieve their goals, such as consumer drones and cyberattacks. And if the goal of terrorists is to cause terror and grab headlines - this has now been amplified by Social Media, where 'fake news' InfoOps and memes can help shape the narrative and influence decision-makers.

What is the Third Offset?

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DARPA's 'Gremlins' concept might be thought of as a 'Third Offest' influenced concept (DARPA).  

How the West and its partner air forces keep ahead of these threats and indeed ‘regain the edge’ was thus a major theme of the Conference over the two days.

The solution, at least in the US and now spreading to the UK, is to embrace tech industry-style innovation and disruption and to find, exploit and weaponise the innovators such as Uber and AirBnB that combine new technology (eg GPS-enabled smartphones and big data) with a consumer need (taxi) to create a whole new business model (on-demand ride-sharing services).

The US Third Offset follows on from the first (nuclear deterrence to make up for smaller forces in the 1950s) and the second (quality over quantity 1970s to 1980s) that eventually helped bankrupt its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.

Indeed, it was very early in the Cold War, that the US correctly identified that it would be the computer revolution that would power many of the advances in military technology, such as radars, sensors, weapons, stealth and others - enabling the US (and western allies) to power ahead of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.

Today, according to speakers from Microsoft at the conference, we are now living in the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). This is being powered by Big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) - the majority being developed by commercial or consumer entities. The leading edge of high-technology (with a few notable exceptions) now (unlike 30+ years ago) lies firmly in the commercial, not defence sector. Today, any self-respecting teenager would consider a two-year-old mobile phone an antique, yet the West's most modern jet fighter, the F-35, first flew a full 17 years ago. With technology and innovation accelerating at an exponential rate - how does the Western defence community exploit this to stay ahead? 

What does a Third Offset look like?

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The Royal Australian Air Force's 'Plan Jericho' is experimenting with augmented reality to create 'holographic' visualisation. (RAAF/Saab)

With every company from Airbus to easyJet attempting to reinvent itself as a 'tech' firm and leverage the possibilities of a digital 4IR, what does the Third Offset capabilities or outputs look like?   

Perhaps the best examples so far of Third Offset-style innovation in the US are tests of air-launched swarming drones, the USAF's 'Loyal Wingmen' UCAV projects as well as organisational and cultural changes to leverage talent and skills from outside the traditional military/defence industrial complex. Indeed, Third Offset may not involve hardware (or even software) but just working with highly innovative young people who might have no interest in joining the military but still want to help secure their country and protect people - and swap ideas and innovation. In the US, for example a non-profit organisation ‘Hacking 4 Defense’ seeks to enable engineers, scientists, policy experts and students to come together to help solve national security issues. The USAF's concept for its next air superiority fighter - Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) also seems to have touches of Third Offset - in the way that the US aims to quickly develop and field it, perhaps with some existing equipment (ie engines), but married to game-changing technologies such as a laser weapon - breaking the usual cycle of long, drawn out acquisition programmes.   

Meanwhile, the RAF this year launched a new US-style innovation office called the Rapid Capability Office, tasked to ‘explore expedite and exploit’ according to ACM Hillier. This new RCO might be best thought of as a way to rush innovation and technology UOR-style into the front line, without the traditional glacier-like procurement process. The first project underway, Leonardo's BriteCloud digital decoys, aims to quickly equip the RAF with world-class defensive capability able to fool the latest and future adversary missile seekers.

An effort to cultivate innovation is underway with the UK branch of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum - a grassroots network of ‘disruptive thinkers’ to create a market place of ideas from non-traditional entrepreneurs. There is, a growing movement of young ‘digital natives’, both in and out of uniform who are already sowing the seeds of a coming transformation within the RAF and other services.

Another example of a ‘Third Offset’ integration of new technology comes from Australia, where the RAAF's Project Jericho will incorporate Microsoft’s HoloLens to create a ‘holographic augmented reality‘ mission planning and briefing system - allowing commanders to see, science-fiction style, a battlespace in 3D floating in front of their eyes and collaborate with others equipped with the same headsets.

These examples hold clues to what an information-age, combat-cloud enabled, air force, encompassing  air, space and cyber might look like in the very near future. An agile, flexible force that is information-driven. As AVM Rochelle mused: “How [do we] get information from a satellite into the cockpit of an Ajax [AFV].”      


