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13 January 2023

When it comes to air power, “expect the unexpected” says the Chief of the Air Staff

The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, joined the Freeman Air and Space Institute to reflect on the year just gone and what lies ahead for the RAF and UK defence.

CAS Lecture 2022

In conversation with BBC Radio 4 presenter and former BBC defence correspondent, Caroline Wyatt, Sir Mike Wigston spoke about his time as Chief of the Air Staff and the challenges and opportunities that the RAF may face in the future. The talk – hosted on 5 December by the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London – was attended by academics, media, and members of the public.

Discussing the turbulent nature of the last three years and resilience of the RAF, the topic of conversation turned to Ukraine. Noting the concerns of Poland and the UK’s Baltic allies of being in close proximity to a nation with such “aggressive, expansionist policy”, he praised the British government for their quick response to Putin’s February 2022 invasion, being amongst the first to declare they were going to arm Ukrainians with defensive anti-tank weapons.

In fact, Sir Mike Wigston said the RAF’s preparedness and ability to anticipate future threats to be one of its core strengths.

"A military organisation like the RAF needs to have a degree of resilience to shocks, and that resilience comes from planning, preparation and thinking through those contingency plans. It comes from having the right equipment in the right place and thinking through what you will need, sometimes decades in advance, but above all it comes from having talented people,” he said.

To ensure future resilience, the Chief of the Air Staff highlighted the importance of investing in technology and new areas of research, in particular space. The space domain, he claimed, has played an important role in the defence of Ukraine.

“It has given us the insight of what is happening on the ground, which has helped us dispel Russian propaganda, given Ukrainians intelligence, and a large part of that has been achieved by linking up with commercial space service providers in a very agile way and there is something that all of us should take note of.”

He said that the protection and defence of the UK from space will be an area of expansion and a “rich source of recruitment” for the RAF going forwards.

While praising the strengths of the RAF, Sir Mike Wigston reflected on areas where there is an urgent need for change. Acknowledging the issue of poor work cultures within the RAF that made headlines in the last year, he was clear that such environments are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. He cited new measures set up to combat harassment and bullying, and expressed confidence that, going forward, the RAF’s culture would be a welcoming one.

He also announced that further changes will come from the refresh of the Integrated Review next year, which will lead to a revision of defence funding. Published in March 2021, the Integrated Review set out the government’s vision for security, defence and foreign policy following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The Chief of Air Staff said the refresh was “not due to any shortcomings of the review” but due to the rapidly changing geopolitical climate. As such, he hoped to see, “an increase in funding to reflect a more dangerous, uncertain world.”

To watch the whole talk with Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, click here.