Air Power Conference

Speech by Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence.

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

The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP


Good afternoon.

I’m delighted to welcome so many distinguished guests here today.

This is, I believe, the largest number of international air force chiefs we’ve ever hosted at the Air Power Conference in London.

So I’m certain that we can look forward to a couple of days of well informed and constructive discussion.

Importance of air power

Much of the thought this year is back to the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1. Back in the summer of 1914, Sir Douglas Haig, addressing officers at the British Army Staff College expressed the hope that none of his audience would be so foolish as to think that aeroplanes could be usefully employed for reconnaissance from the air:

“There is only one way for a commander to get information by reconnaissance,” the great man opined, “and that is by the use of cavalry.”

Within months he was proved wrong, with both the First Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Tannenberg being decided on the basis of information furnished via aerial reconnaissance.

By the end of the First World War, no one left was in any doubt about the centrality and value of air power.

And, throughout the past 100 years, we have seen time and again how air power is essential to securing our national interests, at home and abroad.

Over the past year alone, from a UK perspective, as well as providing round-the-clock protection of UK airspace with QRA, the RAF has contributed to NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltics; supported the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, including assisting in the massive logistical task of the drawdown, bringing kit and people home; provided humanitarian assistance to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; provided logistical and ISTAR support for the French deployments in Mali and the Central African Republic; and homeland resilience, using fast jets to provide real time ground imagery during the recent floods.

I could go on with more examples. But lists don’t make for good speeches…

The point is that what makes the RAF, and air forces in general, indispensable, is their versatility and their speed of reaction.

And while no one can accurately predict the operations we are likely to be involved in the future, as recent events in the Ukraine have reminded us, we can be sure of 2 things:

First, that responding to future threats will be no less demanding or challenging than meeting previous ones; and that our air forces will be a vital component in delivering that response.

What UK is doing: investing in capability

That’s why, despite the fiscal constraints we share with many countries across the world, we are continuing to invest in our air capability. Over the next 10 years, we’re investing more than £40 billion in delivering air power through Combat Air, air transport, air-to-air refuelling, ISTAR, helicopters and weapons.

And we’re already seeing this capability coming on stream.

Last Friday, I had the unique pleasure of attending the naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth, our new aircraft carrier, a major milestone in regenerating the UK’s aircraft carrier strike capability, enabling us to project air power around the globe.

Last week also saw five more RAF Reaper remotely piloted air systems begin support operations in Afghanistan.

In June, the first of 14 new Chinook Mark 6 helicopters achieved its entry into service.

Last Christmas, service personnel returning home from Afghanistan became the first to fly all the way from Camp Bastion to Brize Norton on board the RAF’s new Voyager aircraft.

Our first RC-135W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft has entered service ahead of schedule.

Looking forward, in September this year we will take delivery of the first A400M Atlas, the future generation tactical air transport aircraft with a strategic capability.

And we’re continuing to invest, not just directly in capability, but in the science and technology and the innovation that makes that capability possible.

We’ve protected the S&T spend at 1.2% of the defence budget, over £400 million in 2012/13 and set to rise to 1.3% of the budget this year.

Funding innovative projects such as Taranis, an unmanned air technology demonstrator that is the most advanced UK air system ever conceived, designed and built.

And investigating Future Combat Air Systems in a joint enterprise with our French allies.

But we are barely scratching the surface of the possible, it would seem.

This Sunday’s weekend papers gave us a glimpse of the future, according to BAE: aircraft that can give birth to other aircraft; that can heal themselves in flight from battle damage; and that could even split into different machines with different roles.

Sounds today like science fiction perhaps, but like a number of us here, who grew up in a prehistoric age, before personal computing, cyberspace and the internet, I know how quickly science fiction can become science fact.

What the UK is doing: investing in people

And it’s vital to keep thinking the unthinkable if we’re to stay ahead of the curve.

But technology is only one half of the equation.

The other half, of course, is people.

It’s people who operate our capability and deliver to the front line.

