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: