The RAF Shapes a Way Ahead
On the occasion of the coming 100thAnniversaries of both the RAF and the RAAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, the Chief of Staff of the RAF addressed the Williams Foundation Seminar on the shift from the land wars to high intensity conflict and highlighted he saw the challenges and how best to deal with the challenge.
His presentation underscored that even though he was asked to speak about the challenge within the European theater, that in his view the challenges faced by both Australia and Europe are quite similar.
“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.”
“The human factor will remain incredibly important, but we should strive to maximize our people’s decision-making space by relieving them of the trivia.
“And perhaps most important of all, will be our allies and our cooperative efforts to establish the C2 and information-sharing architectures necessary to deliver decisive combat airpower to the right place at the right time.
“This has been our hallmark as air forces and should remain so well into the future if, together, we successfully address the challenges and seize the opportunities.”
The Air Marshal provided both an overview of the challenges as seen from his perspective as well as key elements for shaping a way ahead to deal with those challenges.
What follows is an unofficial transcript of his remarks.
I’m delighted also to be here at a time when the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Air Force are celebrating their anniversaries, and reflecting on our shared histories. In just 10 days’ time the Royal Air Force will be 100 years old. And it offers a moment to reflect on all that we have learned over the past 100 years and the need to look ahead at where we are likely to be in the future.
The focus of this seminar is on future high-intensity warfare, but I think it’s perhaps worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the extreme intensity of the warfare in which Britain and Australia and our airmen were engaged exactly a century ago; for they were fighting desperately to halt the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
And the scale of that battle has largely been overshadowed by the even greater scale of earlier First World War losses….
That was then, and I’m not about to suggest to you today that we’re likely to see a return to high-intensity warfare of that scale and that sacrifice. But we must accept the fact that the threats to our security and the costs of defending ourselves are rising faster now than at any time since the Cold War. And the Cold War was a period in which we understood the strategic context and our potential adversary pretty well. Things were constantly rather more predictable then than they are now.
It’s also rather more complex now, as has been well covered by the earlier presentations. And it’s this rapidly shifting strategic developments that make my task today of providing a vision of the future an especially challenging one. As is often said, prediction is hard, particularly about the future.
Now this audience is very well informed about what this new strategic environment looks like, not least from the conversations over the last few days. But let me offer some examples of how this feels at the moment from a British perspective. Just over two weeks ago, a foreign country, Russia, used military-grade nerve agent in an attempt to murder people on the streets of the United Kingdom.
Not only an extraordinarily aggressive and reckless act, but the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since 1945.
Russia’s also illegally annexed Crimea, the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly annexed territory from another in Europe. This is in addition to the appalling destruction, which has been visited on the Syrian civilian population by the Russian military itself, and the criminal activities of the Russian state under Putin in cyberspace and elsewhere; they’re well known.
So the post-Second World War consensus that has provided the basis of the rules-based international order and, I might say, peace in Europe, is being challenged and undermined. We must respond, collectively, to reassure our citizens that hostile acts by Russia against our countries, our interests, and our values, will not be tolerated. And closer to home here, we can see many of these same issues and concerns being played out in relation to, for example, North Korea.
So the world is becoming more complex, and threats emanating from state and non-state actors alike are becoming more insidious and unpredictable. And whilst I don’t claim for some supernatural foresight, these and other trends offer some useful insight into the operating challenges, which will confront in the near future. They will influence the character of combat and how we perceive and employ air capabilities into the future.
Now although I’ve been asked to speak about the future of high-intensity warfare in Europe, I’m very conscious, and I’m sure you are, that applying geographical boundaries tempts us to view things in terms that have limited utility in today’s geopolitical environment. Airpower doesn’t recognize such boundaries, nor do cyber or states. Our adversaries, certainly, do not. So we need to look at the world as it is, rather than how we might wish neatly to divide it.
If for example we were to look at Russia through a European lens alone, we would fail to see the links between what it does in Ukraine, the High North, the Eastern Atlantic, Syria, and East Asia; and in cyberspace. They’ve given us plenty of clues that their activities are connected. One example, a long-range bomber fight mounted, not only to irritate NATO, but to exercise military effects in Syria and promote Russian influence throughout the region. A flight in November of 2015, for example, Blackjack bombers making an 8,000-mile round trip around Western Europe, through the Straits of Gibraltar, fire cruise missiles at targets in Syria, and then route back via Iran to base in Russia.
