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Prospect of Syria airstrikes brings defence spending commitments into sharp focus

Royal Aeronautical Society | Royal Aeronautical Society

3 min read Partner content

As the Prime Minister presents options on tackling IS in Syria, the Royal Aeronautical Society reviews this week's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The Prime Minister’s statement to the House today, containing options for extending airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, places the Government’s investment pledges for air power in Monday’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in sharp focus.  Not because the air power capabilities being promised have a direct relation to an imminent air strike campaign, but because the Government is right to spend money on the development over time of a more flexible, agile and technologically-advanced air force, capable of evolving and adapting to unforeseen and changing circumstances between five-year reviews.  After all the IS threat did not feature at all in SDSR 2010.

The outlook for air power over the next 10 years is a very positive turnaround from the cuts to equipment in 2010, which left worrying, unsustainable gaps in essential capability.

The number of fast-jet squadrons will be increased on today’s numbers – albeit the real rise in numbers is one more squadron in a decade – and improved in quality with the acquisition of 24 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to support the deployment of the two QE2-class aircraft carriers in 2023 and by re-energising the Tranche 1 Typhoons for air defence.  Where possible, equipment must be multi-role with the full suite of capabilities to avoid making expensive investments that would not be useful in multiple scenarios, and the Government is now on a firmer footing to achieve this goal.

The announcement of a £2 billion programme to purchase nine Boeing P-8s to fill the gaping hole in maritime patrol capability left with the retirement of the Nimrod MR2 in 2009 and the cancellation of the MRA4 replacement in 2010 comes with a big sigh of relief.  It is only right, however, that Ministers have demanded more from the next generation of maritime patrol aircraft, including in due course a ground surveillance function.  Similar to our combat aircraft, they should be able to participate in multiple missions.  But, foremost, maritime surveillance against surface and sub-surface threats is not only vital for the UK’s ability to operate its future aircraft carriers and our nuclear deterrence, but also to protect our coastal waters and ensure the UK has an independent long-range search and rescue capability.

Another important outcome was the announcement extending the life of UK air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability – key to providing air, ground and maritime forces with vital situational awareness.  The Sentinel R1 fleet – due for retirement following the end of operations in Afghanistan will remain in service into the 2020s (when P-8 should be able to cover the role), and the E-3D Sentry airborne warning and control system and Rivet Joint will continue to play a role in ISR operations until 2035.  The intention to double the number of intelligence gathering unmanned aircraft is also to be applauded.

Despite the more strategic nature of this SDSR, questions remain how all these important assets will interact and be balanced against each other in the long-term for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  With so many ISR platforms and potential overlaps in capability, could they be combined into fewer, common platforms capable of participating in different types of missions?  And what of striking the right balance between the numbers of manned and unmanned aircraft?  Unmanned might be lower cost than manned aircraft but potentially less flexible as they have so far been used principally in uncontested airspace.  We trust Ministers have considered these questions as part of its Review process to guarantee the success of the strategy and to ensure the UK will be ready to deal with a variety of unforeseen threats like those posed by Syria.

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