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One year on: How did air power fare in the Integrated Review?

The Integrated Review in context: One year on
Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

05 May 2022

Defence in a Competitive Age was published in March 2021 and set out how the Ministry of Defence was going to play its part in meeting the ambition for Global Britain in a Competitive Age set out by the Integrated Review. In his foreword, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claimed that this was going to be different from previous reviews that ‘have been over-ambitious and underfunded, leaving forces that were overstretched and underequipped’. This one was going to be ‘threat-focused’ and properly resourced based on ‘unprecedented’ investment in defence. One year on, how does it look from an air power perspective?

The answer, this paper will contend, is not very good.

The Review’s air power shortcomings

The air power chapter of Defence in a Competitive Age was incoherent with the ambition set out by the Integrated Review.– Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

The air power chapter of Defence in a Competitive Age was incoherent with the ambition set out by the Integrated Review. The vison of ‘Global Britain’ tilting to the Indo-Pacific with armed forces ‘persistently engaged worldwide’ never sat comfortably with deep cuts to the air mobility force needed to sustain them. An enhanced ability to ‘detect threats’ was incoherent with the cuts to the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) force. And a modest commitment to ‘at least 48 F-35s’ did nothing to resolve the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) lack of combat air mass, leaving it lacking in resilience and ubiquity as it waited for the panacea of the Future Combat Air System to come along. This incoherence might explain why it is already unravelling in the face of events. The first of these was the fall of Kabul.

The biggest cuts to the RAF fell on the Air Mobility Force (AMF). Despite having just completed an expensive life extension programme to take it to its 2035 out of service date, the C-130J was to be retired by 2023. Furthermore, the BAe 146 was to be scrapped in 2022, with the replacements unable to carry out its cargo role. It was therefore ironic that the first major operation following Defence in a Competitive Age required the AMF to rapidly evacuate 15,000 from Kabul after it fell to the Taliban at a speed the Government had completely failed to anticipate. Tragically, despite the magnificent efforts of the AMF, there was not enough time to get everybody out. Many eligible Afghans were left behind. The UK and the West had suffered a visible defeat, something that is likely to have emboldened our enemies, which brings us onto Ukraine.

The air power implications of the Ukraine conflict

Despite planned reductions in air transport capacity, the Integrated Review was clear about the need for the armed forces to both train for warfighting and become more ‘persistently engaged’ globally saying that: ‘In practice, persistent engagement will mean deploying more of our forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time’ (p.73).

Though the Integrated Review recognised the ‘resurgence of state-based threats’, leading with four paragraphs on ‘Russian Behaviour’, it was left to the Defence Command Paper to explicitly lay out the challenges for the MOD in relation to Russia:

Russia continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security. Modernisation of the Russian armed forces, the ability to integrate whole of state activity and a greater appetite for risk, makes Russia both a capable and unpredictable actor. (p.5) – Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

As Russian troops built up on the border with Ukraine in late 2021 into 2022, the MOD stood by the implications of ‘persistent engagement’ which it stated: ‘will increase the UK’s ability to pre-empt and manage crises before they escalate and minimise the opportunities for state and non-state actors to undermine international security.’ (p.15) By early February 2022, Britain had agreed to send 350 personnel to Poland, to join 250 already deployed there, and had offered to double its commitment to Estonia, where 900 British forces lead a NATO battlegroup. Additionally the UK offered to deploy additional RAF combat aircraft to Southern Europe along with additional Royal Navy warships to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Attempts at deterrence failed, not helped by tensions between European nations about the nature of the threat from Russia and what to do about it. Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February. At the time of writing (late March), the UK continues to support the supply of arms to the Ukrainian armed forces and is in the process of strengthening sanctions against Russia and specified Russian nationals. It is vehemently opposed to any further actions, saying that only Putin is escalating the situation and the UK will not do that. As such, British military forces remain on the sidelines. The UK’s most meaningful contribution to Ukraine is the provision of intelligence using ISR aircraft and supplies flown by the AMF. These are two capabilities that the Defence Command Paper chose to cut.

The UK’s most meaningful contribution to Ukraine is the provision of intelligence using ISR aircraft and supplies flown by the AMF. These are two capabilities that the Defence Command Paper chose to cut. – Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

Meanwhile the need to reinforce NATO allies in Eastern Europe has exposed our lack of combat air mass.

Retiring or reducing air power capabilities, especially in the ISR and air mobility areas, and leaving a gap (yawning or otherwise) before they are replaced may align with the reduction in Army numbers and the recognition that their capability gaps make them ill-equipped for high intensity combat in serious numbers until later in the decade. However, the ongoing crisis may leave the UK looking exposed on several flanks at the same time. Not a good look for a Global Britain seeking to demonstrate its renewed vigour and influence on the world stage post-Brexit and in a post- or ‘living with’ Covid world. No doubt questions will be asked about the need for a ‘new chapter’ to the Integrated Review (likely to be branded as IR25) since events in Europe are completely overshadowing ‘tilts’ elsewhere. Hard questions also need to be asked about the effectiveness of deterrence and ‘soft power’ when dealing with regimes like Putin’s.

Hard questions also need to be asked about the effectiveness of deterrence and ‘soft power’ when dealing with regimes like Putin’s. – Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

Funding matters

The underlying problem is one of money. The MoD has made much of the multi-year cash settlement agreed with the Treasury in 2019 with an additional ‘£24B’ for Defence. However, inflation soon began rising, eroding the real value of that settlement. It has now topped 5%, its highest for 20 years. In this context, Ben Wallace had unwittingly signed up to a substantial cut in his department’s budget. Defence spending is now set to fall in real terms every year for the rest of this Parliament. This looked unwise even before the Ukraine crisis; now it looks like folly and fortunately set to be reversed. Otherwise, the MoD will be back on the path of managed decline. And Air, like Land, has a smaller slice of the shrinking pie. The challenge for the RAF now is to meet increasing commitments from a shrinking budget. One year on Defence in a Competitive Age looks over-ambitious and underfunded, just as the Secretary of State had characterised previous reviews,

The challenge for the RAF now is to meet increasing commitments from a shrinking budget. One year on Defence in a Competitive Age looks over-ambitious and underfunded, just as the Secretary of State had characterised previous reviews– Dr Sophy Antrobus and Andy Netherwood

and the RAF will be left overstretched and underequipped as a result.

Dr Sophy Antrobus is a Research Associate with the Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. Dr Antrobus served in the RAF for 20 years between 1991 and 2011. Dr Antrobus researches contemporary air power in the context of the institutional, cultural and organisational barriers to innovation in modern air forces, in particular the Royal Air Force.

Andy Netherwood is the Air & Space power editor for the Wavell Room. He served in the RAF between 1993 and 2019, flying C-130 and C-17. He also worked on Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development, and at the UK Defence Academy.

In this story

Sophy  Antrobus

Sophy Antrobus

Research Fellow with the Freeman Air and Space Institute

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