2011/07/13 - Air Power in an Age of Uncertainty

Speech delivered by Secretary of State for Defence at the Royal United Services Institute Air Power Conference, London on Wednesday 13 July 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Liam Fox


No matter how much resource you commit, no matter how many great minds you employ, no matter how clear the analysis, it is impossible to predict with absolute precision when, where, and in what way Britain will find itself drawn into conflict in the future to protect the national interest and national security.

We prepare but we cannot know.

Who would have predicted at the time of the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that barely two months later the desperate act of a street vendor in Tunisia would set off a wave of protest across the Arab world, demanding reform, toppling Governments, blinking in the light of freedom?

Who would have predicted that by the summer of this year the Royal Air Force would have flown over 1,500 sorties in support of OPERATION UNIFIED PROTECTOR, as part of a NATO-led, UN-mandated coalition, stopping the forces of the Gaddafi regime from using the skies to brutalise his own people and degrading his ability to do so from land and sea?

I didn’t - and I doubt anyone in this room did?


But the point is this: despite this lack of prophetic talent, the RAF has flown over 1,500 sorties and continues to contribute significantly to coalition operations in Libya.

Working with our allies, the war machine Gaddafi had been using indiscriminately against his own people has been significantly degraded.

The RAF alone has damaged or destroyed over 500 military targets, including command and control sites.

In particular, the performance of Typhoon in its first multi-role contribution to operations has been fantastic.

For some time now we have relied on Typhoon to defend the UK and our dependent territories.

Now Typhoon has truly come of age.

In the last few months, Typhoon has flown over 1700 hours with the average hours flown per aircraft increasing fourfold - proving its versatility, endurance and reliability.

The outstanding performance of Typhoon is increasingly impressing those countries who are considering upgrading their fleets, as was clear when I visited India at the weekend.

Of course operations in Libya are not an RAF only affair.

The Royal Navy is off the Libyan coast penning in the regime’s maritime forces, policing the arms embargo, and contributing to strike missions.

The Army is flying Apache Helicopters off HMS Ocean providing tactical flexibility to NATO commanders.

All this has been achieved with crucial support from ISTAR and Command and Control platforms and from the air transport and refuelling fleet.

And our Armed Forces are doing all this while continuing to focus energies on the main effort in Afghanistan where 9,500 men and women from all three Services face tough and dangerous challenges as I have seen for myself in recent weeks.

I’m not saying that this is easy, without cost, or without consequences.

It is important that we recognise and reward those who are engaged in the very highest areas of conflict.

That is why I can announce today that Service personnel on operations in Libyan airspace and territorial waters will receive the Operational Allowance reflecting the rigours and risks that they are facing.

Our forces currently on Operations in Libya are performing brilliantly and at considerable risk to themselves.

We regularly review the payment of the Operational Allowance that recognises the risk and hardships faced by our forces on operations.

We have recently completed such a review, and have decided it is only appropriate to extend the Operational Allowance to all those serving this country on operations in Libya.

This will result in the payment of Operational Allowance to anyone operating within the landmass, airspace and territorial waters of Libya, including all aircrew operating over the Libyan landmass and to ships and submarines within 12 nm of the coast.

Payment is based on the number of days within the specified areas, and I am pleased to announce will be backdated until 18 March with funding coming from the Reserve.

In accordance with the agreed policy, those engaged in Operations for which they are in receipt of Operational Allowance on the day that individuals are notified will be excluded from the redundancy programme.

Similarly, those on a dedicated operational work up package (of up to 6 months) or post operational tour leave on the day of notifications will also be excluded.

We will never have a crystal ball for international events.

But it is precisely because we can’t always predict, that we have to prepare, plan and put in place contingencies for a range of capabilities against a range of scenarios.

This is precisely what the National Security Strategy and the SDSR have done.

It may not have mentioned Libya by name, but the National Security Strategy placed an international crisis drawing in the UK and its allies in the top tier of risks over the next five years.

The planning assumptions in the Strategic Security and Defence Review allow for our Armed Forces to respond to a number of different scenarios, concurrent or otherwise.

But this is where planning meets reality.

We can, and have, planned for operations such as those we are undertaking.

But no-one can predict how long a complex intervention will take - every scenario will be different - militarily, politically and diplomatically.

Sustaining the tempo does increase the pressure on both personnel and equipment as planning assumptions are tested, and it tests the ability of defence companies to support front-line operations.

We all accept that.

