2012/11/01 - Air Power: Partnership in the 21st Century

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

Speech delivered by Secretary of State for Defence at the Royal United Services Institute Air Power Conference, Church House, Dean's Yard, Westminster on Thursday 1 November 2012.


101 years ago today, on the first of November 1911, an Italian pilot threw four hand-held bombs out of a plane, from all of 600 feet, on Ottoman positions in what is now part of modern day Libya.

Although no-one was reported killed, and the only Ottoman response was, I’m told, a complaint of ungentlemanly conduct, this is generally regarded as the first bombing mission undertaken by aeroplane.

Six months later, the Royal Flying Corps was formed, and over the last century, air power has moved from a peripheral role in military strategy, to a central one.

The Royal Air Force today is integral to the defence of the United Kingdom and an indispensible part of operations to protect national security:

Last year, helping to provide the Libyan people with the protection, and indeed the courage, they needed to overthrow the brutal dictator who had oppressed them for so long;

This summer, policing the skies over London to ensure the delivery of a safe and secure Olympics;

As I speak now, in the skies over Afghanistan.

In all of these operations, air-power alone would not be enough; but in none of these operations could success have been achieved without it.

I want to talk today about the future development of the Royal Air Force and its contribution to the security of the nation.

And as the theme of this conference suggests, I will do so in the context of partnership - international and domestic - military and civilian - government and industry.

Partnerships that the RAF will need to enhance if it is to continue to assure the delivery air power in the 21st century.

A century in which space and cyber space will emerge as increasingly important domains of the overall strategy.

And in which the evolution of technology is already changing how air power can be delivered.

So that the pilot of an aircraft need not be sitting in a cockpit, but can be in a bunker 3,000 miles away.

But let me first set out the overarching framework within which the Royal Air Force will continue to transform its capability, structure and infrastructure over the next decade.


When I became Secretary of State just over a year ago, the campaign in Libya was entering its final phase - with Gaddafi and his family expelled from Tripoli and holed up in Sirte.

My first day on the job was partly taken up with targeting decisions for air strikes.

Any notion that Defence was ‘just another Government Department with a budget problem’ was quickly dispelled.

And of course, I was having to navigate my foundation lesson in “military speak”, that impenetrable language designed to repel outsiders, and to underline just how different Defence is from other parts of Government.

I saw at first hand, literally on my first day, that of course the first priority was then and will remain, success on operations.

That is the very raison d’etre of our Armed Forces.

Ensuring that our country is defended, our national security interests protected at home and abroad, and our values projected.

In Afghanistan we are clear that we will end combat operations by December 2014.

But in the meantime, we must complete the mission: training and preparing the Afghan Forces to take on the burden of security, so that we can bring our personnel home, while protecting the gains that we have so expensively made.

As we and our ISAF partners draw down, we will be more dependent than ever on the air-bridge, and the RAF’s work in sustaining this link is critical to delivering success.

Over a third of the Royal Air Force’s strength is currently contributing directly to operations and standing commitments - in Afghanistan and on other tasks defending the UK and our dependent territories.

The RAF is an integral part of the front-line.

But just as I am clear on the priority of operations, I am equally clear that without budgetary discipline, the need for the kind of reductions and tough decisions taken as part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, would come upon us again - and we will have gained nothing.

So, budgetary discipline has to be the supporting foundation of the transformation to Future Force 2020.

The Defence equipment programme needs to be balanced and sustainable if the Armed Forces are to have the confidence that the capabilities promised will actually be delivered, on time and to requirement.

We are now half-way through this Parliament and I can confirm that we in the Ministry of Defence now have a balanced budget with an affordable equipment programme, backed by, although you might not realise it reading the British media, what will still be the fourth largest Defence budget in the world.

And this changes the dynamic.

By maintaining discipline, sensibly managing in-year budgets, and tightening our long-term projections, we can begin to release the contingencies that we have built into the budget, to support further investments in capability, confident that there is a sustainable funding stream to deliver them.

For instance, since the beginning of this financial year, the new discipline in our budgetary regime has allowed us to give the go ahead for a series of equipment projects for the air environment over and above the committed equipment programme.

This includes targeting pods for fast jets, better protection systems for Tornado GR4, and enhancements to MERLIN Helicopters.

The powerful, adaptable RAF of Future Force 2020 is taking shape.

The re-formation of 13 Squadron at RAF Waddington, announced last week, will double the RAF Predator capability in the skies over Afghanistan, flying these remotely piloted air systems from ground stations in the UK for the first time.

And I was proud earlier this year, to be in Fort Worth to take delivery of the UK’s first F-35 Lightning II.

Lightning II is one of the clearest examples of Britain’s determination to stay in the top rank of military powers.

One of the clearest examples of our determination to maintain an advanced, powerful and flexible combat air capability.

And at the heart of our regeneration of Carrier Strike.

