Friday, 29 March 2013

Is rationalising rationale? Thoughts on the RAF drawdown.


There have been several announcements this week about future developments for Defence, and in particular the RAF. Many of them were bundled under the announcement entitled ‘Defence Rationalisation’ which as a Parliamentary statement seemed to have got relatively little public attention, despite highlighting some significant changes to the MOD footprint in the UK.

The first element of the announcements was the move to shut at least one RAF airfield (RAF Church Fenton) and close down flying operations at other sites such as RAF Wyton. This collective move will lead to a significant reduction in the overall number of military airfields in the UK conducting training and other sorties. On the one hand this is probably a sensible realism measure, but on the other there was inevitable disappointment at the ending of flying operations on many sites, and the inevitable closures to follow. This move though highlights the challenge facing MOD -  a few years ago the authors remembers reading about a potential contract to handle all airfield operations in the UK, and it stating that nearly 120 airfields conducted flying operations. This was not that long ago (under 10 years), and perhaps shows that despite how many sites have closed since the end of the Cold War, there is still (even after SDSR) a very substantial real estate across the UK used for flying. The MOD challenge for many years has been managing an estate that is fundamentally a legacy estate – if you look at the sites used by the RAF and the other services, they all seem to have one thing in common which is that they were usually WW2 era (or pre-dated WW2) and that they’ve been in near continuous operations since then. The author is struggling to think of (and would delighted to be corrected on) a single RAF airfield built from new since WW2.

What this means is that for decades the MOD has had far more airfields than it has realistically needed, and which probably haven’t been used to the most economic effect. While in the early Cold War this made eminent sense, as quite literally dozens of airfields needed to be available as dispersals for the V-Force in the event of war. Similarly, with larger (and far less capable) aircraft fleets in service, there was a need for a large training and support pipeline, which in turn led to requirements for a range of sites in use. Finally, the very real threat from the Warsaw Pact drove requirements for dispersed sites where interceptors and other aircraft could be dispersed to in order to ensure a full defence of the UK could be mounted. One only has to look at the size and structure of the RAF in 1990 to realise how extensive and challenging the air defence & strike requirements were back then.

But, times have changed and the challenge today is not about defending the homeland, but about mounting operations at a long distance from home. The threat from air attack to UK airbases is almost non-existent, and there is no need to disperse a V Force anymore. Similarly with only two fast jet fleets in service, and both eventually becoming single seat aircraft, the need for a large training pipeline is much smaller than before. While many of these sites remained open, they consumed scarce funding to keep the airfields to an operational standard. Its not just a case of putting some tarmac down and letting planes fly off it – airbases are expensive and challenging to operate safely and effectively. This authors very personal view is that in a time when capability is about deployment, it is better to invest in a small number of high quality facilities used to best effect, than spend precious resources maintaining large numbers of legacy sites that may not be used fully.


RAF Marham - taken from
And then there were three...

One of the key parts of the announcement was the move by the RAF to concentrate its fast jet force on just three sites – RAF Conningsby (Typhoon), Marham (Tornado / JSF) and Lossiemouth (Tornado / Typhoon). In practical terms this means that the future RAF fast jet force is going to be operating out of just three airfields, plus a very small number of secondary sites such as RAF Leeming and Valley.

This announcement highlights the ever increasing importance of Lossiemouth to the RAF. While there has been criticism of the decision to cease flying at both Leuchars and Kinloss, it is notable that both airfields will reportedly remain open as diversion airfields on safety grounds. Scotland may have lost two airbases, but it will be home to well over one third of the future RAF fast jet fleet.

Also, the news that JSF will be based in Marham shows just how small the initial JSF buy is likely to be. At present Marham is home to about three squadrons of Tornado GR4s, and arguably has little space left to grow forces. This implies that the future initial JSF fleet, including both the RN and RAF component will be at best 3-4 squadrons strong, plus the OCU. It is increasingly clear that there will be very few airframes available for the JSF fleet, at least at first, and that the UK will be taking a significant reduction in airframe numbers overall. One only has to consider that the GR4 fleet is still some 100 out of 140 original airframes strong – even with improved serviceability, and the ability of Typhoon to conduct a ground attack role, there will still be far fewer airframes available. It does make one wonder just how many aircraft will see service onboard HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, given that any maritime deployment of 12 airframes will likely represent nearly 25% of the JSF force.

On a personal level, Humphrey is somewhat sanguine about the reduction in operating bases – it is easy to get emotional about locations where aircraft once flew, but the world has changed and the equipment in service to day is infinitely more capable (and expensive!) than its predecessors. Given it is likely to be deployed overseas, it is arguably far more important to focus on the maintenance of expeditionary warfare capabilities such as logistics, engineering and all the other essential and very unglamorous elements of capability that the RAF has chosen to invest in.

