Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


6  AIR

Principal proposals

115. The equipment decisions set out in Future Capabilities affecting the air environment include:

RAF manpower will reduce from 48,500 to around 41,000 by April 2008.

116. Some of these reductions are made possible by the decision that recent improvements in the capabilities of aircraft and weapons systems will enable an air expeditionary task force capable of deploying up to 64 offensive fast jets to meet the full range of small, medium and large scale contingent operations in the revised Scales of Effort.[120]

From air defence to offensive strike

117. The Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft has sometimes been criticised as a legacy of the Cold War—an air superiority fighter intended to combat the threat of the Soviet air force which, now that that threat has passed, is left looking for a role. The air defence commitment for the UK itself is now being and will continue to be met by a small number of Quick Reaction Alert aircraft. Furthermore Future Capabilities takes as a planning assumption that there is 'a reduced air threat to our forces on deployed operations'.[121] Yet the UK is still apparently committed to buying 232 Typhoons in three tranches, a first (which is currently being delivered) of 55, a second of 89 and a third of 88 aircraft.

118. Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, Chief of the Air Staff, maintained that criticisms of this sort were misguided:

    I have seen a lot of what I regard to be ill­informed comment on Typhoon over recent months, for example that it is a Cold War legacy. It is the case that major platforms in all three environments from initial conception to out-of-service date are going to be in service for anything upwards of half a century and over that period things are going to change many times so the key is that our platforms in which we invest a lot of money and which we need in service for a long time to amortise that cost must be adaptable. We must be able to change the nature and/or scale of the capability we mount from those platforms, and these days that is increasingly about software, so that is at the heart of the integration of sensors and weapons onto Typhoon.[122]

119. The key strength of Typhoon, he argued, was that it was 'very software intensive'.[123] This had allowed MoD 'to advance our air-to-surface capability which we were expecting to introduce quite a bit later… into the final batch of tranche one aircraft'.[124] We do not, however, yet have any indication of when the 'final batch' of Tranche one Typhoons will enter service.

120. In our 2004 Defence Procurement report we drew attention to the continuing delays to the agreement of a contract for the tranche two aircraft. The NAO Major Projects Report of 2003 had noted that the second tranche was expected to be ordered around the end of 2003. Lieutenant General Fulton, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) told us that MoD's priority for the tranche two aircraft was that they should be multi-role:

    Multi-role aircraft give an operational commander much greater flexibility either to switch between roles from one mission to another or, indeed, to switch roles within a single mission. My objective is to make sure that the aircraft that come into service henceforth do have that multi-role capability. Clearly it was originally designed as an air defence fighter and will always be a very, very high performance air defence fighter, but the multi-role will give it the additional capability.[125]

121. However, when Air Chief Marshal Stirrup appeared before us in late October 2004, the contract had still not been agreed. Although he was not able to tell us exactly what issues were holding up the negotiations at that time, it was apparent that they revolved around the enhancements needed to make the aircraft 'multi-role' and that these were:

    to bring forward the integration of laser­guided and GPS­guided precision weaponry… because that is the most important capability we need in addition to air defence to give us the kind of multi-role responsiveness we need today. [126]

The announcement that the contracts for tranche two had been signed was finally made on 15 December 2004.

122. Initial operational deployment of Typhoon, in its air defence role, is scheduled for the second half of this decade.[127] We were told during our Defence Procurement inquiry that there would be 'no gap between the planned out of service dates for the F3 and Jaguar fleets and the [Operational Employment Date] of Typhoon'.[128] That statement, however, predated the Future Capabilities decision to draw down the Jaguar force two years earlier than planned, closing one squadron in each year between 2005 and 2007. As the multi-role version of Typhoon is unlikely to enter service before the end of the decade, there will be a capability gap after the withdrawal of the Jaguar fleet. Not only does this appear to undermine the MoD's previous assurance, it may also call into question the need for the full number of Typhoons since they had been seen as replacements for Jaguar. If, as now seems the case, MoD is content to pay off the Jaguars two years before their replacement, because upgrades to the Tornado F3 and Harrier (including the Storm Shadow, Brimstone and Maverick missile systems) have considerably enhanced their capability, is a new aircraft to replace the Jaguars necessary?