And Iran’s activities across a wide arc through the Middle East, to the shores of the Mediterranean, are not designed to enhance Western influence and security. For the UK, this adverse influence presents a substantial challenge. Up to 92% of our natural gas imports originate from Qatar, and around a quarter of our crude oil comes from countries with coastlines along the Persian Gulf, commodities which are at constant risk of interdiction by Iran.
These myriad threats, which extend beyond traditional geographical boundaries, place an imperative on air forces to become ever more adaptable, resilient, and nimble, if we are to preempt threats and react decisively, perhaps over lengthy periods of time, in an increasingly time-constrained decision-making space. And we need to get rid of the notion that we can control conflict timelines in the way we’ve done over the last 30 years. As military planners, we need to treat every moment of peace as a period of grace to use to prepare as well as we can to meet the demands of the next major conflict.
That conflict may not arrive, I hope it doesn’t, but it will almost certainly arrive if we do not invest conceptually, physically, and morally in the capabilities that will deliver the required power to deter our adversaries. And to deter, you need to have, and be known to have, the capability and the will to fight. Indeed perhaps that will is the first and most fundamental requirement of high-intensity warfare.
So what does all this mean from a UK and an RAF perspective?
Well perhaps I could offer firstly another fundamental requirement of high-intensity warfare from our perspective, and that’s alliances. It’s already been touched on earlier today, but for the UK, NATO is fundamental. It gives us our decisive advantage. It’s not always easy to work with 27 other nations, but it’s something that we have that our adversaries don’t. Our adversaries are trying to undermine those coalitions and alliances. We collectively need to work hard to maintain them; they are our strength.
Turning to airpower, we’ve become rather used, I think, in the post-Cold War era, to the preeminent role of airpower, and combat airpower in particular, has constantly played in advance and protecting our national and multinational vital interests. Its key attributes of speed and reach, and I think it can be argued, the political advantage of impermanence, mean that the deployment of airpower has tended to be the first military response to international crises.
But our successes have imbued too much of our military thinking with the belief that control of the air, and of space, can be an assumed condition for interventions. British forces have not known what it’s like to operate without the freedom of maneuver conferred by persistence control of the air since the Falklands Conflict 36 years ago.
The world is changing.
Our strengths have been well and truly spotted by our potential adversaries. Everyone is waking up to the fact that control of the air and space is now contested to a degree that we have not witnessed since the late 1980s. Highly lethal long-range double-digit SAMs are proliferating, and operational fifth generation fighters are no longer the sole preserve of our allies. Indeed Russia have recently deployed an Su-57, its latest generation, to Syria.
And if evidence was needed of our potential adversaries’ increasing will to contest the air environment, it was provided in June last year, when Russia declared that coalition aircraft operating west of the Euphrates would be targeted, following the shooting down by a US Navy F/A-18 of a Syrian regime Su-22 that was itself targeting coalition forces.
So we need to get used to the idea that in any future environment, high-intensity warfare or not, control of the air is going to have to be fought for, and fought hard for, if we are to establish that vital freedom of maneuver.
The consequences of failing to achieve this foremost duty of air forces are severe. As Field Marshall Montgomery observed in the Second World War, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war, and we lose it quickly.” Nothing has changed since, except that today, we could freely substitute “air” with either “space” or “cyberspace,” or all three; the sense of the statement remains the same.
Now as airmen, we need to ensure that our joint force colleagues appreciate the importance of control of the air, and the implications for airpower mass and the apportionment of airpower effort….. Our political leaders and our joint colleagues have the right to expect their air forces to dominate the high ground as integral parts of the multi-domain capability range of air forces.
If airpower’s relevance and usefulness have never been greater, for this to remain the case into the future demands that we confront some of the emerging threats to its ascendancy. To maintain the combat edge in the Royal Air Force, we are implementing a strategy that will deliver the right technology, the right people, the right processes, to allow us to respond rapidly and decisively to changing threats at all levels of warfare.
We cannot rely on the freedoms that have made our air forces so successful in the recent past. Our potential enemies are becoming too adaptive to give us that luxury.
And we need therefore not only to innovate new technologies, but processes too.
But before I move on to how we might achieve this, it’s perhaps worth looking at the emerging challenges to combat airpower’s effectiveness further, in high-intensity warfare and more generally.