While the author can see the argument for retention of widespread airfield capability should a threat emerge and the RAF has to grow again, one has to consider the sheer lead times involved in fast jet procurement these days. Talking to one area involved in fast jet production, he was astounded to learn that it can take 2-3 years lead time for all the high tech components to be manufactured and built together. Aircraft assembly these days is a very complex and precise business, and the ability to rapidly surge airframe construction simply doesn’t exist. For instance in France, Dassault is struggling to sustain an average production of 12 Rafale airframes per year from its plant. So, while it is easy to want to hold back capability to grow an airforce in an emergency, the reality of todays operations is that we need to fight with what we have. By the time the reinforcements arrive, the crisis will be long over.

SAR Debate

Perhaps the most emotional of all the announcements this week was the news that the provision of Search and Rescue (SAR) is to be taken over by a private company (Bristows) in 2016. This has led to widespread media concerns, and if you read some quarters of the internet, some suggestions that are patently absurd in nature.

The SAR decision is one of those announcements which makes perfect sense, but which it is very hard to win support for due to the emotive nature of the subject. Formed in WW2 to rescue downed aircrew, the military have spent many years rescuing not only civilians, but also crashed pilots around the shores of the UK. In the early Cold War years, when aircraft attrition was far higher than it is now it made a lot of sense for the military to be involved. But these days, some 97% of call outs are for civilian purposes and not military purposes. The reduced number of aircraft attrition, fewer accidents and also bluntly fewer planes in the air means that there is a vastly reduced requirement for the purely military aspect of SAR. Humphrey would go so far as to say that were SAR being invented today, it is extremely hard to see the military wanting to get involved in it due to the almost non existent military nature of the role.

The reality is that Bristows are a UK company (albeit ones with a US parent company) who have been running SAR operations in the UK for over thirty years. During this time they have provided the Coastguard with their SAR capability and also done a wide range of other jobs too. Their aircrew have conducted themselves with the same level of incredible courage and bravery as seen by the military SAR force, although with far less publicity or attention. If they can provide new aircraft that are cheaper to run than the Seaking, and do the job for less cost due to more efficient manpower useage (no secondary duties, branch career plots, wider roles, out of area deployments – just SAR pure and simple), then this is probably a very good result for the taxpayer. While the author has seen snide comments on the Internet about the idea that people in distress will have to provide credit card details prior to rescue, the reality is that everyone in the UK already pays for SAR services through our tax bills which fund the MOD. Its not that a service that was genuinely ‘free’ is going to charge funding. Bluntly, having seen some of the excuses employed for calling up SAR, this author is minded to support charging idiots who think that SAR exists as a kind of free taxi cab to save them a long walk home when their lack of planning and preparation meant others having to risk their lives. Perhaps it may encourage some to think before going into the mountains or out to sea.

Its also important to realise that this announcement doesn’t take away the wider CSAR role (which remains utterly nascent in nature, and is in reality likely to be provided by allies), and it doesn’t stop the likelihood of localised SAR rescue when required. What it is doing is providing a more sensible and cost effective approach to a service which is to all intents and purposes a civilian emergency service now.

Ultimately, while emotionally it will be hard to see the end of this era, it does not mean that we are no longer doing something, its just being done differently. One only has to look at the way in which other duties have been outsourced to the private sector over the years, and ultimately provided a more cost effective way of doing things (e.g. SERCO for tugs and other operators for range safety duties). In a smaller military budget, the ability to preserve funding for operational capability is crucial – if outsourcing SAR frees up room in the budget for other purposes (or even to be sacrificed in cuts so that other things are not cut), then this is a result. In this very challenging era of austerity, we need to be as objective as possible about what it is we ask Defence to do. The papers constantly complain that Defence isn’t getting value for money, yet when it seeks to do so by divesting itself of a largely legacy role, it is attacked for doing so.

RAF SAR Seaking

Off with the OWOB?

The last interesting snippet was news in the Telegraph complaining that the Old War Office is to be disposed of, and that this nation is now a disgrace for getting rid of our heritage. Apparently losing the OWOB means that the UK is no longer a proud nation capable of getting things done, or some other such nonsense.

As anyone who has ever been in the OWOB will tell you, it’s a lovely building from the outside, but on the inside it is a decrepit, fairly depressing place to be. There is no sense of history there, beyond perhaps a couple of the wood panelled conference rooms. It is in poor condition, floods, and is generally a building which has been neglected far past the point when it is economical to make use of it. While it is tempting to complain about a loss of heritage, one has to wonder the reaction of the Telegraph were it to find out that the MOD planned to spend scarce resources refurbishing the building, particularly when chunks of Main Building lie empty.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the story – the MOD has made incredible efforts to reduce its presence in London from some 20 buildings in the 1990s to just two today, and likely only one shortly. Rather than praising MOD for reducing its footprint (part of which was made possible by the much criticised refurbishment), they are now attacked for losing sight of our heritage.