123. In the session on 15 September 2004 the Secretary of State explained:

    The judgment that we have made in relation to bringing forward the out-of-service date for Jaguar, given that it was always to go out of service, is simply based on our requirement for fast jets today, and we judged that given the enhanced capability that we have available to us that we can manage those requirements with a smaller number of available fast jets. [129]

Air Chief Marshal Stirrup elaborated on this point in his evidence:

    with the introduction of much more capable, multi-role aircraft, such as Typhoon, we were always clear that we would be able to achieve our tasks with lower numbers, but we expected to have to maintain those higher numbers until we got those systems like Typhoon into service and fully proved. It has now become clear, however, with the improvements that we have been making in stages over the years, for example, with the F3 by the introduction of JTIDS, with the introduction of the highly capable ASRAAM short-range missile and with the introduction of the highly capable AMRAAM radar-guided missile, that we are seeing some of those efficiency improvements within specific capability areas in advance of new systems coming into service.[130]

This explanation obscures the fact that air to air enhancements for the F3 are irrelevant to the loss of the air to surface attack and reconnaissance roles of the Jaguar. The capabilities of the Typhoon will be fully demonstrated as it begins to enter service and as, at some point, it sees operational action. If, however, it delivers its advertised capabilities, it will clearly represent a very significant increase in the firepower available to the RAF.

JOINT COMBAT AIRCRAFT

124. Future Capabilities states:

125. MoD has selected the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to meet the JCA requirement. We examined the JSF programme as part of our 2004 Defence Procurement inquiry.[132] We were concerned that as development work had progressed, the work to mature the design to meet weight targets necessary to achieve desired performance levels had proved much more demanding than expected, and the problem appeared to be greater on the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the aircraft—the variant selected to meet the UK requirement.[133] In its response to our report, MoD stated that it:

    continues to play an extremely active role in the assessment of the design and trade solutions to address the excessive aircraft weight identified in 2003, particularly in the STOVL variant… The impact, if any, on the JCA ISD [in-service date] will also be considered.[134]

126. We asked Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, about the weight problems on the JSF and reports that the solution to the problem had been to reduce the capacity of the aircraft's weapon bay. Sir Jock told us:

    It has no direct implications for the United Kingdom. The reduction in the size of the weapon bay means that it will not be able to house the 2,000lb class of weapon internally in the weapon bay but it could, of course, still carry it externally. Carriage of a 2,000 lb class weapon is not one of our key user requirements for the joint strike fighter… So as far as our operational requirements are concerned, that does not have any impact.[135]

In evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts in January 2005, the Chief of Defence Procurement, Sir Peter Spencer, argued that the weight issue on the JSF could be managed:

    The basis of that has been the recent project reviews in the United States, which took place towards the end of 2004, where the view was taken by the Project Office and by the US DOD, joined by representatives from the UK Ministry of Defence, that substantial progress has been made in identifying ways of reducing the weight of the STOVL variant for the Joint Strike Fighter, and opinions vary as to just how much weight at the moment we could be confident had been reduced, but a figure in the region of 3000 pounds has been presented by my own team leader with a fair degree of confidence and of course we will do a very final check on that when the STOVL variant of this aircraft undergoes its critical design review early in 2006.[136]

127. We asked Sir Jock when the JSF was expected to enter service. He told us:

    We are still working on a date of around 2012 for the first aircraft appearing, but we will have to see what the implications are of the restructuring of the programme which the prime contractor has made over the last few years, not least to address the weight problem. We do not know at the moment what the implications are because there are efforts to recover some of the lost time in other parts of the programme.[137]

He added:

    We have to understand that we are talking about development programmes at the cutting edge of technology which will run into problems. It is unthinkable that they would not run into problems. So whether there will be an impact on the in-service date and, if so, what that impact will be, are things which are impossible to forecast at the moment.[138]

128. Sir Jock's caution was well-advised. MoD have since told us that, because of the time taken to resolve the 'well-known weight growth problems incurred by the STOVL variant of the JSF aircraft,' they are now basing their planning assumptions on a revised in-service date of December 2014. MoD also state that they do not intend to make a firm decision on the ISD 'before the UK purchases significant numbers of aircraft'. This is not expected before 2008.[139] It may also suggest that MoD has little confidence in the current planning assumptions for this programme.

129. We note that 'substantial progress' has been made to identify ways of reducing the weight of the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, but that has been at the expense of a two year delay to the programme. And it seems that there may well be further delays.

130. The programmes for the JSF and for the future carrier together make up the principal components of the proposed carrier task force. That in turn is at the heart of the Armed Forces' expeditionary ambitions and the MoD's primary goal for large scale operations of maximising its influence in a US-led coalition.[140] Together the two programmes are currently estimated to cost around £12 billion. As we have seen they are both also complex programmes which have already encountered significant problems. At present the first carrier is still expected in 2012, which is two years before the first JSF. When operational the carriers are each intended to support 36 JSFs. It is likely to be some years after 2014 before those numbers of JSFs are operational. Additionally the effective integration of carriers and JSF into a joint expeditionary force will itself be a challenging undertaking. We recommend that MoD sets out in its reply to this report when it now expects the first JSF-equipped future carrier to be operational.