But the costs of the Libya campaign are being met from the Treasury reserve, not the MOD budget.

In the MOD, we must use our skills to match resources with commitments in the right way for the circumstances - that is our core business.

Of course, no-one wants the operations in Libya to take a day longer than necessary.

But the bottom line is this - we can, and will, sustain operations in Libya for as long as it takes.

That is what our national interest requires, and that is what our commitment under a United Nations mandate to the people of Libya requires.

We are not doing this alone, nor would we choose to, and as NATO operations continue, and as members of the alliance participating adjust to the pressures being placed on their Armed Forces, we will look to the breadth of capability that the alliance possesses as a whole to sustain the tempo of operations.


Ladies and Gentlemen, these are testing times - for the country as a whole and for Defence in particular.

Testing times force us to make unpalatable decisions, but they provide opportunities too.

Let me take the difficulties first.

The Government is committed to eliminating the deficit in the public finances.

The consequence of not taking tough action is there for all to see in the events playing out in the Eurozone.

Economic power is the well-spring of strategic strength.

Without it we will not be able to afford in the long-term the public services our country needs and the military forces required to meet the needs of Britain’s security and protect our interests around the globe.

But this means tough decisions across public spending, including in Defence.

Such action is not confined to the UK.

President Obama has talked of cuts in the US security budgets of $400bn over 12 years

The new US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is undertaking a comprehensive review to contribute to that aim.

But he is clear - as I am - that “we do not have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong defence.”

Indeed, in the longer-term one provides for the other.

In the Ministry of Defence we face the added pressure of tackling the long ignored black hole in the defence budget bequeathed to us by a decade of over-programming.

If we do not do so now, the inevitable consequence will be a severe recalibration in the future.

I know of no mainstream voice arguing for that kind of retrenchment.

We have also embarked on reforming the way we go about managing Defence, because if we do not the systemic problems that have allowed this situation to build up will simply repeat themselves overtime.

This is the opportunity in adversity.

Taken together, the SDSR and the reform of Defence management proposed by Lord Levene provide the blueprint for sustainable, well-managed and formidable Armed Forces - structured for the rigours of the future character of conflict - able to swiftly adapt to circumstances and operate with allies - fully able to provide for the Defence of the United Kingdom in an age of uncertainty.

It is exactly because of the unpredictability of this volatile world, exactly because of the continuing need to use military force to protect Britain’s interests at distance, that the SDSR places such a premium on the flexibility and adaptability of our Armed Forces.

Air Power and the Royal Air Force are a central component of this vision.

When I became Secretary of State for Defence there were voices - strong voices - urging me to merge air operations fully into the other services.

But I am clear that the RAF makes a definable and unique contribution to Britain’s Defence - a contribution that it would be wrong to dispense with.

Some say the distinct heritage and tradition of the RAF is immaterial as it does not have a demonstrable monetary value.

I believe that the cost of something does not always demonstrate its value.

We cannot afford to lose the doctrinal understanding of air power and its effects which is burned deep into the collective fibre of the force.

The value of the RAF is not confined to history - far from it.


Today the RAF is operating across all four enduring air power roles on current operations in Afghanistan and Libya, in addition to the standing operational commitments of defending Britain and our overseas territories:

First, securing control of the air, guaranteeing freedom of manoeuvre and action to coalition forces while severely curtailing the options of our adversaries;

Second, delivering intelligence and real-time information to support commanders and decision makers at every level;

Third, providing global reach through strategic lift and theatre support through tactical lift;

And fourth, delivering firepower rapidly and with precision.

Air Power remains critical to the 21st century battle space.

At this conference I have no doubt that we will hear many perspectives on the utility of Air Power, not least from the Chief of the Air Staff later today.

I want to talk about two particular areas - joint operations and international operations.

You will also know that today Lords Philip is publishing his report on the Mull of Kintyre accident.

I will be making a statement on this later in Parliament today , so you will understand why I cannot make further comment on that at the moment.

From its very establishment as an independent service in 1918, the RAF has recognised that despite standing alone as a profession, the utility of air power rests in achieving effect not only in the air, but integrating into other domains and contributing decisive effect to campaigns on the land and the sea.

The concept of joint operations is in the very DNA of the RAF.

So too is the concept of international action.

The RAF came of age in World War Two at a time when operating alongside allies was imperative for the survival of the country.

