Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report



Examination of witnesses (Questions 1920 - 1939)

WEDNESDAY 15 JULY 1998

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR RICHARD JOHNS, GCB, CBE, LVO, ADC, FRAES RAF, MR TREVOR WOOLLEY AND AIR VICE MARSHAL STEVE N NICHOLL, AFC, BA, FRAES RAF

  1920. What steps can you take to minimise that risk, if any?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) By very very careful planning and, if necessary, by using OCU crews and instructors or, indeed, not disbanding squadrons when we planned to do it and running them on for a longer time.

  1921. By holding back on decisions then?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) Precisely. If you are about to disband an F3 squadron because the crews are going to convert onto the Eurofighter and a crisis suddenly emerges, we will have no option but to run that squadron on in its operational role and to delay its introduction to service. As far as keeping the OCU as busy, we can always look for an air crew perhaps coming straight out of the training machine or whatever to make sure that we do not disrupt the flow of trained pilots coming into the Service.

  1922. If you were forced to make a decision of the kind you have described because of operational requirements that would have implications for the budget.
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) Yes, it certainly would, sir, but I would assume the crisis would be of sufficient severity in making us do this to have a fair wind from those who control the purse strings.

  1923. You mean you get money from the Foreign Office?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I would prefer the Treasury, sir!

  1924. Do you adhere to the Soames' view that all the time he was in the Ministry of Defence he did not think the enemy were the Russians, he thought they were the Treasury?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) It would be quite improper for me to comment on that.

Ms Taylor

  1925. I have got some very much more easy questions and pleasing questions from my point of view on the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. What is the balance between full time and reservists in that Force structure?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I am afraid I cannot tell you the precise breakdown of the figures.

  1926. Could you write to us?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I can certainly let you know.

  1927. That is splendid. Seeing the conclusions of the SDR with regards to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, it gives me hope and it gives me hope for very specific reasons. I believe that the reservist force is actually a very good force and very much a force that is often under-valued, if I am dead straight with you, by many in the MoD. Did you really nod and say yes to that?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I did in the past.

  1928. I will accept that for the moment. Effectively the SDR has come out with a statement that we will see an increase in posts here by some 270 and we can see them adding up to over 2,000 and possibly they are going to move into support and logistics roles. This is a very valuable move. How have you managed to do it when we have seen cuts elsewhere? How were you able to express the military requirements here for this increase and back off and able to state that the socio political considerations were actually of less value? How were you able to do this?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I think the Air Force—and it was certainly before I became a CAS, under my predecessor—were very quick off the mark in understanding that the whole role of what is now the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which of course is an amalgamation of the previous Auxiliaries and the Royal Air Force Reserve, needed to be re-orientated again to recognise the realities of the new world. Whereas previously they had been role specialised, i.e. they were primarily RAF field squadrons or Royal Auxiliary Rapier squadrons, there were not just the jobs for them to do, particularly in terms of reinforcement that had been their primary operational deployment during the Cold War and that what were really required, given the fact that we were now being asked to sustain this number of overseas long range deployments, were reservists who under the new Reserve Act could be employed in sustaining not only the front line on these deployments but also, most importantly, relieving some of the pressure that the regular Forces were experiencing. Thus we moved over to the concept of role support squadrons and each of the primary deployed forces of the Royal Air Force, those that were deployed both in the fast jet and the helicopter forces, now have a role support squadron that is specifically assigned to them and, dare I say, it has been a grand success. We have had far more applicants than we can actually accommodate, which is sad in one way but very good in another way. The first of these squadrons has now been declared combat ready. I should point out that we do not deploy the squadron as an entity. For example, let us say it is the Helicopter role Support Squadron, if a squadron is deployed over a long time down at somewhere like Split or whatever, one looks at the people who are being caned the heaviest, who had done the most deployed time and then you say, "Right, we will get a reservist to come and replace him for a period so he can have a break." That applies to all our deployable forces and it has been a great success. We are building on that success by aiming to create a further 270 posts which will actually bring the total of all our reserves up to just under 3,000, which is about the same as the Royal Navy reserve but still significantly less than the Territorial Army.
  (Mr Woolley) The regular establishment at present, before the SDR, is 180 regulars out of a total of 2,500.

  1929. That is very impressive. Perhaps you could look at those figures again. Thank you for them. The thing that I am getting from your response is again very pleasing because what you are saying to us is that the specialism and the specialist knowledge that is required here is something that you can actually identify and you can bring into the Service from outside. I am being told by the Army, the land force, that this is actually much much more difficult; in fact, I am being told it is nearly impossible to see them work as teams. You are saying it is quite feasible to see them work as teams on front-line deployment, etcetera, etcetera. Is this because (1) you make them feel special and (2) because you train them so well?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I think that the quality of training that we give our reservists is extremely high. We do make sure that the regular cadre of each of those role support squadrons are people of high quality. It is not a backyard job for a regular, whether he be a warrant officer or a senior NCO. We put good people into these jobs because if you are going to get the operational input or utility you have got to train them properly. So we do put a lot of time and effort into that.

