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Imagining the RAF in 2040: The Chief of the Air Staff speaks from the future

Dr Sophy Antrobus

Research Associate at the Freeman Air and Space Institute

27 January 2021

This year’s annual RUSI Trenchard Memorial Lecture, in which senior air officers traditionally discuss contemporary air power, was, inevitably, delivered online, a now familiar format to us all. This was the first time this particular event could not be held in person, but what was most notable was the way in which the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, approached his brief. He drew on sci-fi traditions of a century ago, manipulating narratives to describe the RAF’s future. I see it as a noteworthy development.

Instead of setting out a roadmap for the next ten or twenty years, hard to do in light of the impending Integrated Review and constraints on what can be discussed openly right now, he reimagined himself as the CAS of 2040 looking at what the RAF of 2040 might look like. He also avoided gendered language, allowing us to imagine at last a less conventional future RAF leader than the (presumably) straight, white men, with their common career paths, who have held the post to date. The lecture was the better for it.

This was part of his approach to launching an intriguing new RAF project, Stories from the Future, a series of vignettes envisioning the 2040 lives and careers of RAF personnel, presented as Fictional Intelligence (Ficint). Ficint, defined by August Cole, a scholar, author and ‘war futurist’, is ‘the combination of fiction writing with intelligence to imagine future scenarios in ways grounded in reality’. Much like CAS’s lecture, Stories aims to set itself apart from conventional presentations of the military, as it says in its introduction: ‘Rather than a strategy document or a list of new kit, the future is expressed with narrative detail’.

In CAS’s envisaging of a 2040 version of himself, he described a career trajectory very different from his own. The future CAS would have started their career in network operations, before leaving the service ‘to establish a successful start-up technology company’. After rejoining the RAF, this person worked across a spectrum of capabilities – yes, these do include references to hypersonics, space-based non-kinetic effects and multi-domain operations – and then leaving once again to take up the role of ‘CEO of a leading UK quantum computing company before selection as CAS in open competition’ in 2039.

Debate in the US recently has considered the faultline between the futurist and traditionalist camps. On the one hand, the futurists see eventual strategic success as dependent upon ‘the mastery of emerging technologies’ while, on the other, traditionalists see technological dominance as ‘simply one means’ to the ultimate goal of strategic power, questioning the potential of new technologies. In this lecture, CAS firmly nailed his futurist colours to the mast.

Sir Mike specifically referenced imagined future events that emphasised the importance of non-traditional threats from new technologies. In part of the fictional past of his future counterpart, an incident is recalled from 2030. A ‘grim day … when space was rendered unusable after a low-earth orbit satellite collision and the chain reaction collisions that followed’. One can hardly be surprised that this tract went on to highlight the vigorous response of the RAF – or even, as CAS suggested, the Royal Air and Space Force – with launches from Scotland and Cornwall ‘restoring critical services within 24 hrs using the Artemis Small Satellite Constellation’.

Stories from the Future transport the reader firmly into the life of the 2040 air and space power professional, following four imagined ‘days-in-the-life’. Describing artificial intelligence, cyber and space technology in a way that engages a non-specialist reader is a real challenge facing today’s defence professionals. Here, the RAF uses Ficint to try to engage its audience with concepts of future air and space power in 2040, as well as the contributions of artificial intelligence and biometrics to the relative and recognisable mundanities of ordering uniform and making a morning coffee. Olivia, a front-line pilot, references that her training until operational conversion had been conducted entirely using full artificial reality simulation, echoed in CAS’s lecture where he argued that this future for the RAF will not only reduce fuel consumption and aircraft hours expended on training, but would also keep training ‘away from prying eyes too’.

Both the lecture and the accompanying Ficint publication demonstrate the RAF has an idea that telling stories is perhaps a more compelling way to engage people in its envisioned journey. This rather echoes its distant past. Even before the advent of a military flying service, air power’s potential was popularly imagined, for a public grappling with the concept, by H G Wells and others. Fiction has played a central role in the public’s understanding of the RAF, as an institution more than a century old, from Wells to Worrals and from Biggles to Blackadder.

Imagining the future past – something more vivid than a standard lecture or doctrine paper – provides food for thought about how to communicate the RAF’s potential future journey. I have argued in the past that the RAF built itself from 1918 onwards by juggling with notions of temporality, not by playing for time, but by playing withtime. It’s fascinating to see some old tricks reinvented by an emphatically forward-looking CAS.

Dr Sophy Antrobus is a Research Associate at the Freeman Air & Space Institute, School of Security Studies King's College London. 

Stories From The Future can be found on the RAF website 


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Sophy  Antrobus

Sophy Antrobus

Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute

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