Support assets

131. Delivering Security set out the priority for the air environment as being 'to project air power from both the land and the sea offering capabilities across the range of air operations, but with a clear emphasis on offensive effect'.[141] But air assets also have vital roles to play in support of expeditionary operations. Over the years we have monitored progress on several procurement programmes designed to enhance capabilities in these areas. We welcome the announcement in Future Capabilities that the four currently leased C-17s and a fifth will be purchased.

132. The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme is intended to provide a replacement for the ageing fleet of VC10s and Tristars. The programme was nominated as a potential Private Finance Initiative programme in 1997. Although MoD chose Air Tanker Ltd as the best candidate to provide a PFI solution at the end of January 2004, the decision formally to accord them preferred bidder status was not announced until 28 February 2005, prolonging industrial uncertainty. In a letter to our Chairman at the time of that announcement the Secretary of State wrote :

    A final decision on whether to proceed is dependent on a satisfactory conclusion of negotiations with AirTanker. This is a complex programme and these negotiations, including a competition for the financing of the deal, will take some time to conclude.[142]

Asked in October 2004, when he would like a decision to be made, Air Marshal Stirrup replied, 'A year ago'.[143] He explained, 'from an operational perspective we need to get something under way as soon as we possibly can'.[144]

133. Air to air refuelling (AAR) is an essential enabler to extend the range and endurance on station of combat aircraft in attack and defence and is already in short supply in coalition operations. Carrier based expeditionary operations will be severely constrained without access to AAR. We are encouraged that a decision on the Preferred Bidder for FSTA has finally been taken, but we are concerned at the amount of work which still remains to be done before a final decision to proceed will be taken.

Personnel reductions

134. RAF manpower is to be reduced from 48,500 to 41,000 (15%) by April 2008. According to Future Capabilities this:

The reduction will be managed through a combination of natural wastage, recruiting adjustments and a redundancy programme. The redundancy programme is to be effected by a compulsory scheme for which applications will be invited. Only if there are insufficient suitable applicants will it be necessary to select some non-applicants. There will be 2,750 redundancies overall in three tranches of 450, 1,200 and 1,100 posts to leave the service in successive years from 2005 to 2007. The bulk of the numbers are expected to be from the aircraft engineering trades. Applications for the first tranche were invited by 28 January 2005. 1,160 applications were received.

135. We are concerned about some aspects of this reduction. Only a small number of Typhoons will have entered service by 2008. Under present plans 144 Typhoons will be acquired in tranches one and two, replacing 38 withdrawn Jaguars and 59 remaining Tornado F3s. Even allowing for an element of attrition cover in the Typhoon purchase, that does not represent a reduced training requirement. Moreover, there will be a large gap between the disbandment of the last Jaguar squadron in 2007 and their replacement by the multi-role variant of the Typhoon, which will present problems of aircrew transition and increase the training requirement. Yet Future Capabilities envisages a smaller training requirement prompted by the reduction in the front line.

136. We consider the arrangements for the future support of military aircraft below (see paragraphs 163-181). However, one of the principal justifications for the decision to concentrate support—deep repair, scheduled maintenance and modification of aircraft—forward to main operating bases was the need to retain sufficient uniformed personnel to sustain the level of concurrent operations as set out in Future Capabilities. It is therefore, on the face of it, surprising that the bulk of the 2,750 redundancies from the RAF are to be aircraft engineers.

137. The proposal to provide 170 front line crews to man up to 64 offensive fast jets in an air expeditionary task group, representing an aircrew to aircraft manning ratio of approximately 2.5 to 1, reflects current practice. The numbers do not, however, represent the overall requirement for offensive fast jet aircrew. There is always a further number of aircrew on squadrons who are not yet combat ready, others who are filling operational and other training posts and others whose experience is essential to fill associated staff posts. We are concerned that the significant reductions in RAF manning in the short term ignore a predictable increased requirement in the medium to longer term, with the effect that a short term gain may undermine longer term resilience.

