2011/07/15 - Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) Gala Dinner

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech delivered by Minister for International Security Strategy at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire on Friday 15 July 2011.

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, good evening. I realise that many of you came here tonight expecting to hear the Secretary of State. I apologise as you have got me instead. You don’t get a refund, but at least I speak English. Of course, I’m delighted that Sir Stephen [Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff] invited me. He offered me some advice: no politics, not appropriate. That’s a bit like asking Joanna Lumley not to talk about the Gurkhas, Jamie Oliver not to talk about school dinners, and Gordon Brown not to talk about… Gordon Brown.

I did hear a good political joke this week, however, by Nick Clegg. What’s the difference between Ed Miliband and Ryan Giggs? One’s a fading left winger who’s upset his brother. The other’s a footballer…

Anyway, no need to talk about politics when you can talk about journalists…

As a pilot, I am particularly honoured to address this, the premier social event in the aeronautical calendar, to celebrate RIAT’s 40th birthday. The first Air Tattoo was staged at North Weald airfield in Essex with just over 100 aircraft taking part. It was the brainchild of Tim Prince, Paul Bowen, and World War II ace, Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling, who twice escaped from occupied France: once by Hurricane and once on foot!

The reputation of RIAT was assured when they managed to secure a Spit Mk9 at that first Tattoo. It was piloted by former Red Arrows leader and legendary aerobatics display pilot, Ray Hanna, of whom Tim would later say:

“I can still recall the cold sweat I felt when Ray made his first approach: he was so low the tips of his propeller seemed to be touching the ground. But Ray went on to perform fantastically in MH434 and he helped cement the Air Tattoo’s reputation for staging spectacular aerial displays.”

Despite the relentless and increasingly absurd efforts of the “elf ‘n’ safety” merchants, RIAT continued to attract practitioners and spectators of some of the finest feats of flying skill. In 1996 Her Majesty the Queen conferred the title of ‘Royal’ on the show which from 1993 had become an annual event. It is a truly international affair and I extend my personal welcome to so many friends from India, Ukraine, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Chile. In tribute to its status as an international event, in 2004, Fairford was one of the few select venues chosen to mark the 100th anniversary of the historic Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. Fellow RIAT founder, Paul Bowen, said:

“The friendly understanding contained in this historic document has helped both nations focus on the fact that there is a lot more that unites our two countries than divides us.”

Sadly, Paul did not live to see the event - nor indeed our new Defence Co-Operation Treaty with France last year - but was justly proud of how RIAT had grown from its small beginnings.

We also owe a big thank you to our close friends in the United States Air Force for making this base available to us.

And let’s not forget that RIAT simply couldn’t be held without the tireless work of nearly 4,000 volunteers - from air traffic controllers to engineers; from medics to firefighters, not forgetting the Air Cadets, who this year celebrate the 70th Anniversary of their formation, nor the UASs. They are the backbone of the Air Tattoo. All give voluntarily of their time. So many have told me they do it to give something back. Tonight, we should show our appreciation for all that they do. Whilst none of us can calculate with any certainty how many young people’s love of aviation was first sparked here at RIAT or one of the many other air shows, my guess is that they have played a key part in fostering air-mindedness, attracting our young people to careers in the RAF or civil aviation and aerospace.

Speaking of industry, let me thank some of the RIAT sponsors, beginning with the very best of British - BAE SYSTEMS and Rolls-Royce - who fly the flag at the cutting edge of the global aerospace business. But in the true spirit of the Royal International Air Tattoo, thanks are also due to our international friends Northrop Grumman whose Cyber Test Range I was pleased to open last October. Lockheed Martin, whose C-130s are playing such a vital role on current operations. And EADS who play a key part in Eurofighter Typhoon.

I’d also like to mention MBDA - who are not sponsors - but whose performance in support of current operations demonstrates the flexibility of the joint working approach implemented between MoD and MBDA, and the overall importance of the relationship between the MoD and industry, and the value of having domestic sovereign capability.

Before I came here, I decided to look back to this day - 15 July - in 1940, when the Battle of Britain had just begun in earnest. There was very little enemy activity, probably owing to bad weather, though a few raids took place nonetheless. What really stood out for me, however, were the Air Intelligence Reports that day. A confirmed report was received that among the German troops there was “a healthy respect for, coupled with a fear of, the RAF due to the ferocity of their fighters and the accuracy of their bombers.”

Those men would be proud that their successors today uphold that superb reputation. As it was in 1940, Air Power today remains a critical component of the Defence of Britain and the safety of our people.

I am not going to rehearse all the arguments advanced at CAS’s Air Power conference this week - you can all read Liam Fox’s excellent speech on the MoD website - but there is a lack of understanding in some quarters about the critical nature and complexity of air power. A no-fly zone may trip lightly off the tongue but an enormous range of assets is required to deliver that effect. In Libya, coalition Air Power has stopped the forces of the Gaddafi regime from using the skies to brutalise his own people and is degrading his ability to do so from land and sea. The RAF alone has damaged or destroyed over 500 military targets. The state-of-the-art MBDA Brimstone missiles and Raytheon’s Enhanced Paveway bombs allow us to minimise civilian casualties and take out non-civilian targets in urban areas.

