23 February 2023
The case for RAF Arctic and High North readiness
As we mark the one year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Freeman's PhD fellow, Arun Dawson, reflects on the case for Arctic and High North readiness in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Friday marks the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Amidst pressing demands on public finances, this sombre milestone is an opportunity to restate the case for Arctic and High North readiness in the Royal Air Force (RAF). This argument rests on two pillars. First, that the RAF has the latent capacity to be militarily effective in a key Euro-Atlantic region: the Arctic and High North (comprising northern Europe and the North Atlantic). Second, realising this potential would be a worthwhile use of finite resources vis-à-vis other theatres. Ahead of the Integrated Review (IR) refresh, this viewpoint thus cautions against a greater military contribution to the Indo-Pacific – as some advocate – when more could be done to secure Britain’s backyard.
The RAF’s latent capacity in the Arctic and High North
In March 2022, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) claimed that the RAF has ‘the capacity to rapidly deploy and operate in the High North’ in its first Defence Arctic Strategy (DAS). While my Freeman Paper, ‘Cold Comfort’, challenged this assertion, it is true that Britain’s military is better placed than most to make good on its newly-stated commitments to the region, providing that judicious investment realises this latent capacity.
First, as the lead nation for the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) of 10 northern European countries, the United Kingdom (UK) has shown its convening power in the region. The JEF, unlike NATO or the European Union, does not need consensus amongst its members to operate, making it a flexible and highly responsive grouping. Exercises under the JEF banner have to date focused on the Baltics, leaving the High North and North Atlantic – the other two ‘principal geographic area[s] of interest’ mandated by the coalition – somewhat neglected. As the lead nation’s air force, the RAF could help steer its JEF partners towards correcting this oversight, building on its deployments to Finland and Sweden last year. Indeed, once the accession of these two nations is formalised, NATO will then include all the Nordic countries, maximising the RAF’s ability to learn from Arctic warfare’s best-in-class. One way this could be achieved is by expanding the exchange officer programme into a seed-corn capability for High North readiness.
Second, there are promising prospects to collaborate on tactics, doctrine and intelligence sharing due to increasing platform commonality between the RAF and allied air forces in the High North. Notably, F-35 operators are or will include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and the United States (US), with Canada, Norway and the US operating the Poseidon P-8A. Sweden’s purported interest in joining the UK’s next-generation fighter programme could see High North considerations factored into the aircraft’s design at a relatively early stage.
Third, the RAF could maximise the utility of its Voyager tankers by equipping some of them with a boom refuelling system. Currently, the probe-and-drogue fitted to the Voyagers is incompatible with the P-8A (along with several other types in the inventory) potentially forcing compromises on time-on-station and tactical routing if the United States diverts resources to the Indo-Pacific.
An additional dependency on the US Air Force is for the suppression or destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD). This is crucially important in the High North where assisting in the defence of the UK’s Nordic allies will demand RAF operations in proximity to, and often within, the range of Russia’s Arctic squadrons and their multi-layered Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubble. As has been argued elsewhere, the RAF already has a unique combination of platforms and weapons systems which could be developed into a highly effective SEAD/DEAD force. This would not come cheap, but it would add value to the UK’s role as a framework nation. Moreover, the contested environment of the Arctic and High North may be the ‘clear and tangible objective’ needed to galvanise aviator training out of its current paralysis.
Finally, restoring the RAF’s warfighting edge in the region would unlock synergies with the Army and Navy, services which are themselves accruing valuable expertise in the Arctic and High North. Not only would their efforts be in vain if they could not be supported by a similarly well-prepared RAF, but developing a pan-defence Arctic capability introduces a meaningful dilemma into Putin’s decision calculus.
A worthwhile use of finite resources
Notwithstanding double-digit inflation and sterling depreciation in an intensified security context, defence is likely to face a real terms cut in next month’s budget. Since the RAF cannot offer credible security guarantees in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres at the reduced mass mandated by the Chancellor’s belt-tightening, defence planners and their political masters must be clear about the trade-offs. Little on this can be gleamed from the IR’s accompanying Defence Command Paper which assigns ‘apparent conflicting regional priorities’ to the RAF. I argue that in the present climate, defence of the Euro-Atlantic should receive undiluted attention, with Arctic and High North readiness a key part of that.
Much of the debate pivots on the claim that a ‘weakened Russia [now] poses little threat to British shores’. Yet even if its misadventure in Ukraine has rewarded Moscow with aircrew fatigue and a debilitating sanctions regime against its aerospace industry, it would be erroneous to assume that this amounts to a disarming of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS).
