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RAF Could be Reduced to Just Six Fighter Squadrons by 2020

Giving some of the first real insight into the numbers of F-35Cs the United Kingdom may purchase, the U.K. announced late last week that it's considering halving its fighter fleet to a mere six squadrons by 2020.

From Defense News:

"We are heading for five Typhoon squadrons and one JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] squadron," said Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell, who commands the RAF's air combat group. "It will be a six-squadron world; that's what's on the books."

That could mean 107 Typhoons, plus about 40 F-35C JSFs that support a large operational squadron of 20 to 25 crews, Bagwell said.

Typhoon numbers could be clipped even further if Britain and Oman seal a deal to send the Persian Gulf nation about a squadron's worth of aircraft. The planes could be diverted from an existing RAF order; the question is whether they will then later be replaced, he said.

Most importantly for F-35 watchers, Bagwell says later in the article that while the U.K. may someday purchase more than just 40 JSFs, "I expect a single squadron in 2020 and that's it." Although, he does describe the 40-plane buy as a hopeful start point for the UK's F-35 program.

Time will tell if the 21st Century capabilities of the F-35 and Typhoon's will make up for their limited numbers when compared to Britain's fighter fleet of the last 20 years.

As the article points out, the RAF had 33 fighter squadrons in 1990, 17 in 2003 and just 12 today. By April 2011, that number will shrink to eight squadrons with the retirement of the U.K.'s Harrier jump jets and the retirement of two Tornado fighter squadrons.

Still, the service is hoping to eventually fly about 100 F-35Cs from land bases and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, according to the article.

From the sound of it, the newest cuts will leave the legendary RAF with the ability to do little more than defend Britain, the Falkland Islands and participate in the war in Afghanistan. In fact, the cuts worry "the hell" out of Britain's fighter boss:

Bagwell said the fast-jet cuts were challenging but manageable so long as the RAF is not tasked to do much more than its current deployments: Tornados to the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and Typhoons to quick reaction alert (QRA) forces in Britain and the Falkland Islands.
"Am I happy to be down at that number [eight squadrons] next April? No, it worries the hell out of me because it's a small combat air force," he said. "I can just about do Op Herrick [Afghanistan] and the QRAs. Can I do other things? Yes, but it is at risk.
"Actually, I am more worried about what other people think I can do tomorrow," he said. "The whole thing about procurement and posture is as much about long-term future deterrence and keeping the enemy on the back foot as it is about physically fighting.
Speaking of the ability to keep the enemy on the back foot, one of the more interesting points in the article is a quote way down at the bottom from Bagwell saying that by swapping the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B for the F-35C carrier version JSF, the RAF is gaining "a true deep-penetration capability."

Bagwell is no doubt referring to the longer range and increased weapons load the C-model fighter can carry.  Will this really be important for the RAF if it limits itself to defensive missions? The island nation's shrinking fleet of Tornados is expected to carry out the offensive role through the end of the decade. What will happen once they are retired? Will 107 Typhoon's (some of which can perform ground attack missions) and 40 F-35s be enough to effectively defend Britain and project power?

Maybe the new jets will provide such a leap in capability that the answer is yes. We've seen this before. Just look at the number of aircraft required to perform difficult strike missions over the last 60 years. It's steadily shrunk.

In early November, I heard the U.K.'s number two military officer, Gen. Nicholas Houghton, say that Britain is fully committed to maintaining the ability to deploy its military around the globe for a variety of missions, with allies or without. This points to a U.K. that isn't planning on giving up its ability to project power around the globe just yet.

Still, as Bagwell said, these cuts open up some risk. At least in the short term until Britain recovers from the current fiscal crisis and is able to fully flesh out its F-35 fleet.

Here's the article.

-- John Reed

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