Libya is also showing that the matchless Typhoon has come of age as a multi-role aircraft, flying over 1,700 hours to date. Tornado GR4s and Typhoon have flown well over 1,000 sorties. Last month also saw Tornado pass the 1 million flying hours milestone underlining what a magnificent servant this aircraft has been over many years. Here, I must thank our Italian friends for the tremendous support they have given us, particularly at NATO’s air operations centre in Poggio and its airbase at Gioia del Colle.

At the same time air operations continue unabated in Afghanistan. In 2010, the RAF’s Chinook helicopter fleet in Afghanistan transported almost 100,000 people plus their kit and supplies. In May this year alone, over a million kilograms of freight was moved over the airbridge to Afghanistan. Air Power provides real-time information crucial to commanders. And it can make the difference in a humanitarian disaster. Last August, DFID called on the RAF to help provide urgently-needed shelter for thousands of people driven from their homes in southern Pakistan, which had been hit hardest by severe floods. Within days, C17 mercy flights - supplemented by a C130 Hercules - delivered desperately needed shelter, food, and medical supplies.

Meanwhile, at home, the RAF defends UK sovereign and NATO-monitored air space around-the-clock. Our Typhoons scramble approximately once a month to intercept aircraft which cannot be identified by any other means, a protection largely invisible to the majority of our citizens who don’t live near RAF stations. As an aside, I’m delighted that the Typhoon is now operational on QRA in Saudi Arabia.

More visible perhaps is the fact that the RAF’s Search and Rescue helicopters are scrambled almost every day - as indeed they have for the past 70 years. Around 100 people every month have good cause to be thankful for the skills and bravery of the SAR crews and for the Sea Kings they fly - not least the commitment of the Duke of Cambridge.

Whilst the core burden of delivering Air Power on operations falls on the RAF, it is not exclusively. So just as the RAF Regiment is made up of gunners who have a special understanding of the air environment, so the Fleet Air Arm is made up of airmen who have a special understanding of the maritime environment and the Army Air Corps is made up of airmen who have a special understanding of the land environment.

And it’s not just the pilots. It’s the technicians which keep the aircraft flying; it’s the controllers who send the aircraft off and bring them down again; it’s the analysts who bring to bear their unique skill sets to analyse ISTAR data; it’s medevac crews with their heroic life-saving skills; and it’s the weapons engineers making sure the ordnance is ready.

These are brilliant, committed, brave people - among the best in our Armed Forces - united by their understanding of the utility of Air Power. As the Secretary of State said in his speech on Wednesday, “There have been times in our history when the light blue was the only thing which stood between us and defeat… The people of this United Kingdom know that the Royal Air Force will never let them down.”

All three Services rely on the equipment and support provided by dedicated and talented men and women who make up the aerospace industry. The industry is important not just for our Armed Forces - and by extension our national security - but for our country as a whole. The industry employs around 100,000 people directly in the UK and indirectly supports over 200,000 more. These are good jobs with average salaries over 40% higher than the national average. It drives innovation spending almost £1.8 billion annually on R&D. And it is a dynamic global industry - despite the difficult financial circumstances - looking to expand partnerships around the world, sharing technology and skills.

This year’s export figures have just been announced today and they show that the UK has maintained its position as the second largest defence exporter with sales approaching £6 billion, increasing its market share from 18% to 22% whilst security exports grew by 8% to around £2 billion. Over the past five years, sales of Typhoon and Hawk alone have accounted for almost £7 billion of orders or around 20% of British Defence exports. And that approximately three-quarters of all British Defence exports are expected to have derived from the air sector.

So even in these testing times there is much to celebrate. But these are testing times. Budget deficits around the world are being seen as threats to national security in themselves, so tackling the UK’s £150 billion deficit we inherited last year has inevitably led to some tough decisions, few of which we had wanted to make and which more benign circumstances would have spared us.

But as a package the Strategic Defence and Security Review has ensured that we will remain in the premier league of military powers, supported by the 4th largest defence budget in the world. The MoD will be spending around £50 billion on equipment and support over the next four years.

And for the RAF that means new Typhoons, A330 Voyager tankers, A400M Atlas transporters, JSF and UAVs. But the circumstances mean that - now more than ever - we have to make every penny count. The long-term prosperity of British industry will depend on being competitive and market sensitive to increase export prospects while delivering better value for money to the taxpayer.

And let me offer one word of caution, as a politician. We can not, nor should we, rely on our American friends to act as our substitutes for the things we must all do as sovereign nations. In Europe, unless NATO members are willing to pay their premiums, the validity of their insurance policies must be in serious doubt.

Let me end pretty much as I began.

As an aviator, I have to say that RIAT is just the most magnificent gathering of airmen and women - a veritable aeronautical garden party; and of proponents and exponents of Air Power.

However, one of the most unexpectedly astute views on Air Power I’ve come across was by Field Marshal Montgomery. Monty said:

“Air Power is indivisible. If you split it up into compartments, you merely pull it to pieces and destroy its greatest asset - its flexibility.”

Air Power is, quite simply, mission critical, and I’m quite sure it will play as strong a role in the future Defence of our respective countries and our interests as it has done, so remarkably, in the past.

Thank you for giving me the supreme honour of addressing you, this gathering of the clan, this band of aviator brothers, my friends.