Rupert Matthews: Where is the RAF going?
Rupert Matthews is a freelance historian who has had over 150 books published and was recently one of the MEP candidates for the Conservative Party in the East Midlands. You can read more about him on his website.
Coverage of our armed forces has recently been dominated by the problems of overstretch affecting the army – and the lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles that is making their job more difficult and more costly. But the army is not alone in Afghanistan – the RAF is there too.
The deployment, Operation Herrick, sees the RAF’s Harrier GR7s alternating with Tornado GR4s in ground attack roles, plus a host of support and supply missions flow by other aircraft. The staff out there have a tough, gruelling task ahead of them. The RAF is primarily concerned with supporting the army – and usually that involves ground attack missions. For this the RAF has two main weapons: bomb and rocket. The bombs are usually laser guided, free fall bombs that can be dropped with pin point precision and deliver enough explosive power to destroy the sort of low-tech targets encountered in Afghanistan. After all the Taliban don’t build bunkers of steel and concrete.
Rather more popular than the bombs are the CRV7 rockets. These are not noticeably more accurate or powerful than bombs, but they do streak across the sky with an impressive volume of noise while emitting a great display of sparks and smoke. I’m told that the firing of these rockets “scares the turbans off” the Taliban. They certainly do a lot to raise the morale of our soldiers on the ground.
Amazingly these weapons are, at heart, not all that different from the bombs and rockets that my father’s old squadron – No.105 Battleaxe if anyone is interested – used to drop in World War II. The really high-tech missiles are simply too powerful for Afghanistan and risk heavy collateral damage to civilians. Indeed, the RAF will sometimes simply fly low and fast down a valley to scare off the “bad guys”, thus avoiding any civilian casualties altogether.
There are some in the RAF who are rather embarrassed that the Typhoon [EuroFighter] is not yet fighting in Afghanistan – and so showing its critics what it can do. And the Typhoon is a very impressive aircraft, despite the procurement problems. Hopefully it will be there soon, once the top brass are confident it and the crews are ready.
But although the RAF is doing a fantastic job, there are problems. Partly this has to do with funding and commitments. If the army is suffering overstretch, the RAF has no spare capacity left. There are inevitably maintenance and morale issues that arise from this. Funding is short for many projects and non-existent for others. Take the radios that are used on airfields to co-ordinate aircraft and vehicle movements. They are nearing the end of their lives, but there is no funding available for replacements as they are deemed to be non-essential for providing air support to the army. Other equipment is likewise unlikely to be replaced when it wears out.
Perhaps more worrying is the lack of long term thinking about where the RAF is going over the next 20 years or so. For now the RAF is fully committed to army support, and everything is viewed in that light – hence the lack of airfield radios. It may not always be so. We don’t know if or when North Korea may turn nasty. If it does the RAF will be called upon to fly air intercept missions. And what about Iran? Looking further to the future we don’t know where Russia will be in 20 years time. There is always the unforeseen trouble spot that may suddenly erupt and put new demands on the RAF.
So far as I can discover the attitude in the Labour government seems to be that the Typhoon is a versatile aircraft that can carry a wide range of weapons, and that should be enough for the RAF to be getting on with. However, the days when Biggles could simply strap a new weapon on to his Sopwith Camel and fly off to have a pop at Jerry are long gone. These days bombs, missiles and the like have their own inbuilt software that needs to be compatible with the software of the onboard aircraft computers. The pilots need to practice with the weapons and mission planners need to be certain of their capabilities. That takes time, personnel and effort. And with the RAF working at full capacity, that is simply not happening in the way it should.
Of course, with the government finances being in the mess that they are the likelihood of massive new funding is low, so the RAF will need to plan for that. What is really needed is some long-term thinking and a scaling back on commitments to allow for the necessary work and equipment to be put in place. It is to be hoped that the incoming Conservative team have got plans in place to allow this to happen.
Otherwise we might find that we reach 2025 with an RAF that is capable only of reacting to whatever our then enemies throw at us instead of being on top of the situation and leading the way as it has in the past.