The Next Hundred Years of the RAF and the 2018 Farnbourgh Air Show

By Robbin Laird

Recently, the RAF celebrated its first one hundred years.

With this year’s Royal Air Tatoo and the Farnbourgh Air Show, it is launching its next 100 years.

The RAF is in the course of a fundamental transformation and is doing so within the context of significant strategic change and uncertainty.

Not present at the Farnbourgh Air Show will be a new combat platform fundamentally shaping the way ahead for the RAF, namely, the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers.

With the new carriers, the RAF is working with the Royal Navy to train jointly their new air combat force, an F-35B force flying off of the new ship.

The UK has built the carrier as part of a national shipbuilding effort, and one enabled by the coming of the F-35 as well.  The coalition working relationship surrounding this effort will be evident at both Royal Air Tatoo as the Air Chiefs meet and discuss the way ahead and at the Farnbourgh Air Show as the F-35s fly as well.

The coming of the F-35 to the RAF and Royal Navy will intersect with the global partners also flying the aircraft, and notably the partners within Europe.

With the UK flying the same aircraft as the Northern Europeans, including the Dutch, this shapes new opportunities and capabilities as well. And the close working relationship with the US Navy and Marine Corps will be evident as the HMS Queen Elizabeth comes this summer for F-35 integration training off of the Virginia Coast and when the Marines operate off of the ship, including next year during further ship trials off of the British coast as well.

As Group Captain Ian Townsend, the RAF Marham base commander, where the first F-35s arrived recently, noted in my interview with him:

“In the past two decades our airpower has been dominant. But we do not want to introduce the F-35 as a replacement aircraft operating within the constraints of the legacy system. We need a multi-domain capability to ensure that our adversaries do not simply work around a classic airpower template.

“The challenge is to exploit the F-35 as a lever for broader multi-domain combat innovations. What we need to make sure is that people don’t use multi-domain to go around our combat air advantage but rather to evolve our combat air advantage and make it a core part of our own cutting edge multi-domain capability.”

Group Captain Townsend noted that there was very little real familiarity with the F-35 in the UK defense structure, and that from the outset the first squadron at RAF Marham would engage in that familiarization process.  And flying at the RAF centennial and at Farnbourgh is part of the introductory familiarization process.

At the same time, the other aspects of RAF transformation highlight another key aspect of the coalition approach, namely, the incorporation of new or modernized European built aircraft.

For the UK, Project Centurion is the core modernization effort with regard to Typhoon, the main focus of which is upon transferring some of the weapons carried by the Tornado, soon to be retired, onto the Typhoon, to enable that aircraft to take over some of Tornado’s capabilities.

But less visible is the progress the RAF has made with regard to aircraft availability for Typhoon as the UK government and industry has worked with the RAF to shape new approaches to provide for enhanced fleet performance.

The contract is the product of the evolution over more than a decade of working on support arrangements associated with various modalities of performance-based logistics to a fleet availability approach. Indeed, the new TyTan contract has much to teach the rest of US and European defense industry with regard to sustainment and investments in force structure development.

The latest iteration of Typhoon support is the TyTan contractwhich was launched in 2016. The TyTAN contract is focused on availability of aircraft for the Typhoon fleet taken as a whole.  The contract focuses on fleet management and fleet availability, and the progress made on the sustainment side is part of the overall evolution of where the RAF is going as well.  It is less flashy than a flyover at Farnbourgh, but availability rates are crucial to flying the kind of combat capability which the RAF will need going forward into a strategic environment defined by competition with peer competitors.

The new TyTan approach is based on organizational and legal changes which allow savings from sustainment to be plowed back into the modernization of the aircraft.  As Steve Worsnip, Vice President F-35 Sustainment, BAE Systems, with more than 20 years of experience in the sustainment business and a key player in shaping the Typhoon approach, commented during an interview at RAF Coningsby earlier this year with me:

“Industry was not being paid to replace things or benefitting from the need to repair, alternatively we had buy-in from the RAF, MoD and industry to enhance performance, generate costs savings and to provide for new monies for modernization of the aircraft.”

In other words, the TyTan approach is incentivizing support for fleet enhancement, rather than simply sustaining aircraft.   It means as well that savings can be provided to support the Centurion Program and other modernization efforts for Typhoon.

It is not simply about PBLs, and parts support. It is about setting in motion a process whereby MoD, the RAF, and industry can work together to shape a collaborative outcome, and with that cultural shift comes organizational change.

Two other key elements of RAF transformation are its new A330MRTT Voyager Tanker, and the A400M lift aircraft.

Both are part of the transformation of the air support structure based at RAF Brize Norton, where the RAF is working force integration for the support fleet.

These aircraft are built in cooperation with Airbus, and the Typhoon built in cooperation with the other Eurofighter partners.

But Brexit is raising challenges to sort through the future of UK aeropspace industry with Europe. While the F-35 is also coalition built with British industry having 15% of the F-35 program and thereby well positioned for significant engagement over the next three decades in the program, but the European industrial working relationship with UK industry is a pressing issue.

Brexit is occurring at a time of profound change in Europe, triggered perhaps in part by Brexit, but due to a wide range of dynamics which are clearly leading to the politics within nations focused on their future and the kind of European working relationships those nations wish to see.

It is very clear that Brexit provides a major challenge to UK defense and aerospace industry given that the major focus and major capabilities in those sectors rests on their role in global supply chains and programs, many of which are European.

Airbus is a central player in the UK aerospace industry, and in defense as well.  Leonardo is many ways a UK-Italian company.  MBDA is a Franco-UK company with German and Italian aspects. Thales has a very large UK component which both complements and challenges its French dominant part of the company.

What is their fate and how will these relationships work in practical terms as movement of personnel, taxes and import and export issues get sorted?

Will joint investments continue between Britain and the continent within these companies?

What is the future of Eurofiighter if the UK and continental European relationship is disrupted?

Will France and UK co-investments in missiles via MBDA continue uninterrupted?

There are a number of key questions to consider determining the fate of European and UK defense in dealing with the looming Brexit impacts.

The CEO of Airbus recently highlighted how he saw the Brexit challenge:

Soft or hard . . . light or clean, [it] will be damaging for industry, for our industry and damaging for the UK,” he said.

The Airbus chief said the UK government had “no clue, no consensus on how to execute Brexit without severe harm,” in a briefing in London on the European aircraft maker’s operations. He said Brexit was distracting politicians — both in the UK and Europe — from important issues that would determine the future of the UK and Europe.

“This Brexit discussion is consuming so much bandwidth of our political elites — over here and in Europe — that it seems the governments have very little time to focus on those questions that really count for the future and competitiveness . . . proper educational infrastructure . . . proper infrastructure. These are the things that will decide our competitiveness in Europe in future”

In short, the future of the RAF is on display at the Farnbourgh Air Show. With the F-35, the RAF is part of the multi-domain airpower transformation and will work closely with Northern European allies in reshaping Northern Tier Defense.

With the Typhoon, the RAF is seeing a modernized aircraft being reworked to compliment the F-35 but with a yet undetermined relationship with its European partners.

And the A330MRTT and A400M aircraft as well as its MBDA missiles part of a broader Brexit resolution context.

It is challenging enough to deal with the Russian moves in Europe; but many of the most significant changes are coming within Europe and between Europe and the US.

The recent visit of President Trump shows the US President highlighting challenges without actually contributing to their resolution.

But the British and the Europeans clearly need to resolve some core challenges in moving ahead with their aerospace industry.

This article was first published by Breaking Defense on July 16, 2018 as Transforming the RAF.