  1930. Maybe some of them will have defined how many man day training days will be required and could someone tell us that?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I cannot tell you the precise figure, but the whole issue of man training days during the year is something that is very carefully calculated.

  1931. Could you drop us a note and let us know?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) Certainly.

  1932. It is very important for us to hear the resource implication here. You are telling us, are you, that this is a Force that defines readiness in rapid deployment terms without a problem?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) Yes. We would not require them to deploy in most instances on an initial deployment. That would be most unlikely. The utility of these forces comes when you are involved in year long deployed operations. People forget that the Royal Air Force has been deployed in Turkey, flying 365 days a year since May 1991. We have been in the Gulf, first of all at Dhahran and now at Al Kharj since October that year. We have had tankers at Bahrain non-stop and we have had tankers at Incerlik. We have now been at Ali Al Salem since February this year. The sheer length and duration of these deployments that we have been sustaining has gone largely unnoticed simply because they are such a matter of fact and routine, but they do have an effect on the Service, they really do. We have now got air crew doing their 12th deployment to the Middle East and the fact that we will have the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to help relieve some of that strain I think is a marvellous thing for the Royal Air Force and that is why it is so welcome. Incidently, that also underwrites the requirement to make sure they are properly trained before they are deployed into an operational setting.

  Ms Taylor: It sounds as though you are a model for the rest of them to follow. Thank you.

Mr Brazier

  1933. What scope is there for having part-time reservist Commanders because obviously retention will be better among your officers if they can see some sort of career structure ahead of them?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) I do not know, sir. They are all regulars at the moment. Could I take notice and could I give you a written reply to that because I quite genuinely do not know the answer to the question?

  1934. Thank you very much. Looking at personnel issues, the effect of the SDR on RAF manpower levels is to be "broadly neutral" once full manning has been achieved. Do you believe that the SDR can come up with a satisfactory strategy to enable you to achieve full manning, particularly given the present recruiting policies of the airlines?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) We have one very obvious problem in the Royal Air Force at the moment in terms of manpower and that is pilot retention. That is one very clearly identified problem because there has been a great growth in national airlines in the civil aviation industry and so on and Royal Air Force pilots are an immensely attractive commodity and therefore there is quite aggressive recruiting going on to get our people to go there. How we are tackling that one perhaps I could come back to in a minute. What I do very much hope is that the outcome of the Strategic Defence Review and certainly its clarity about what all three Services are expected to do will actually give people in the Service much wanted confidence in the future, confidence of employment and confidence of career opportunity. I hope that is the very important message that comes out of the SDR.

  1935. Just on the issue of retention of pilots, what are your plans on that?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) There is a very simple equation which goes, Manpower Requirement (and you can say that is pilots in this particular example) equals the Into Productive Service (that is the number of pilots you get coming into productive service, i.e. operational squadrons) times the Return of Service, how long do they actually stay in the Service. So in solving this problem we are looking at it in three distinct blocks. In terms of the actual requirement, we are driving down the requirement as ruthlessly as we can to make sure that particularly our junior air crew are employed flying aeroplanes and not filling staff appointments. We are transferring as many as we can to the operational support branch where people are not trained pilots and actually looking very ruthlessly at our staff structures to minimise the requirement.

  1936. Does not that still further increase the strain on family life for those pilots if you take out some cushy postings in between?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) There is no such thing as a cushy posting.