A world-class capability, able to deploy anywhere in the world and jointly operated by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

With land based initial operating capability in 2018, allowing the platform to deploy as part of the UK’s contingent combat air capability.

And initial flights off HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018.

Not a decade away, as our critics complain.

But just over 5 years.

When deployed outside home waters, the new Carrier will routinely have Lightning II jets embarked with personnel from both Services,

There has been speculation in the media, much of it, as usual, ill-informed, around our intentions for operating the Carrier.

So let me be absolutely clear.

The RAF and the Royal Navy are working together to deliver a joint force that can operate from land bases in the UK, from the carriers when they are at sea, and from forward operating bases when deployed abroad.

Under the direction of the Chief of the Defence Staff, the concept of operations for carrier enabled power projection is being developed in line with the adaptable posture set out in the SDSR.

A concept of operations that will embrace both carrier strike and littoral manoeuvre operations.

But this is a substantial process, and dependent in part on decisions due to taken as part of the next SDSR in 2015 on the use of the second carrier to produce continuous carrier capability.

As a joint asset, Lightning II will provide us with a flexible capability that will out-perform anything we’ve been able to put in the air before.

And with the UK enjoying a 15 % share of the industrial work, the peak production period is likely to sustain 25,000 jobs in the UK.

The Joint Strike Fighter project was conceived as a multi-national programme.

The UK’s tier one status in the programme speaks eloquently of the UK’s close partnership with the United States.

And I want to turn now to the theme of international partnerships - because that relationship with the US is the UK’s most important, but by no means only, relationship upon which we rely to deliver our national security.

International Partnership

100 years on from that very first aircraft bombing mission in Libya, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector last year proved the versatility of the RAF’s combat capabilities in the very same skies.

Not just the precision weapons in the arsenal like Storm Shadow, dual-mode Brimstone and Paveway IV.

But also in the employment of Typhoon in its first multi-role contribution to operations.

And the mission critical ISTAR assets such as Sentinel and E3-D Sentry.

At the strategic level, the mission demonstrated once again how air power can provide politicians with political choices short of intervention on the ground.

Of course, as the Chief of the Air Staff has previously said, Libya is not the archetype for conflict, anymore than Afghanistan is.

But we can learn the very valuable lessons of both campaigns as we work to deliver adaptable Armed Forces, best configured to deal with the contingencies of the future.

The striking feature of both campaigns is the breadth of the coalition taking part.

The Libya operation saw 260 aircraft from 16 countries flying 26,500 sorties.

The level of cooperation, in particular, between the RAF and the French Armee de l’Air during the campaign, was a potent demonstration of the new momentum in UK-French defence cooperation.

In Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force is now some 50 nations strong.

RAF assets operate alongside those of our fellow ISAF partners…

… the Tornado GR4 force at Kandahar airport shares Tango Ramp with F16s from the United Arab Emirates.

Camp Bastion airfield in Helmand, controlled by the RAF, ranks as one of the busiest multi-national airfields in the world, handling up to 450 movements a day.

The level and sophistication of the integration between coalition partners, forged in campaigns such as Afghanistan and Libya, needs to be maintained and then taken forward long after those campaigns are behind us.

For the RAF, this interoperability with allies has become second nature.

In the last century, from the Allied air campaigns of the 2nd world war, through the Berlin Air Lift, to the Gulf War, Balkans and Kosovo campaigns of the 1990s

In this century in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The RAF has honed its understanding and interoperability, operating as part of multi-national coalitions over many, many years.

The wide international audience that I see before me today, is testament to the strength of the relationship that the RAF has forged with its fellow military aviators from across the globe.

That operational experience is now being built upon.

Tornados from RAF Marham have deployed to the Middle East for a series of exercises to work with partner nations on Exercise SHAHEEN STAR - and soon Typhoons from RAF Leuchars will be joining exercises in UAE and Oman.

The Typhoon has also been flying with allies from the Five Power Defence Arrangement as part of Exercise BERSAMA LIMA 11, in Malaysia.

This is all part of putting into practice the kind of interoperability we will need in future.

The Partnership Challenge

Because there is another strategic lesson we can draw from recent operations, particularly Libya.

While on the one hand, Libya showed the strength of our the NATO alliances and our partnerships, the operation also, to be frank, cruelly exposed the imbalances and weaknesses in NATO and thus the scale of the task facing European NATO nations.

And as former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates pointed out at the time, “The most advanced fighter aircraft are little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign”.

One could argue this is the very nature of coalition operations, with each partner providing the skills and assets that it can.

But in the case of Libya it shone a bright light on relative military and political capabilities in terms of who “could but wouldn’t”; and who “would but couldn’t”.

With the United States reflecting, in its strategic posture, the growing importance of the developing strategic challenge in the Pacific, the nations of Europe must find the political will to take on more responsibility for our own back yard, and fund the capabilities to allow that.

Certainly that means, shouldering the major burden in the Balkans and the Mediterranean.

