LONDON — British lawmakers say the Royal Air Force now lacks capabilities across combat, air transport and early warning aircraft.
A Ministry of Defence command paper in 2021 ordered cuts to aircraft numbers that are creating a combat air shortfall in jet numbers that will persist into the 2030s, the Parliamentary defence committee said in a report on aviation procurement released Sept. 10.
The committee said the British combat jet fleet now only provides a boutique capability and lacks numerical depth and an inadequate attrition reserve.
“Combat aircraft numbers are already low. The defence command paper cuts will create a combat air capability gap which, on current plans, will persist well into the 2030s. This is unacceptable. The [Ministry of Defence] and RAF must consider as a matter of urgency how they can increase combat air mass in the short term,” said the report.
Figures in the report show Britain having the smallest number of jets among the four major European military powers with a fleet of 169 aircraft made up of Typhoons and F-35s.
The next smallest is Italy with 199 jets, while Germany and France each have over 200 combat aircraft.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the RAF’s fleet has taken a nosedive in numbers, down to just a third of its previous size. Our report found that budget cuts — including those in the last defence command paper — have led to gaps in air capability that will persist into the next decade,” said committee chair Tobias Ellwood.
“The RAF has prioritized quality at the expense of quantity, leaving us with a fleet of combat aircraft that are high-spec and expensive yet alarmingly low in number. Our current fleet fails to reach the mass necessary to survive the attrition of an all-out war with a peer adversary. Fixing this is a matter of urgency,” he said.
The MoD updated the 2021 command paper earlier this year in light of the changed security situation in Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but left aircraft deletions untouched.
The committee saved much of its criticism for the MoD’s decision to reduce an order for airborne early warning aircraft and the axing of an entire fleet of Hercules C-130s earlier than planned.
An order for five Boeing Wedgetail E-7 was cut from five aircraft to three to save money.
Reducing the fleet size to three was labeled by the Parliamentarians as the “most perverse” decision in the command paper.
The 40% reduction in Wedgetail fleet size resulted in a cost saving of just 12%, said the report.
The committee, which has influence but no actual teeth, said the cut needs to be reversed with a new commitment to at least five of the airborne early warning and control jets .
Shrinking the fleet will leave Britain unable to meet its NATO commitments and its own sovereign needs, said the Parliamentarians.
“The MoD has committed almost £2 billion [$2.5 billion] for a fleet of aircraft that, due to its reduced size, will be unable to meet the basic capability requirement,” said the lawmakers.
Perhaps the most controversial decision of the 2021 command paper was the move to stand down the RAF’s C-130J Hercules fleet some seven years before its planned out-of-service date.
Witnesses giving evidence to the committee were almost unanimously critical of this decision, which significantly reduced the overall capacity of the air mobility fleet and created a capability gap that could hamper special forces who widely use the aircraft, said the report.
The fleet of aircraft were finally withdrawn earlier this summer and are now up for sale.
“The RAF has been left scrambling to migrate essential capabilities onto the A400M Atlas and will be reliant on this aircraft which, however capable it may be on paper, has a poor track record of reliability,” said the Parliamentarians.
Author: Andrew Chuter