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RAF Unleashed? Creating A Key European Strike Force

Posted by Robbin Laird on

RAF Tornado GR4's over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft have been in action over Iraq as part of the international coalition’s operations to support the democratic Iraqi Government in the fight against ISIL.

RAF Tornado GR4

When the British Parliament voted to strike Daesh (or ISIL as we used to call them) in Syria, the Royal Air Force was “unleashed,” to use the words of a senior British government official.

British planes launched from Cyprus and struck against Daesh oil facilities in Syria. They struck against what the Defense Minister called the pocketbook of a force which does not recognize boundaries. Interestingly, the British strike followed upon a rather complete Russian chronicling the movement of oil from Syria to Turkey.

It is clear that the British would not have conducted the strike without having worked out deconfliction with Russian aircraft operating in Syria.  That path may well have been paved by French President Hollande who indicated that not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting was being established with the Russians after he met with Putin. The French and the British are acting on the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In contrast, President Obamas continue to authorize a slow roll on strikes, which have been characterized by Dave Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, as an airpower drizzle. While the president argued that we needed better intelligence to strike against ISIS, the British had the intelligence to strike them where it hurts, namely in their pocketbooks.

The British press had photos and reports from Cyprus of the strikes and photos surrounding the RAF base in Lossiemouth, Scotland launching of Tornados and Typhoons on their way to Cyprus. Frankly, I have never seen such wide coverage of a strike in the British press before this from the usually secretive British government (land of the Official Secrets Act). The British government decided to engage in the next phase in Daesh with a clear public statement, including clearly identifying the threat from Daesh as both internal and external.

Overnight, RAF Tornado GR4s, supported by a Voyager air refuelling tanker and a Reaper, and operating in conjunction with other coalition aircraft, employed Paveway IV guided bombs to conduct strikes against six targets within the extensive oilfield at Omar, 35 miles inside Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.”

Britian’s recent Strategic and Defense Review highlighted the importance of better RAF funding so it can modernize. Between the Daesh strikes and the review’s full funding for the F-35B and increased funding for Tornados the strategic holiday seems over in Britain,

In part the RAF is being better funded because of the obvious relevance of airpower to global threats; in part it is because the RAF created a sensible modernization template.

The RAF is undergoing two fighter aircraft transitions at the same time. On the one hand, the Tornado is being retired and the Typhoon is subsuming its missions. On the other hand, the F-35B is coming to the fleet and will be working with Typhoon.

These are three very different aircraft built in different periods of aviation history.

The venerable Tornado has seen a significant evolution over its time; from its initial use as an ultra low-level nuclear and unguided weapons bomber to an ISR-enabled precision strike and close support aircraft.

The Typhoon entered the RAF more than a decade ago as a classic air superiority fighter, but is now being asked to expand its effects and to subsume the Tornado missions.

The F-35B is entering the fleet as the Typhoon is making this transition.

This will mean that the RAF will be managing a double transition – Typhoon becoming multi-role and the F-35B operating off of land or ships to provide the fifth generation capability to the evolving RAF strike force.

The F-35B launched from the carriers is part of the picture; the very significant C2 capabilities aboard the ship are another. With the Queen Elizabeth carriers afloat, the RAF is looking to build synergy among the various land-based and carrier-based aircraft to generate combat effects.

As a Royal Navy officer put it: “The strike force could be commanded from the ship, from the ground or from the air. We are building flexible C2 in order to get maximum combat value from aircraft launched from the carrier.”

The F-35B as a flying combat system, capable of integrated air operations with every other F-35 flying in the combat area, is a significant foundation for shaping what the Queen Elizabeth will do in combat.

The reach of the F-35Bs coming off of the Queen Elizabeth will be expanded by the range of other F-35s and the data grid generated over the expanded battle space.

Leveraging what Typhoons will be able to do as they undergo their current weapons modernization program will enhance the strike effects of an integrated air-sea combat air force.

Projected forward in time, one can envisage how this might operate. The Queen Elizabeth is in the Eastern Mediterranean and its aircraft are integrated with other F-35Bs aboard US or Italian ships; the data and sensor coverage would be significant.

A computer-generated image of a Royal Navy F-35B taking off vertically from the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be commissioned July 4th.

A computer-generated image of a Royal Navy F-35B taking off vertically from the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be commissioned July 4th.

The Typhoons operating in Cyprus would have a forward controller and defense shield as well as with the F-35Bs target acquisition elements. The Typhoons could operate with “greater survivability and lethality,” as one RAF officer put it.

Fortune favors the prepared. Much as in the preparation for the Battle of Britain, the RAF is planning for tomorrow’s contingencies. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was the architect of the approach which led to  the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain. He is most remembered for his unwelcome task of telling Prime Minister Churchill that no more fighters should go to France to get destroyed in a losing cause; instead, they needed to be husbanded for the coming conflict, which would later be known as the Battle of Britain.

What Dowding understood, and the politicians did not, was that the con-ops shaped by design was crucial to mission success; and the fighters were the tip of the sword, not just silver bullets to be chewed up in fighter versus fighter battles.

Those fighters would be needed to kill bombers, primarily, and fighters, and they would operate from British soil and operate within a very clear strategic context, one which brought together elements of new technologies, and new concepts of operations which have not yet been tested in battle.

Perhaps by chance, perhaps by fate, the new commanding officer of RAF Lossiemouth, from which the Tornados and Typhoons launched to join their mates on Cyprus, is a Typhoon, Spitfire and Hurricane pilot, who also has been a key officer in the F-35 transition. Fortune favors the prepared.


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