But also being prepared, if necessary, to take a bigger role in relation to North Africa and the Middle East.

The bottom line is that Europe, as a whole, needs to do more, at a time when the reality is that, across the continent, aggregate defence expenditure is certain to fall in the short term and, at best, recover slowly in the medium term.

So the challenge is stark: if we can’t spend more, we must do things differently;

Maximising the capability we can collectively squeeze out of the resources we have;

Increasing interoperability, closing capability gaps through joint working and greater specialisation.

For example, the UK is overhauling its ISTAR, strategic lift and combat air capabilities as part of the transition to Future Force 2020 with the new Atlas and Voyager fleets operating alongside the C17, Sentry, Sentinel, and Airseeker as well as a range of remotely piloted air systems.

These forces will allow us to offer capacity to share with our international partners in new, innovative and mutually beneficial ways.

And, for the time being at least, we will depend on others for support with maritime patrol aircraft, when we need them.

And this is not just about smart behaviour by NATO members per-se.

For Britain, Smart Defence is also about making the Alliance more flexible, encouraging collaboration among groups of allies within the Alliance, and with partners outside the Alliance.

Both Libya and Afghanistan have shown how agile NATO can be in incorporating the contributions of outsiders.

We should capitalise on this experience in making it easier for non-NATO nations and key potential partners to contribute to NATO’s operations.

The partnership challenge encompasses more than just bi-lateral and multi-lateral government-to-government or military-to-military relations.

It also encompasses those who supply and support our equipment too.

Partnership with Industry

With shrinking Defence budgets in many advanced countries, and ever greater appetite and capability for involvement in design, development and production of sophisticated military equipment in the emerging economies, it is a tough business environment out there.

Competition will be intense.

The economic challenges involved in maintaining a high tech, highly capable, air force now and in the future are considerable -and the technical challenges equally high.

Success will require a genuinely transparent collaboration in aerospace, between industry and government to keep overheads down, to maintain essential R&D, and to build healthy export order books while making sure the unit cost is affordable.

So we are embarking on some major changes to make the MOD a more capable and intelligent customer:

Restructuring equipment acquisition and through-life support;

Bringing in private sector management skills through a partnership to re-inforce the military and civilian specialists who form the backbone of the Defence equipment and procurement organisation;

We are also looking at how the acquisition processes can take better account of the commercial landscape - building in exportability - making sure the wider package on offer to potential customers is as attractive as it can be.

Those years of over-programming in Defence created a climate of uncertainty that was beneficial neither to our Armed Forces, nor to industry - with neither side able to plan properly.

To provide industry with as much information as possible to plan, we will be publishing a summary of the equipment plan in the coming months.

This will provide greater granularity than ever before about how money will be spent across the breadth of capabilities by breaking down spending for equipment and support alongside the judgement of the National Audit Office on the robustness of the plan.

A strong aerospace sector in the UK - manufacturing, servicing, and crucially exporting - is a vital part of the Government’s strategy for rebalancing our economy so it can return to sustainable growth.

But there is also an onus on our suppliers to provide better value for money for the taxpayer.

We need our partners to be lean and flexible, capable of operating in a more competitive defence marketplace, responsive to the needs of Government.

Industry support for air operations in Libya last year shows what can be done.

Delivering and sustaining capability - as well as supplying equipment and developing new technology.

There are currently 5,000 contractors directly supporting our operations in Afghanistan, including the vital role played by the RAF.

The ‘Total Support Force’ concept, set out in the White Paper, seeks to integrate more fully the contribution of the private sector to operations. Industry, the Armed Forces, MOD, civilians and industry working more closely than ever to achieve their mutual goals.

This is the way of the future.


In Future Force 2020, we are building a force fit for a more uncertain world;

Where we may not know in advance what conditions we will be fighting in;

Where we can only hope to meet the challenges of modern conflict and protect national security by exploiting all the advantages we possess.

The advantage of our advanced technology and industrial base.

The advantage of our international alliances.

And the advantage of our highly trained, highly capable people - working together as a total force to deliver the world’s most effective expeditionary military capability outside the United States.

The RAF brings unique capabilities to the delivery of joint effect.

Rapid reaction, speed, agility and precision.

Control of the air and the ability to exploit that domain.

Strategic lift to project power at range;

Tactical manoeuvre and re-supply on the battlefield;

And the real-time intelligence and awareness that airborne ISTAR provides of the battle space as a whole.

But it is the people of the RAF that deliver this effect. Our people are our principal asset.

Not just the pilot; the air crew, the engineers, the planners, the whole edifice of the RAF that supports the delivery of British air power at home and abroad.

So as we enter the remembrance period, and honour those who have sacrificed so much for the freedom of this country.

Let us express our confidence in the men and women of today’s Royal Air Force; in their determination to demonstrate the same spirit and commitment to duty as their illustrious forbears.

So that our skies will continue to be safe in their hands.