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ISSN 1416-300X Volume 11, Issue 3 December 2008


Air power capability – economics always wins says Sir Brian Burridge

“If you don’t have control over the air you can’t do anything – yet economics always wins over strategy,” said Air League Chairman, Sir Brian Burridge, who gave the society’s annual Andrew Humphrey Memorial Lecture last week. With a title of ‘Too Many Prayers and Not Enough Wings: RAF Air Power Again Meets Economic Reality’, Sir Brian charted the two periods in the RAF’s history where economic necessity overrode strategy, drawing out what can be learned today and presenting his vision of the future of the RAF.

The first time the stark economics of the defence budget were keenly felt was in the 20 year period following World War One. The RAF force structures suffered adversely through lack of investment. While the UK was still manufacturing biplanes, by 1933 Germany had completed four studies into constructing modern fighter aircraft which led to the ubiquitous Messerschmitt 109 flying as a prototype in May 1935. Monoplane development was absolutely vital to the UK’s air capability, as well as being of commercial competitive advantage, yet work on Britain’s Hurricane only began in 1934 after the British government’s decision to re-arm.

Describing the second period when economics won over strategy, Sir Brian stated that with the end of the Cold War in 1989, the quest for a peace dividend set the armed forces on another period of under-investment. “In recent times, as UK foreign policy has focused on peacekeeping, expeditionary warfare and fighting terrorism, the amount of resource needs to be refocused to support the reality of the environment we are now in,” he said.

Although bullish about the future of the RAF, Sir Brian predicted that concepts such as fleets within fleets – where a core amount of aircraft is equipped with the most cutting-edge technology, as opposed to the entire fleet – were likely to be the way forward.

He urged the defence procurement community to look at strategic investment, where capability is traded against numbers of aircraft and where the capability focus comes from sensors, software and systems. “Today’s equipment challenge sees our armed forces up against fleeting and diffuse targets in very difficult terrain. Aircrew need the appropriate technology – such as automatic target recognition systems – to give them the best information possible to be able to make what can be split second decisions in theatre,” said Sir Brian.

Sir Brian quoted some fascinating statistics such as that in 1984 there were 91,000 RAF personnel and 52 Squadrons whilst in 2007 there were 40,600 personnel and 37 Squadrons.

Having said that he then continued to say that during the First Gulf War 12 Tornados delivered the equivalent punch of a 1000 bomber raid during World War 2!

Following a question from Richard Gardner Sir Brian expressed concern that the U.K. may be becoming over reliant on U.S. ISTAR assets following the decision to acquire the Rivet Joint aircraft on top of the already procured King Air and Reaper UAVs.

When asked about which existing contracts could be cut to save money, he cited the CVF carrier project which was created due to the new Interventionist Defence Policy formulated by Tony Blair in his 1999 Chicago speech.

Sir Brian said that in his view money could be saved by building one ship and cutting the numbers of JSF aircraft from 142 to 70.

Replying to questions about the future of JSF, Sir Brain said that the world’s air forces needed a stealthy, agile, multi-role, affordable aircraft which JSF provided and once in service, the doubters would slip away.

He made another interesting comment that future airframes such as JSF, F-22 and Typhoon would require software enhancements to improve capability rather than hardware or airframe enhancements as the latest airframes were made of stealthy materials and were an integral part of the aircraft’s structure.

He also mentioned the growing importance of Homeland Security and the use of CCTV cameras were a staggering 4.2 million were installed in the UK. He also warned about the growing use of cyber attacks on government computers where 100,000 were recorded last year worldwide.

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