The reality of the OWOB is that in a building where much sensitive work takes place, it is simply not somewhere which the public could appreciate or enjoy. There are many great stories to be told of what has gone on there in the past, and the decisions that were taken. Indeed when the author worked in the building, the rumour was that you could still see where Christine Keelers high heels had caused damage in the Secretary of States private lift…

It would surely make much more sense to dispose of this great building to a firm that could invest the time and money it really needs to bring it back up to a state of restored grandeur. Let the public see the 2nd floor conference rooms, and the offices of the great figures of history. There is no way this can be done while the building remains in Government hands, so let us take a bold step and pass the heritage of the nation on so that the nation itself can view its heritage.


  1. Nice post!

    It seems that the process of rationalisation has been going on since the end of the Cold War (and as you described, with good reason). With Brize Norton the sole home of the transport/tanker fleets, Waddington grouping all of the electronic warfare stuff together and the soon to be only three fast jet main bases it seems to be an ongoing process which isn't necessarily slowing down.

    I Wouldn't for instance be surprised to see either Odiham or Benson ditched in the near future to have a singular main operating base for the RAF's helicopter fleets. It makes sense as well to remove some of the satellite and reserve bases to try and protect and prioritise front-line strength.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you described it as 'legacy real estate'.

  2. Indeed, good post Sir H.

    Base rationalising is logical in todays current situation, and the likely future as well. The same applies top the RN ports.

    Though, what is your thoughts regarding Army basing? With the recently announced changes to depots and barracks, would a similar approach on army basing be suitable for them?

    TA wise, I can imagine its still preferable to maintain the small 'centres' around the country in towns and cities to fit around the nature of service to it, but for the regular army, having 'super bases' or 'forts' be more preferable than the current 'major' and 'minor' barracks?

    1. Hi Mike,
      I'm not really up to speed on the specifics of Army basing, so would be reluctant to comment too much. I think the super garrisons concept works well in theory though, and could be a good model for the future.

  3. It depends on how many front fighter Typhoons and F-35s they are going to have. Which bases will be for Typhoon and F-35 OCU/ How about dispersal in the event of a a major terrorist attack? Is the Eastern UK airspace well defended now given the shift to Lossiemouth? Again, how about 9/11 style aircraft through the whole UK?

    RE RAF Maraham and its "saving" for the F-35, do that end the key role of the FAA--as a strike arm of the RN? Will all F-35s been based there or will there be at least one squadron at an RNAS?

    1. The laydown seems to retain a wide range of runways out there (it is surprising to look and see just how many airfields are still in use in the UK. Don't forget QRA will be flown from Conningsby as well.
      The F35 will be based at Marham, but there will almost certainly be an RAF/RN JSF force in the same way as there was an RAF/RN harrier force.

    2. The FAA and thus a RNAN should get a F-35 basing.

  4. Apart from the terrorist dispersal issue, there needs to be a small amount of flexibility as regards runway maintenance - every so often a base needs to 'bolt-hole' to another while a thorough re-surfacing takes place. There are (unlike, say Heathrow) no multiple main runways available for this.

    Also, there seems to be a legacy issue - return of the land to the original owner (at the original price paid!) if no longer used by MoD. This is why it appears to be so attractive for redundant airfields to be handed over to the Army.

    Another thought-provoking article, Sir H!

  5. As a sometime toiler in the OWOB, please let me say that it is a quite agreeable, convenient and comfortable place to work in, and there is definitely a sense of history there.

    1. I agree it is a nice place (having spent many years there myself), but the building definitely needs more attention than HMG can realistically afford given how limited the London staff requirement is now.

    2. I just wonder what the expense of converting the main building (or that part of it which the MOD is allowed to retain)to house all the staff who remain in London will be. Conditions there are already reportedly cramped and inadequate.I cannot see other departments being treated like this, it sometimes seems that the govt is set on deliberately humiliating MOD.

  6. Another issue with less bases is the type of aircraft. F-35B is STOVL--does that equate to less bases? Can the RAF afford to work out this match? Not forgetting that never in the history of the RAF has it had STOVL as its main strike weapon.

    1. Presuambly you mean emergency dispersal could be a lot more ad hoc with STOVL and secondery/Tertiary bases would have even less justification?

      My gut feeling is we dont want to repeat the mistakes of the Beeching railway where lines were closed and torn up the next day only to hobble an industry for the next 50 years.

      So close a base if there is no justification for it but maybe leave things ticking over or at least not built on for future requirements

    2. I mean the rush to embrace the F-35B and hence say there's no need for that many RAF bases and RNAS.