U.K. Strives To Become More Reliable Defense Partner
AeroBD | The AERO news Company…LAS VEGAS, December 07, 2015 : After years of cuts to British airpower, the U.K. strengthens its air force and rebuilds maritime patrol capability. With a £12 billion ($18 billion) uptick in the country’s defense equipment spending to £178 billion over the next 10 years, ministers have pledged to boost the number of Royal Air Force (RAF) frontline fighter squadrons and to deliver a long-awaited commitment to buy every one of its planned 138 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Yet while the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) published on Nov. 23 appears to be good news, the government’s pledges appear to do little more than paper over gaping cracks in military aircraft capabilities left by previous reviews. While the purchase of nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will help to protect its new aircraft carriers and the new-generation submarine-based nuclear deterrent, that still merely fills the gap left by the retirement of the Nimrod MR2 and cancellation of its replacement, the Nimrod MRA4, during the last SDSR in 2010.
“The outcome of this SDSR is much better than the armed forces were expecting only six months ago,” said Malcolm Chalmers, director of U.K. defense policy studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “But it does not add up to a step change in U.K. defense capabilities compared with current levels. It is therefore best described as being a ‘steady as she goes’ review, providing a welcome element of stability in defense planning after five years of substantial reductions.”
Britain’s combat airpower has been decimated since the end of the Cold War, with the number of frontline units falling from 30 in the 1991 Gulf War to just eight today—three Tornado GR4 squadrons and five Typhoon units—the lowest number of fast-jet squadrons in decades. In July, Gen. Nicholas Houghton, chief of the U.K. Defense Staff, told an airpower conference in London that cuts in the combat air fleets had put the U.K. at the “very limits of fast-jet availability and capacity.”
Over the past 10 years alone, the U.K. has bade farewell to the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers (2006), the Sepecat Jaguar (2007) and the Harrier (2010). Arguably, if not for Britain’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in Iraq, the U.K.’s Panavia Tornado strike aircraft fleet would now be made up of just two squadrons rather than the current three.
By retaining 24-36 of the 53 Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons manufactured, the U.K. will be able to create two additional frontline squadrons dedicated to U.K. air defense, training and the red air aggressor role. The Tranche 2 and 3 aircraft will be fitted with the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar under development. The retirement date for the Typhoon has also been pushed back from 2030 to 2040. Without this extension, the U.K. would have had its AESA-radar-equipped jets for just nine years before the type was retired. The Typhoon, along with upcoming enhancements to carry air-to-ground weapons, will still replace the Tornado GR4 in 2019, although now the Tornado fleet will not begin to shrink until 2018.