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AirOpinionShort Read

2022 – An annus horribilis for the Royal Air Force?

The Good, the Bad, and the Indefensible

As it is always the case for the Royal Air Force, its commitment and contribution to operations, over the past 12 months has been exceptional.  Its combat air and ISR fleets are providing support to NATO and the war in Ukraine.  The Air Mobility Force, having surged for Op PITTING in 2021, flew several sorties into Ukraine in February of this year and has maintained a steady airbridge into Poland since March.  Unfortunately, 2022 could also be described as an Annus Horribilis for the RAF.  Its leadership became involved in a recruitment crisis, its world renowned display team were embroiled in accusations of sexual harassment, bullying, and misogyny, its flying training system is taking 5-7 years to get pilots onto Operational Conversion Units and a lack of F35 pilots means that the RAF is operating its most modern aircraft on a knife edge. 

Decisive effects, the ‘Leading Edge’ and Ukraine

In July this year, the Chief of the Air Staff talked about the war in Ukraine when he addressed the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference when he spoke of ‘maintaining our leading edge’ and the ‘decisive effects’ we bring to the fight.  He failed to mention that his own service does not possess some of those ‘decisive effects’ being used in the air war over Ukraine such as anti-radiation missiles and airborne early warning and control aircraft.  The former is of paramount importance when operating in such an environment dominated by surface to air missiles.  The latter plays a pivotal role in control of the air.  The Ukrainian Air Force’s ability to disperse and operate is something the RAF is also beginning to re-learn.

One thing the war in Ukraine has demonstrated is the utility of drones, be they small commercial ones or larger military platforms such as the Bayraktar TB2.  It has also demonstrated how vulnerable they are to either jamming or being shot down.  The West’s Reapers and Predators that were seen as vital in previous conflicts are vulnerable to Russian air defences with Ukrainian pilots hinting at their limited used by saying: ‘it’s not Afghanistan here’.  

The RAF took charge of its new Protector remotely piloted air system this year.  It boasts an impressive range and payload.  It also has an impressive price tag, with the programme for 16 airframes being in excess of £1Bn.  Being able to operate in civilian airspace is a significant achievement but surviving in contested airspace is another thing entirely.  The same vulnerabilities will also apply to the Army’s 45 Watchkeepers.  The British military have invested a lot of money into uncrewed systems that may struggle to survive when the shooting starts.

Equipment delays – consistency at last

One consistent theme for the RAF in 2022 has been delays to a number of important equipment programmes.  F35 FOC has slipped from 2023 to 2025.  Given the fact that there are only 33 F35 pilots available to fly the current fleet of 27 aircraft means there is probably no rush to increase the fleet to 78 by the end of the decade.  The news that the F35 will not be equipped with the SPEAR 3 missile until 2026, rather than 2025 is also unwelcome.  The 130km range SPEAR 3 is, after all, the stand-off weapon that will put the ‘strike’ into Carrier Strike Group.  The three Wedgetails that are replacing the seven E3D AWACS will not achieve initial operating capability until 2024, one year later than planned.  

We have only just learnt that February’s plan to buy additional A400Ms has been scrapped as it was deemed ‘unaffordable’.  The RAF prides itself on being agile but I don’t think a 10 month about turn of that magnitude is what they had in mind.  Instead, Air Command is developing ‘an affordable choice’ to improve A400M availability.  We should bear in mind that the C130 Hercules fleet has already had to be extended by 3 months due to ‘availability issues’ with the very same A400M.

RAF F35B being flown to UK
The F35B Force – ‘still not a staggering amount of pilots’

Pilot Training and recruitment

The RAF’s pilot training system hit the headlines this year, when it was revealed that the time it takes for a pilot to reach an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) now sits at just under 5 years for fast jet pilots, 5.4 years for multi-engine pilots and an eye-watering 6.9 years for rotary pilots.  We need to bear in mind that arrival on an OCU does not mean the service has a combat ready aviator on its hands and additional time must be factored in before those individuals hit the front line proper.  

If the fast jet route looks the better option at present, problems with the Hawk T2 aircraft have led the RAF to look for alternative training outlets for its trainee jet pilots to minimise disruption over the next three years.  The Chief of the Air Staff’s OJAR objectives may also need tweaking given that the Secretary of State for Defence feels the situation ‘has gone backwards’ since he gave CAS the original direction. 

Another unwelcome headline for the RAF’s Senior Leadership Team in 2022 was the resignation of Group Captain Recruitment and SelectionThis came after the Personnel chain of command had given direction to make offers of employment to additional women and ethnic minority (EM) candidates solely on the basis of their protected characteristics and in preference to non-EM men who have successfully passed all selection criteria ahead of them.  Such a move was, according to the Group Captain, ’against equality legislation and against the RAF’s own legal guidance’ and that increasing diversity should be done through ‘lawful and proportionate means’.  An investigation is underway but this incident does underline the importance of having HR specialists in key HR roles.

Training people on unacceptable behaviours

The Red Arrows hit the headlines in August when The Times carried damning allegations bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment of amongst the team, with accusations that the ‘chain of command could not be trusted to deal with toxic behaviours’.  A non-statutory inquiry began in December 2021 and concluded in November 2022, with two cases being brought to the Air Force Board. The contents of the 2019 Wigston Report seem rather hollow.  In his July Air Power speech, the Chief spoke of the need to ‘counter unprovoked bullying and aggression’.  His words were aimed at Russia but they seem just as appropriate for elements of his own workforce. 

A worrying trend of corrosion?

The poor decision making in recruitment and the behaviours uncovered at the Red Arrows are bad enough.  What is perhaps more worrying for the Service is a more sustained and longer term trend of failing to provide its personnel with basic real life support.  We can see just one example in an October 2022 OFSTED report concerning the training estate at RAF College Cranwell.  The Report ‘found senior officers and their staff spending time dealing with the legacy of a lack of investment in infrastructure, or handling poor maintenance contracts.  The RAF Officer Training Academy at RAF Cranwell, for example, had classrooms with leaking roofs and accommodation blocks that frequently lacked hot water and heating.’  A ‘Fifth Generation Air Force’ is struggling to get to grips with achieving Level 1 on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The Service has also introduced a remote HR Operating Model that has centralised its personnel support services.  Whoever prioritised centralisation and efficiencies over allowing its workforce to engage face to face with HR specialists clearly didn’t get the ‘people are our most important asset’ memo.

Final thoughts

A lot the good work done by the RAF in 2022 seems to have been undermined by a series of unwelcome incidents and poor decision making.  Look behind the headlines and you will find the excellent work being done across the workforce:  Ukraine, a global footprint, a Pride of Britain Award for a young aviator from Brize, and a Voyager flight using sustainable aviation fuel to name but a few.  A leadership that takes pride in those achievements must also be accountable for the organisation’s failures.  Perhaps more worrying are the corrosive longer term trends an estate that struggles to provide hot water and heating and a HR system that is remote from the workforce.  This year has put a real emphasis on Per Ardua – the only thing that could make matters worse in 2022 would be to find out former RAF pilots had been training the Chinese Air Force.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.


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