Even when we famously ‘stood alone’, in the ranks of the RAF who faced the Luftwaffe at the Battle of Britain were pilots from over a dozen other nations.

Since the end of the Cold War in the skies over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya the RAF has built up an unrivalled experience in working as part of wider international coalitions.

The future character of warfare will demand both joint operations and the international integration of effort and increasingly so.

The level and sophistication of the integration between air and surface that has been forged in campaigns such as Afghanistan needs to be maintained and then taken forward.

So too does our understanding of, and interoperability with, our main allies.

Air power in all its forms is a key part of the advantage that Britain continues to hold over opponents.

The RAF’s long focus on flexibility and adaptability is suited to the unpredictability of future conflict and operations in Libya are proving yet again how air power provides decision makers with vastly increased options in supporting the national interest.

And I can envisage no future conflict in which air power will not be required - none whatsoever.

Air power is, quite simply, mission critical.

So let me turn to a couple of issues that our future RAF must grapple with to ensure that they remain at the forefront of aviation and of military evolution.


First, the fleet itself.

The role call of iconic aircraft that the RAF has flown over its history is long and distinguished.

Spitfire, Lancaster, Vulcan and Lightning among others.

These aircraft are now joined in retirement by the Harrier and the Nimrod which have served the people of the United Kingdom magnificently over the last 4 decades.

These decisions were not taken lightly.

Alongside the decision to reduce manpower, these were some of the most difficult, and alongside the decision to decommission Ark Royal, they were the most finely balanced.

But to achieve the real savings required to put the Defence programme towards balance, reductions in the number of platforms was essential.

The period later this decade in which the Tornado GR4 force is drawn down and the Joint Strike Fighter comes up to speed will be particularly challenging.

Of course numbers matter, but as the late Air Vice Marshal ‘Jonnie’ Johnson said, “good aeroplanes are more important.”

That is why I am particularly pleased with the performance of Typhoon as a multi-role aircraft in Libya.

With the introduction of the world’s first and only 2nd generation E-SCAN radar, Typhoon will remain at the forefront of aviation technology for years to come.

It is also why I am looking forward to the capabilities of the powerful [and more cost-effective] carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, or ‘Lightning II’ as it will be known - to be jointly operated, of course, with the Royal Navy.

The overhaul in the consolidated transport fleet will see greater capacity and capability, with the new Voyager tanker and the A400M operating alongside the C17.

With the additional capabilities provided by ISTAR programmes, the RAF of Future Force 2020 will have one of the most formidable and high-tech fleets in the world.

And let me be clear, the RAF will continue to rely as much on its people as on its platforms.

The human underpinning of the RAF - the commitment, talent and technical understanding of the men and women who serve - will be the difference between success and failure.

This is why I find any polarised position between manned and unmanned aircraft as an utterly false choice.

I agree with Admiral Mullen, the US Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that we are at a time of transition in future aviation in terms of remote technology.

But two things strike me.

First - a UAV is a sophisticated flying machine with sensors and weapons.

But unless it has a skilled set of human beings operating it, interpreting the data it provides and making real-time decisions it has absolutely no impact.

Second - we are some way away from remotely piloted systems being able to deliver all that manned aircraft can.

That does not mean that we do not need to research, develop and invest in remotely piloted technology for all three services - and we will do so.

But for the foreseeable future it will be a combination of the speed, payload and survivability that only piloted systems can currently supply - complemented by the persistence and flexibility of remotely piloted air systems - that deliver the overall air power effect that is required.


Let me conclude on this theme of the utility of people.

I’ve seen for myself on many occasions what the RAF do - from my time as a GP at Beaconsfield to Tango ramp at Kandahar airport.

I know it’s not all about fast jets.

I see the work of those at the less glamorous but equally critical end.

Keeping the air bridge up and running, keeping our forces supplied.

The force protection provided by the RAF Regiment.

The medics, the mechanics, the armourers, the analysts, the air traffic controllers.

All the support staff that keep the organisation delivering at the sharp end.

In Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the RAF has a Chief of Staff who not only directs his own service with insight, commitment and tenacity and but just as importantly who understands the application of military power across the three services.

He is supported in his efforts by some of the most capable and dedicated men and women in the Armed Forces.

There have been times in our history when the light blue line was the only thing that stood between us and defeat.

I know, if so called upon today, this generation will take the fight to the enemy, no matter what the cost.

The people of this United Kingdom know that the Royal Air Force will never let them down.

Updates to this page

Published 13 July 2011