It’s people who interpret the intelligence gathered by our ISTAR capabilities, intelligence on which politicians and military chiefs base their decisions.

It’s people who generate the innovation and engineer the right solutions.

It’s people who provide the moral component, the framework within which we operate.

In short, it’s our people that give us our battle-winning edge.

That’s why we at the MOD get so frustrated when the media talk about “drones”.

From first to last, these remotely-piloted air systems are, of course, dependent upon our people…

From the pilots and sensor operators to the analysts making decisions in real time.

That’s why, as well as investing in capability, we are continuing to invest in our personnel.

…Growing talent to meet the demands of the future, to ensure we can exploit our assets to their best effect….

Whole force

But this isn’t just about the people within the Royal Air Force itself.

This is about all those within our whole force, regulars and reserves in the RAF, civil servants who support them and contractors who play an ever increasing role.

We can’t get the most out of our air power,

We can’t develop and sustain the right equipment

And we can’t use that equipment in the most effective way, without building strong relationships right across the board.

First, with the other services.

For them, air power is a critical enabler.

The more closely aligned it is with the land and sea component, the greater the effect.

That’s what we have seen in Afghanistan with our Joint Helicopter Command, all 3 services working as a single and successful entity, transforming the way the UK views its helicopter forces.

And we are building on that concept, with the RAF working seamlessly with the army and Royal Navy through Joint Forces Command to get the most out of our assets across the board, including the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force deploying together on our new carriers.

Secondly, we’re working closely with the defence and civil aerospace industries to make sure the innovation process continues to give us military advantage.

Having given the sector the confidence to plan through our equipment programme, we’re now funding research into future systems capability, novel high risk, high-potential-benefit areas.

We’re also opening up our supply chains so that our SMEs, those powerhouses of creativity, are given the opportunities to make their ideas a reality, unleashing their creativity.

And we’re making sure that exportability and interoperability are built in as standard to our systems, to help further our international collaborations…and in support of our national prosperity agenda.

And through a series of partnerships with industry, the Aerospace Growth Partnership, the Space Innovation Growth Strategy and the Defence Growth Partnership, we’re setting out our long term plans to work together, government and industry, to deliver growth, exports and investment.

And we’ll hear more about what these partnerships are doing at Farnborough, next week.

This brings me to my third point, the main reason why we’re here today.

We need to build those critical international relationships.

With allies and potential partners.

Helping us better understand other nations’ perspectives…to improve our decision-making, leverage our assets and counter the threats of a changing world.

And when it comes to action, ensuring the greatest possible level of interoperability.

Air forces are past masters of this type of co-operation.

The recent D-Day commemorations were a poignant reminder of what we can do when we act in concert with each another.

But we don’t need to consult the history books.

We only need to look at what we have achieved in recent times.

Whether on operations…as part of NATO in Libya, Afghanistan, or in the Baltic States

Whether training with our partner air forces

Whether developing capability alongside our allies…

…working with the US on F-35 , as the only Tier 1 partner on the programme

…and with our French partners on future combat air systems

Or at the softer end of the power spectrum

… providing ISTAR in Nigeria…or disaster relief in the Pacific region in Operation Patwin

…supporting our defence and security exports…

…and all the other air shows and tattoos that help us strengthen our diplomatic, military and industrial ties…

…from RIAT and Farnborough to key conferences such as this.

…and in that context it would be remiss of me, probably verging on the heretical, not to mention our iconic Red Arrows who of course are celebrating their 50th display season this summer.


So please make the most of today and tomorrow.

We’re all here to broaden our understanding of each other’s perspectives.

To cement existing relationships and forge new friendships…

…to enhance understanding and reduce risks of miscalculation.

As Churchill, who appreciated the value of air power more than most probably, once famously said “jaw, jaw is better than war, war”.

And if you jaw together effectively enough, over the next 24 hours, then the knowledge and understanding and empathy you gain here could be the essential difference at some point in the future…

…Not just in spotting trouble on the far horizon…but in heading off the unpredictable dangers of our 21st century world.

Published 9 July 2014