First, cautious force employment in the face of Ukrainian air defences has reduced the high attrition rates characteristic of the conflict’s initial phase, thus temporarily pacifying the VKS as a ‘fleet in being’ until such time as Kyiv’s inventory of surface-to-air missiles, or Western goodwill in restocking them, is exhausted. A Defence Intelligence update only last week indicated that the VKS remains ‘largely intact’ at 1,500 aircraft despite incurring 130 losses over the past year. While a recent Freeman Paper shows the pressures imposed on the VKS by the arms embargo, the same paper cautions against discounting too quickly ‘the creative and entrepreneurial ways that air forces’ have responded to past bans. Much will depend on Russia’s ability to identify and exploit illicit procurement networks for electronic components.
Second, the Arctic hosts some of the VKS’s most sophisticated aircraft and is where President Putin, following the imposition of Western sanctions last year, has pledged to ‘expedite [Russia’s] work on current and long-term tasks to the greatest possible extent’. The combination of a largely preserved VKS which can rapidly deploy northwards and the military infrastructure which already exists there (particularly in A2/AD) contributes to Russia’s favourable balance of power in Arctic and High North airspace.
Third, Russia has already deployed its air power in a series of dangerous provocations outside the Ukraine context. For example, sorties from Russia’s 13 Arctic airfields have simulated bombing runs on NATO facilities, violated the airspace of soon-to-be UK allies, and jammed navigation signals during NATO exercises. Given that Russia has the initiative – both in geographic proximity and the fait accompli strategies it is expected to employ – reckless behaviour here and elsewhere is elevating the risks of miscalculation. All this undermines the argument that Russia’s force posture in the region is benign and simply a response to climate change depriving the country of its natural defences. There is also then the question of alleged Russian involvement in the ‘sabotage’ of critical national infrastructure in the Baltics, Norwegian Arctic and Scottish waters which, whilst not necessarily facilitated by the VKS, nevertheless increase demands on the RAF’s maritime surveillance capability just as the potency of Russian submarines transiting the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap increases. This is to say nothing of the VKS’s regular probing of NATO airspace – some 350 times in 2020 – necessitating the RAF’s 24/7 readiness to intercept hostile aircraft.
Despite the northerly threat vector posed by the VKS, some assert that a Euro-Atlantic focus is myopic, or at least, it is achievable alongside increasing commitments to the Indo-Pacific. Not only does Euro-centricity take the UK’s eye off the long-term challenge of China, the argument goes, but it also inhibits the diplomatic and economic gains which may accrue from a bolder Indo-Pacific Tilt for the RAF.
In security terms, it is true that China remains the systemic competitor. It is also right to point out the UK’s obligations to the United Nations Command in South Korea, Five Powers Defence Arrangements, Five Eyes intelligence alliance, AUKUS, and this year’s UK-Japan Reciprocal Access Agreement amongst others. And yet British allies in the Indo-Pacific are today much better armed to deter conflict than in the past. Moreover, China’s forays as a self-designated ‘near-Arctic state’ may in time see RAF activities in the High North influence the Indo-Pacific but from a position where force projection and sustainment face fewer challenges.
On the diplomatic and economic arguments, I refer the reader to Jack Watling who has convincingly showed that defence exports and industrial collaboration can be achieved without bending the force structure out of shape to provide persistent engagement or regional capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. Where diplomacy can make a real difference in the near term is better coordination with European allies to avoid duplication of effort. Longer term, in leading at least the initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK may have stumbled across a way of regaining its position as an interlocutor between Europe and an increasingly China-focused US.
Finally, there are some practical reasons why Arctic and High North readiness would be a worthwhile use of scarce resources in comparison to the alternatives. First, the RAF headquarters’ current budget involves ‘considerable’ reductions to flying activity. In that context, training closer to home but regularly makes more sense. Moreover, since night flying constitutes ‘a significant part’ of the pilot training syllabus, operating in the ‘polar night’ could relieve a potential bottleneck in the aircrew pipeline. Then there are the very real challenges of colonial baggage. For instance, the UK’s ongoing territorial dispute with Mauritius over the Chagos Islands – leased to the US as a strategically-sited air and naval support base – discredits its reputation amongst the Indo-Pacific countries it hopes to woo.
Lambasted for having ‘no instinctive feel for statecraft’, the IR refresh will be an opportunity for the prime minister to prove his critics wrong. As a start, the Sunak government should resolve the RAF’s conflicting regional priorities and resource the service to meet the incipient threats correctly identified in the DAS. Doing so would tap into the RAF’s latent potential in the Arctic and High North.
With Putin determined to see the war in Ukraine enter its second year, it is worth recalling that ‘decisively hard capability with the credibility to warfight’ remains the best way to deter conflict escalation. Achieving this takes time, and that is a luxury recent experience has shown to be all too quickly expended.