I’ve already mentioned the proliferation of advanced fighters, SAMs, counter-space, cyber, and electromagnetic threats. Our adversaries seek to offset our strengths by raising the potential cost of action, and restricting our freedom of maneuver, through the adoption of anti-access and area-denial capabilities.
Our adversaries also seek to degrade our air capabilities by taking advantage of the legal and ethical constraints placed on us by our values, which are pleasingly higher, but are still more restrictive, than those accepted by our opponents.
There are implications from all of this.
Hybrid warfare as we know will continue to be a significant feature of strategically contested environments, in which actors will see to blur the boundaries between peace and war and engagement of attributable and non-attributable activities below the threshold on force conflict. The theme today is clearly high-intensity warfare.
My question might be, how and when do we know we’re in one?
So against this strategic backdrop, we have to fight hard to maintain the asymmetric advantage that airpower has conferred on us for so long. But as we’ve discussed in great detail and quite rightly, important as pure combat capabilities will be, of equal and arguably now of greater significance, is the information platforms that collect, disseminate, and integrate as part of this greater information management whole.
One of the key ingredients of success in combat will be, as indeed it’s always been, to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right place at the right time. It will just be more so, much more so, in the future. Our successes will hinge on that decision superiority and being able to exploit technological opportunities.
The pace of that technological change is self evidently accelerating, and the most significant changes are likely to come from the rapid development of these new sensors; novel weapons, including directed energy; artificial intelligence; and automated and remotely operated systems.
I suspect that these developments are indeed likely to be most profound in the air domain, which has always been at the vanguard of technology. As airmen we shouldn’t be afraid of this challenge. The Royal Air Force tackled similar problems in the 1930s, which paved the way for the successful defense of our country during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Then as now, information superiority underpinned air superiority and by extension every military endeavor.
But this tsunami of information that ever more sophisticated systems generates presents a challenge that can only be addressed through vastly more agile and adaptable C2 architectures. Against that backdrop of increasing data volumes, the OODA Loop as we’ve discussed essentially is indeed spinning faster, and we’ve got to maintain that tighter, faster loop than our adversaries. We need C2 networks that are adaptable, distributed, secure, and assured.
The successful flow of information across joint and multinational boundaries demands that greater collaboration, automation, and integration must be achieved.
We know we need to adopt an information-centric rather than a platform-centric approach to our future capabilities.
This swift and accurate decision-making cannot be the sole preserve of C2 architectures and technological advances. Warfare will be, as it has always been, primarily a human activity, and the making of decisions primarily a human activity, particularly those that involve the use of lethal force.
The important aspects here are to ensure that humans are unburdened by the trivial and presented only with the decisions to which legally, morally, and intellectually they remain uniquely best suited to make.
Which brings me of course to our people, who are already outstanding, and who will continue to give us our decisive edge into the future. The challenge of senior leadership, of a certain generation like mine, is to give our people the opportunity, the freedom, and the incentives to think their way around the problems we face, and allow us to capitalize fully on their enormous powers of innovation.
And finally I would say again, that our successes will depend on like-minded allies sharing values and will as well as capabilities. Our potential adversaries struggle in this respect; I’m delighted that we do not.
So in drawing to a conclusion, we face a world, which is more challenging, and threatening than it has been for a generation. Air, space, and cyber power will remain at the forefront of political choice when our national, or collective interests are at stake.
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.
The human factor will remain incredibly important, but we should strive to maximize our people’s decision-making space by relieving them of the trivia.
And perhaps most important of all, will be our allies and our cooperative efforts to establish the C2 and information-sharing architectures necessary to deliver decisive combat airpower to the right place at the right time. This has been our hallmark as air forces and should remain so well into the future if, together, we successfully address the challenges and seize the opportunities.
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.
Finally, again, you asked me to speak about these requirements of high-intensity warfare. The sense I think is that this refers to a potential future state. But perhaps I can offer the recent thoughts of Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He said recently that the RAF is currently experiencing its longest period of high-intensity operations since the Second World War, especially in the fight against Daesh.
Well he’s right. We are busier than we’ve been for generations.
But that has to be a cause for concern.
Because if my current force is being pushed by a sustained fight against a terrorist organization, we have much work to do if we are to be technologically and in process and people, and resilience and sustainability, with much to do if we are to be ready to deal with the scale and the breadth of threats which we really mean when we speak about high-intensity warfare.
As was so rightly said in one of the earlier presentations, this is a national effort.
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