2021’s Defence Command Paper, Defence in a Competitive Age, made significant cuts to the UK’s air power capabilities, with some aircraft to be retired early and plans to purchase replacements scaled back. Less than one year later, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine brought the implications of these cuts into sharp focus. The UK’s diminished air capability has left it dangerously exposed in the face of what the MoD has described as “the greatest threat to the open international order in decades”.1 Despite this, July’s Defence Command Paper Refresh did not reverse any of the 2021 cuts.
There are serious questions as to whether the UK’s diminished combat air fleet can successfully deter and defend against enemy aggression. Whilst made up of highly capable aircraft, it is just too small to withstand the levels of attrition that would occur in a peer-on-peer war. The imminent retirement of the Tranche 1 Typhoon and continued slow force growth of the F-35 fleet will only exacerbate these shortcomings: the MoD and RAF must urgently address this lack of combat mass.
The retirement of the E-3D Sentry has left the UK without a land-based fixed-wing Airborne Early Warning & Control capability. This capability gap has already been extended as the in-service date for the Sentry’s replacement, the E-7A Wedgetail, has slipped by a year. Moreover, when the Wedgetail does eventually enter service, it will be as a reduced fleet of just three aircraft rather than the five originally ordered. The cost savings which the MoD cited to justify this cut are disproportionate to the significant reduction in capability which it will entail, and the Department must reverse this irrational decision at the earliest possible opportunity.
The MoD’s decision to retire the C-130J Hercules some seven years before its planned out-of-service date will severely reduce the overall capacity of the RAF’s air mobility fleet, which provides critical support to operations across Defence as well as fulfilling a humanitarian role, and will have a particular impact on our Special Forces.
Persistent and unacceptable delays in the flying training pipeline mean that pilots are waiting years to qualify, with serious implications for morale and for the effectiveness of our armed forces. We will hold the MoD and the RAF’s senior leadership accountable for bringing these delays within acceptable limits by mid-2024. They must ensure that the system has sufficient flexibility and resilience to adapt to future changes in aircrew requirements without introducing further delay, and should review and streamline contractual arrangements to improve transparency and accountability.