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Improbable -  a UK tech company showed off its city modelling simulation at the RAF Air Power Conference. But can start-up culture co-exist with military bureaucracy? (improbable)

Yet the Third Offset of harnessing the hackers, entrepreneurs and innovators of Silicon Valley (or Shoreditch) perhaps can only go so far.

First - there is the immense cultural and legacy challenge. Armed forces, by definition, are large command structures with a rigid top-down hierarchy. Web start-ups may be a group of friends from college with no clear roles (or hipster job descriptions: ‘Joy facilitator’). How does the military change itself to be more flexible ad interface with these social entrepreneurs? What exactly is the rank of 17-year-old ‘LEET Hacker’ in a military command structure? Corporal due to age, major or even a general perhaps if measured by the amount of ‘strategic effect’ they might be able to inflict on a foe?

There are also deep vested interests - in the form of services, units (squadrons, regiments) as well as the powerful lobbying in the form of the legacy defence industry. New entrants, that threaten this order face an uphill battle if their solution could appear to threaten scared cows or big defence programmes with multiple stakeholders.

Another potential cultural clash is between the ‘fail to succeed’ Silicon Valley-style innovation outlook and the risk-adverse conservative military, industrial and political approach. We are not talking physical risk here but the aversion to perceived ‘wasted money’, axed projects and political embarrassment that seems to drive many MoD decisions. The UK MoD top-down media control today means that any serving officer with a radical thought or controversial opinion on, for example, procurement risks putting themselves in the (metaphorical) firing line. In embracing this new innovation and tech culture, will MoD, ministers and senior officers be brave enough to admit ‘we sunk money in a risky project that promised a breakthrough but it doesn’t work’ to the mainstream media?        

Who does the 4IR really benefit?

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ISIS weaponised consumer drones equipped to drop 40mm grenades. (Iraqi National Police) 

Another challenge is that the disruptive, emerging tech, such as cyber, drones and AI, favours not legacy military organisations, but those trying to catch up, non-state actors and even individuals. Today an individual can purchase a cheap UAV with a HD camera that, in many ways, is ahead of what the military fields. The same individual can access high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery, download opensource AI programs - effectively becoming their own ISR capability. Cost of technology is falling rapidly and the barriers to entry are dropping.

For peer or near-peer competitors, this disruptive age is allowing them to quickly close the gap. Witness armed drones - since the early 2000s the preserve of the US, Israel and then the UK, but now operated by countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, thanks to cheap, UAVs sold without export restrictions by China.

Today, in Iraq and Syria, has seen the rise of perhaps the World's first drone vs drone conflict, with both coalition forces and ISIS operating small kamikaze UAVs and converted consumer drones dropping grenades to deliver kinetic effect on the enemy. Governments and militaries now are, perhaps, too late in scrambling to react to the rogue drone threat with counter-UAS solutions. Yet these seem, in the main, to be predicated that future rogue drones will conveniently appear one by one. The next step, most likely, will see weaponised consumer drones married to commercial ‘swarming’ software (perhaps similar to those that control light display or ‘dancing’ drones) to create a lethal, low-cost attack vector. Are air forces ready to counter a Spetznaz or SF team that parks an articulated truck full of 200 drones armed with explosives near a F-35 airbase and awaits a go signal?  

Third, of course, is that an information age air force - embracing cyber, Whole Force, VLO, hypersonics, rapid space access requires something in short supply - money for defence. With the UK’s defence budget already squeezed by big platforms (CVF, F-35, P-8 etc) what money is left for critical, but game-changing technology (eg  broadband nodes to allow F-35 massive data collection to be shared more widely) to enable an information-age air force? 


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Will the RAF be able to exploit game-changing hypersonic innovation from the UK's Reaction Engines? (BAE Systems)

Can the RAF regain its air power edge, after, as one speaker put it: ‘wandering around in the wilderness’ and competition and threats evolving? It is an appropriate time to be re-discovering its core mission to ‘control the air’ from which all other missions flow, given the services 100th Anniversary in 2018. And as another speaker observed, the RAF was originally created by innovators who wanted to break away to create something new.

Topically, this summer also saw a blockbuster movie released, Dunkirk, that shows modern audiences the sheer terror of air attack on fielded forces some 70 plus years ago - and what happens when air superiority has to be earned in blood. There are no guarantees that a UK ‘Third Offset’ can deliver this to the RAF and other services - but at least the scale and urgency of the problem has now been identified. It cannot come too soon.

Tim Robinson
4 August 2017

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