Mr Campbell

  1937. At the MoD I think it happens!
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) There is that danger, yes, and that is why it is so important that we actually remain within the SDR planning guideline assumptions. People who come out of the front line after doing nine years at the front line on a fast jet squadron and the rest of it, hopefully at that stage of seniority they will be ready for staff college, some of them are going to be flying instructors and that is not such a demanding role as a front-line operational role is. So there are still opportunities there where the people can get a break, still flying aeroplanes out of the front line. I entirely take your point that by being so ruthless about ground appointments the opportunities are reduced. If you go to the Into Productive Service, this actually refers to the number of people we can train coming into the Royal Air Force. For a number of years now structural difficulty within the Royal Air Force has been camouflaged by the fact that we have been cutting out squadrons so fast under previous reviews that we have always had a surplus of air crew within the Royal Air Force. Those days are now over and reality now stares us right in the face and we must certainly increase our training machine to generate more pilots coming through into the Royal Air Force and that we are very strongly addressing at the moment. The final bit is the Return of Service. The facts of the matter are that Royal Air Force pilots are not staying in the Service long enough to actually make sure that we get the maximum benefit of their very very expensive training and so there are what we call "pull" factors, which are the airlines, and there are "push" factors within the Service which convince people to say, "I have had enough of this. I have done my bit. I have done my 12th deployment. I have been to Al Kharj for the third time"—which believe you me is no holiday camp—"and my wife and family are getting fed up with this, I will now take the opportunity to go." What are we doing about them? First of all, I think it is absolutely imperative that we get younger people into the Royal Air Force as air crew and we will be shifting some of the emphasis of our recruitment strategy to try and get people into the Service straight from school, age 18, to get them in and on squadrons at the age of 21. People do not start to get itchy feet in our experience until about the age of 32/33/34. We will get a far better return of service out of them. We are also introducing a number of other initiatives which hopefully will make the Service a more attractive career for people to stay, but at the end of the day, I very seriously believe that we have got to create an atmosphere in the Royal Air Force which makes people far more loath to give it up and there are three words in my lexicon which are most important: the first is pride in the Service, the second is confidence in the capability to do the job and the third is value. If people feel valued not only within the Service but within the Ministry of Defence, within government for the job they are doing.

  1938. This is a subject which is very very dear to your heart and obviously of critical importance indeed. We will not have an Air Force unless we have the high quality people, not exclusively pilots by any means but they are obviously central to it. Could I just pursue two radical thoughts with you for a moment. The first is that we discussed with the Secretary of State on Monday problems with having central personnel planning. As a result of the Bett's study you were able to change your career structure so that you got it out-of-line with the other Services. Could I put it to you that you really need to be able to go down a very much different route. To give one example, if you offer Service personnel leaving the Service a relatively generous pension and a generous gratuity in the case of a Service which is trying to look after people who have given up their lives perhaps without acquiring very masterful skills that makes sense. In the case of the Air Force, is there not a case for looking at some of that package and putting it back into the pay of people who are serving? There seems to be something rather strange about the idea that somebody can go off into a job for an airline where they are earning twice as much, plus get an RAF pension from their early forties, plus a substantial gratuity. A former member of this Committee I know had a particular crusade on this for several years, specifically on the issue of the way the gratuity works and the fact it is only available if you leave. Do you think there is a case for the Air Force being allowed to look differently at the way it structures its bundle of personnel money?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) May I just make a very important point here? We are talking about pilots at the moment, quite specifically, but there is a very broad curve of our air crew within the Royal Air Force and, of course, we have technical expertise within the Service in terms of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, CI and goodness knows what else, all of which is an immensely attractive commodity outside the Service within the civilian business community and so on and so forth. What I do not want to do is in solving the pilot problem immediately create a problem elsewhere. So there has got to be some form of equitable and recognisable treatment of pilots in the Royal Air Force that is accepted elsewhere within the Service. I think that is a very important principle. Returning to your specific question about the age of 38, the simple facts of the matter are that if every pilot in the Royal Air Force decided to stay in when he got to his 38 age option we would be in deep trouble. We really would become a geriatric Air Force. We would have all sorts of 50-year olds flying Eurofighters which may or may not be a good thing, I do not know. We do expect at the age of 38 for there to be quite a significant outflow. The real problem is that people who PVR early, who decide to go at the age of 30/31/32, go without a gratuity, without any pensionable rights when they take this decision. Why do they take the decision? They take it because they think if they do not jump then they will not get a captaincy in one of the mayor airlines because of their age and that will ultimately affect not only their earning power but their pension when they retire from one of the major airlines.

  1939. What studies were carried out into forming one or more volunteer reserve fast-jet squadrons, something which the Americans have extensively in their Air Guard?
  (Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns) We have now got the first reservists flying the fast-jet aircraft. It is in the trial stage. We are trying that. We have actually got Royal Auxiliary Air Force air crew employed in our heavy aircraft. We are putting it over onto the fast-jet side as well. There are certainly two pilots and a couple of navigators doing that at the moment. We do not have the resources to mirror in any way the way the United States Air Force does its business and particularly the Air National Guard. We just cannot do it. What they do in the United States Air Force is as aeroplanes come out of front line service they go into the Air National Guard. These are very very capable machines, the F15 and the F16 and so on and they find it a very attractive inducement, particularly for people who leave the United States Air Force to go and fly with the airlines to be able to come back at weekends and to fly higher performance aeroplanes. They do not have too much difficulty in the Air National Guard. What the United States Air Force does have at the moment is a retention problem in comparison with which ours is almost negligible.


 
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