Helicopters

138. It became apparent during our Lessons of Iraq inquiry that the Joint Helicopter Force had faced a number of significant challenges during the combat operation. In its report on battlefield helicopters, published in April 2004, the NAO stated that there was an overall shortfall in helicopter capability of 38 per cent. General Jackson argued that this figure was set against 'an absolute ideal whereby for every scenario we have, every helicopter would be there in its full theoretical quantity'.[146] A more realistic assessment—recognising 'that you are not going to be doing everything at once'—produced a shortfall of around twenty per cent.[147]

139. We would have expected MoD to have been keen to take steps to reduce a capability shortfall of twenty per cent, especially in view of the assertion that 'helicopters provide a key capability in the battlefield and maritime environments, and their flexibility means they contribute to the majority of the Military Tasks'.[148] We were therefore surprised that Future Capabilities contained a proposal to reduce overall helicopter numbers in response to the improved security situation in Northern Ireland. Given the shortfalls in the overall helicopter fleet, it would have seemed more sensible to have redeployed those helicopters. Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, however, argued that simple redeployment might not be the most effective response:

    We are…, of course, talking about Pumas and Pumas… are scheduled to go out of service. In terms of overall efficiency of the helicopter force, the sooner we can reduce the overall numbers of types, the more output we will get from the force as a total. It is not just a case of extending old types in service to meet the requirement, that is not necessarily the most efficient way of doing it.[149]

We appreciate the force of this argument in theory. In practice, however, it depends upon progress being made more broadly towards modernising the helicopter force. According to Future Capabilities, the Government plans to 'invest some £3 billion in helicopter platforms to replace and enhance… existing capability.[150]

140. Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, who admitted to being 'very concerned' about the pressures which recent operations have placed on helicopter crews, told us that MoD had 'set in hand a comprehensive study to look at our future rotorcraft needs'.[151] That was in October 2004. Future Capabilities (published in July 2004) stated that the substantial proposed investment offered 'an opportunity to maximise efficiencies and coherence across our future helicopter fleet,' that MoD had been working with industry 'to review thoroughly both our capability requirements and our forward plans' and that MoD aimed to report on progress with this work 'in the next few months'.[152]

141. In February 2005 MoD told us:

    This is a complex programme of work and we need to make sure we give due weight to the full range of capability, affordability, and industrial issues—as set out in our Defence Industrial Policy. We hope to have a clearer idea of the way forward towards the summer of this year.[153]

So 'the next few months' appears to have turned into a year, and capability requirements and forward plans have turned into 'a clearer idea of the way forward'.

142. MoD also told us:

    The Department is at present testing existing capability requirements to ensure the right balance between land and maritime lift, reconnaissance and attack capabilities to provide a robust force structure for the future. This work is well underway and is being conducted by an Operational Analysis Working group and a Requirements Working Group. The output of these groups will inform the programme and identify opportunities where common equipment and approaches to training and support could provide whole life cost benefits.[154]

This seems to suggest that there is still some way to go to establish what the future helicopter requirement might be. But General Jackson was quite clear on what he wanted for the land environment:

    We need a battlefield reconnaissance helicopter, whatever that may look like and whoever may eventually make it, as I say, I am not your expert witness there, but I am quite clear about that role. If it has a small utility aspect to it as well, ie it is big enough to carry a small command group, that is a great help. Without doubt, the Army in the field needs lift—how much lift and the way in which that lift will be delivered and which aircraft will do it, again these are procurement decisions, but in terms of making the land component work, that is how I see the helicopter requirement.[155]

143. Future Capabilities describes helicopters as providing 'a key capability in the battlefield and maritime environments'. We are concerned that that recognition of their operational value does not seem to be matched by the priority or urgency which MoD gives to their future procurement plans.


120   Cm 6269, p 9 Back

121   Cm 6269, p 9 Back

122   Q 105 Back

123   Q 105 Back

124   Q 100 Back

125   HC (2003-04) 572-II, Q 304 Back

126   Q 105 Back

127   Q 100 Back

128   HC (2003-04) 572-II, Ev 96 Back

129   Q 80 Back

130   Q 99 Back

131   Cm 6269, p 7 Back

132   HC (2003-04) 572-I, paras 81-84 Back

133   HC (2003-04) 572-I, para 82 Back

134   Cm 6338, para 84 Back

135   Q 146 Back

136   HC (2004-05) 294-i, Q 6 Back

137   Q 149 Back

138   Q 150 Back

139   Ev 180 Back

140   See Cm 6269, p 3 Back

141   Cm 6041-I, p 13 Back

142   Ev 213 Back

143   Q 177 Back

144   Q 178 Back

145   Cm 6269, p 12 Back

146   Q 380 Back

147   Q 380 Back

148   Cm 6269, p 9 Back

149   Q 223 Back

150   Cm 6269, p 9 Back

151   Q 214 Back

152   Cm 6269, p 9 Back

153   Ev 178 Back

154   Ev 178 Back

155   Q 378 Back


 
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Prepared 17 March 2005