Shaping a Way Ahead for the Networked Integrated Force: A Royal Air Force Perspective

By Robbin Laird

In his presentation to the Williams Foundation seminar held on March 24, 2022 which focused on “accelerating the transition to a networked integrated force”, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston presented the perspective of the RAF on the challenge.

The last time an RAF Chief of Staff spoke at a Williams Foundation Seminar was in March 2018. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, then Chief of Staff of the RAF, addressed the Williams Foundation Seminar on the shift from the land wars to high intensity conflict. At that seminar, this is how Hillier highlighted the challenge:

“You asked me to speak about high-intensity warfare in Europe. Perhaps I’ve not really provided that much of that specific geographical context. But then as I said right at the start, I don’t believe that what I’ve described can be bracketed within a particular geography. The challenges I’ve described are truly global and truly common to us all. I believe that airpower’s inherent characteristics and capabilities make it especially able to respond effectively to those challenges.”

A clear driver of the shift is that airpower advantage will have to be fought for and not assumed.  And his way ahead focused very much on leveraging what new platforms we are acquiring but to build out from them to shape new ways ahead to regain strategic advantage.

“But the asymmetric advantage airpower has given us for the last three decades at least, is narrowing. The integration into our air forces of fifth generation capabilities such as the F-35 Lighting will only redress the delta to a degree. Of equal importance in maintaining our combat edge is this ability to manage vast amounts of information, and make decisions more quickly and more accurately. Technological developments will be a key element in ensuring that the lever of the best possible output from our air and space platforms, but our C2 structures, processes, and approach to information sharing will be a decisive factor.”

What Hillier discussed throughout his 2018 presentation in Australia was the presaging of what would be introduced in 2020 as the new integrated operating concept for the UK forces.

That operating concept which is rooted in the kill web approach was officially launched in the Fall of 2020. Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, at the 2020 version of the annual Royal United Services Institute address by Chief of Defence Staff, highlighted the launch of the new strategy. “What should be our response to this ever more complex and dynamic strategic context? My view is that more of the same will not be enough. We must fundamentally change our thinking if we are not to be overwhelmed. Hence, we are launching this Integrated Operating Concept.

“We cannot afford any longer to operate in silos—we have to be integrated: with allies as I have described, across Government, as a national enterprise, but particularly across the military instrument. Effective integration of maritime, land, air, space and cyber achieves a multi-domain effect that adds up to far more than simply the sum of the parts, recognizing—to paraphrase Omar Bradley—that the overall effect is only as powerful as the strength of the weakest domain.”

Since Hillier last spoke, the UK has faced the challenges of Brexit, Covid-19, has introduced the new carriers as operational realities, and has operated the new carrier outside of the European area of operations. The RAF and Royal Navy have also begun the F-35 era, and the UK government has launched the Tempest next generation airpower program as well.

And as the current Chief of Staff of the RAF spoke at the Williams Foundation, Europe was experiencing its first major war in a very long time. And Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston was speaking after the UK government had committed itself to increased defense spending and the launching of the new Integrated Operating Concept.

In other words, the UK faces a number of challenges which certainly require better force integration within the UK forces and with allies, simply to get the scale, and depth necessary for UK direct defense, let alone contributing to wider allied considerations.

How does Wigston see this getting accomplished?

This is how he framed the challenges: “One year ago, the UK government published the Integrated Review of Security, Defense Development And Foreign Policy. It was a significant statement of Britain’s place in the world and the role of the UK Armed Forces in that. Last April, before the ink was even dry, Russia first threatened military action against Kyiv. It was a chilling foretaste of what we are now seeing unfolding there. The outrageous, unprovoked, and unjustified invasion of a sovereign country in Europe, thousands of deaths, and the displacement of over 10 million Ukrainian citizens, something we thought we had consigned to history.”

He then argued that the Integrated Review had highlighted three key themes which current events simply reinforced as key challenges.

“Firstly, the recognition that it’s an uncertain and increasingly dangerous world. We face fast evolving threats to our nation’s and our allies.

“Secondly, in this era of strategic competition, the UK must be prepared and able to act globally as a problem solving, burden sharing nation, amplifying our effect through deeper relationships and partnerships.

“And thirdly, with the equivalent of a 42 billion Australian uplift in defense funding over the four years from 2021, that the UK government could not be clearer in its view of the integral role of the UK Arm Forces in protecting and projecting the United Kingdom around the world.”

“The Integrated Review confirmed the need for the UK to be able to deter and defend against state-based opponents, to strengthen our technological and scientific base and to continue the modernization of every aspect of our armed forces. And it also looked at broader aspects of security too, including climate change, population pressures, and resource competition.”

But with the Covid-19 impact, it will be challenging for the UK or any major liberal democracy to establish sustained defense spending, so what then are the priorities to be focused upon with investments, and force design going forward?

“My chief of defense staff has made his priorities, and of course they’re now my priorities, very clear. Firstly, that everyone must be absolutely focused on playing their part in turning the ambition of the Integrated Review into reality.

“Second, it’s around transforming, reforming, and integrating effectively.

“Third, it’s about having formations, units, platforms, systems, and people that are more deployable and deployed more, at home and abroad.

“Fourth is the need to be more lethal. And to be more lethal, it’s absolutely essential that we are more innovative.

“And fifth, and probably the most important, is our people, our culture, and the diversity of our workforce in every sense of the word. And threading through all of those is that critical need for multi domain integration across the maritime land air space and cyberspace domains. To achieve that nirvana of multi domain integration, we must integrate across defense by design, and we must integrate by instinct.”

Wigston then highlighted how such an approach affected the RAF.

“To continue to protect the UK and our allies in this threat laced world, the Royal Air Force must be ready to understand, decide, and then act faster, with even greater precision, lethality and in more places around the world simultaneously than we do today. And we’ve got to do it sustainably too, both in terms of resource and the environment Above all, it will require the Royal Air Force to integrate ever more closely with our Royal Navy, Army and Strategic Command, the Ministry of Defense, other government departments and our international partners.

“Success demands, swift, joint, fully integrated action across all war fighting domains, land,, sea, air, space and cyber. Our aircraft, spacecraft and systems must integrate seamlessly to allow the transfer and exploitation of information, rapid decision making and timely delivery of effects.”

In his presentation, he highlighted the way ahead as envisaged by the UK with regard to the airpower piece of shaping the evolving networked and integrated force. This is the team tempest or future combat air system approach.

And this is Wigston described it: “The Future Combat Air System is such a critical development program for the nation, because we need to start work now on what will replace Typhoon from the late 2030s and why we are investing three and a half billion Australian over the next four years alongside our international partners like Italy. We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game changing mix of swarming drones and mixed formations of un-crewed combat aircraft, as well as next generation piloted aircraft like Tempest. Our uncured combat aircraft, Mosquito, is already taking shape in Belfast and our experimental swarming drone, Arvena, has already exceeded expectations on operational trials. This isn’t the stuff of a distant sci-fi future. We’re aiming for Mosquito and Arvena derivatives to be fielded operationally this decade, transforming the combat battle space in a way not seen since the advent of the Jet Age.”

The integration piece for the RAF evolves on two levels, the UK national force and its ability to work more effectively with allies in coalition operations.

And he describes the latter in the following terms:

“We must place a premium on being allied by design, through building alliances and improving interoperability. And it means that we have to be integrated with allies across government as a national enterprise, and particularly across all the instruments of our military power. Our multi-domain effects have to add up to more than the sum of the parts.

‘In that regard, I can’t think of a better example of multi-domain integration than the UK carrier strike group that deployed last year through the Indo-Pacific region, as far as Japan. It brought to life, the deeper UK focus on the Indo-Pacific, a region the Integrated Review identified as critical to our economy, our security, and our global ambition to support an open and resilient international order.

“At the heart of that carrier strike group, of course, is our ability to operate fifth generation combat aircraft from the sea. Lightning is a phenomenal war fighting machine, from land or sea. And last year 617 Squadron Royal Air Force and VMFA-211 from the US Marine Corps demonstrated that enormous utility from the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth.”

“We must train our personnel to work together through integrated exercises with government partners and allies. As we develop our military plans and processes, we must ensure that they’re integrated by design rather than working with partners ad hoc at the point of need. Our modernization from an Industrial Age of platforms to an Information Age of systems has to be enabled at every level by a digital backbone, into which all sensors, effectors and deciders are connected.”

Frankly speaking, this is very hard to do.

I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade on ships, land bases in the UK and in the United States watching how the UK and the USMC and U.S. Navy have worked the integration which the RAF chief underscored with regard to the ability of the UK carriers to work with the United States. This was a deliberate effort which has been very challenging to do and, frankly, not widely noticed in the broader political or strategic world.

If such efforts are to be prioritized, ensuring that they get the kind of strategic and funding support will be crucial. And the significant investment in the land wars is a significant investment cost which is not easily carried forward in such an effort.

And getting governments on the same page with regard to rapid decision making is its own challenge, but equally important as shaping the joint operational approach so well laid out by the RAF Chief of Staff.

Indeed, Wigston highlighted the hinge between the military and the civil authorities which is crisis management.

“Air and space power gives our government the ability to act or signal strategically worldwide, at range, at speed, precisely with minimal physical and political risk and maximum political choice. We play a decisive role protecting and defending the United Kingdom and our allies 24/7 today. But as chief of the air staff, it also falls to me to design and start to build the force my successors will have to fight with and win within 10-, 20- or 30-years’ time.

“The Royal air force must be ready to operate in that complex operating environment of the future. Above all, we must be able to defend the UK and our allies in the face of those sophisticated new air and missile threats.”

It really is decision superiority that force integration is about.

How to operate with maximum effect throughout the extended battlespace but with not just military but civil decision making capable of resolving crises.

And that is a major challenge facing our democracies.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB, CBE, ADC
Chief of the Air Staff

Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston CBE ADC is the Chief of the Air Staff, in command of the Royal Air Force, leading a Whole Force of some 35,000 Regular and Reserve personnel, and 5,000 Civil Servants, supported by thousands of contractors.

Commissioned on a University Cadetship in 1986, he completed his pilot training on the Tornado GR1 in 1992 followed by a succession of frontline tours, including operational deployments enforcing the no-fly zones in Iraq. He commanded 12(Bomber) Squadron, flying the Tornado GR4 and leading the Squadron on two operational tours in Iraq and large force exercises in Canada, Malaysia and the USA. Appointments in operational headquarters have included Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar, as the Chief of Combat Operations in the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre; Basrah International Airport, Iraq as Commander 903 Expeditionary Air Wing; and one year in Afghanistan as the Director Air Operations in Headquarters ISAF Joint Command. He was appointed CBE in 2013 for his contribution to that mission.

Staff appointments in the Ministry of Defence have included the Operations Directorate and the predecessor to what is now Military Strategic Effects. In 2013, after a short spell as the Tornado Force Commander, he became the Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of Defence Staff.

In January 2015, he was appointed Administrator of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia and Commander British Forces Cyprus, responsible for the civil governance of the Sovereign Base Areas and command of British forces based permanently in Cyprus.

Senior Royal Air Force appointments have included Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, responsible for the strategic coherence and coordination of the Royal Air Force, and oversight of the RAF100 centenary programme.

Prior to becoming Chief of the Air Staff, he was Deputy Commander Capability, responsible for the strategic planning and delivery of all aspects of Royal Air Force capability including people, equipment, infrastructure and training.

Education and training includes reading Engineering Science at Oriel College, Oxford; the

Advanced Command and Staff Course; an MA in Defence Studies from King’s College London; the Higher Command and Staff Course; and the UK Pinnacle Course.

He is a Vice Patron of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust and President of the Royal Air Force Rowing Association.

Author’s Note: Ed Timperlake and I discuss the UK Integrated Operating Concept in the context of the kill web approach in our forthcoming book, A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making: Deterrence and Warfighting in the XXIst Century.