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Air Power in the Age of Conflict: The Need For Credible UK Capability


In this latest blog, postgraduate student Luca Chadwick explores the need for credible UK air power capability.

Air Power in the Age of Conflict: The Need For Credible UK Capability

Author: Luca Chadwick (Postgraduate student, University of Leeds)

Contrary to widespread expectations, Russian air power throughout the war in Ukraine has been used ineffectively with Putin’s air force failing to achieve air superiority, despite its supposed high-level capability and unquestionably superior numbers. Nevertheless, an evident stalemate means the air domain remains heavily contested and thus an integral part of the war’s battlespace. From long-range strategic bomber operations in the early stages of invasion, to consistent drone strikes against Kyiv, as well as airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, the Russian Air Force remains persistent and the role of air power is only increasing in importance.

Fears are also consistently growing that Ukraine might soon lose its airborne advantage, which has eventually led to the transfer of F-16 muti-role combat aircraft to Ukraine. This makes clear that, despite its perceived ineffectiveness, the Russian Air Force’s persistence and depth, coupled with a war of attrition, only reinforces the importance of being able to operate effectively in the air domain.

The wider conflict has undoubtedly reshaped European strategic culture, with many nations returning to a security-focussed mindset whereby defence is once again at the top of national security agendas. This is especially prevalent in the states nearest to the conflict, for example Poland’s surge towards spending . Similarly, Germany has made an uncharacteristic turn towards defence spending, announcing the Bundeswehr Special Fund. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden have made an unprecedented turn away from their longstanding neutrality, applying to enter into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). For Finland, the shock posed by Putin’s war meant officials ‘[cast] aside ongoing projects’, [‘devoting their] full attention to… European and Finnish security’.

Many of these developments have been centred around the air component, with air defence considered a priority in both supporting Ukraine and the improvement of capabilities among NATO nations. In particular, Poland has sought to rapidly modernise, ‘westernising’ its air force, having  donated many of its Soviet era assets to Ukraine, along with peers such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where activities are also now ongoing. Such developments are favourable to enhance collective security and military interoperability and integration amongst NATO member states.

Moreover, an immense proliferation of Fifth Generation combat aircraft is underway across Europe, with the US projecting 550 F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft to be operational on the continent by 2030. Smaller nations such as Romania and the Czech Republic are among those looking to acquire the highly capable aircraft, which is considered a ‘decisive differentiator’ against near-peers. NATO’s latest member state, Finland, also purchased 64 F-35As in February 2022, prior to its ascension. This unequivocally demonstrates the integral role that air power has assumed in European defence infrastructure, particularly in deterring aggression and in generating ‘warfighting credibility’ across the continent.

An effective air component is arguably more fundamental to NATO now than it has been since the end of the Cold War. In any conflict, achieving control of the air is integral in enabling friendly forces freedom of operations without interference from adversary forces from the air, facilitating effective ISR, logistics, rescue and combat support for allied forces. Nevertheless, Western air forces have predominantly been consumed with operating against non-state actors since the beginning of the Global War on Terror in 2001. This has had negative effects on air power capabilities, predominantly comprising targeted operations against known targets through well as close air support (CAS) and airborne ISR operations, which often surpassed kinetic combat sorties. This has taken place in mostly uncontested airspace, making air power an automatic asymmetric advantage for allied forces. Such operations are also still ongoing, such as in Operations Shader and Inherent Resolve, however, allied air power must now adapt in order to respond to current generation threats, especially given that certain core competencies, like CAS, are seen to have become distorted by this environment.

Near peer adversaries, such as Russia, present unique challenges that mean the air domain is once again contested, possessing either similar or superior capabilities that challenge the ability of allied forces to gain superiority. For example, China has specifically sought to neutralise US air power, especially through the denial of assets at long range – a recognised threat across multiple possible aggressors and being incorporated into new air power doctrines, in particular Agile Combat Employment (ACE). Thus, Russia’s apparent ineffectiveness should not be taken for granted in Europe and nations should equip themselves to counter this threat. So long as adversaries possess the capability to threaten from the air, we should recall the words of Major Alexander P. de Seversky in 1940, in that ‘only air power can defeat air power’.

Contrary to these intuitions, the September 2023 House of Commons Defence Committee report into the United Kingdom’s aviation procurement (‘Winging It?’) was a damning insight into the cuts and challenges facing the UK air component. Shortcomings in aircrew training, unsavoury divestment of assets and troublingly slow capability growth underpin the document, suggesting that the UK is significantly behind the rest of the continent in terms of developing a credible air component.

This is problematic for a leading nation in NATO, that has a number of key roles and objectives which are largely fulfilled by air power. Long range air power is a key feature of power projection for the UK, as it seeks to increase its ability to operate in the ‘High North’, expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific whilst of course maintaining its capacity to defend itself and Europe.

The concept of ‘credibility’ is often associated with nuclear deterrence, in reference to a state’s ability to actually carry out what it claims it is capable of. However, despite the current scope of operations and prevailing threats in Europe, the total number of RAF combat aircraft was found to have fallen from 463 in 1990 to 159 in 2020. This scaling back of Royal Air Force (RAF) capabilities, involving the divestment of Tranche 1 Typhoons, concurrent with stagnant F-35 fleet growth leaves the RAF increasingly challenged in meeting its combat commitments. Additionally, issues such as an insufficient quantity of E-7A Wedgetails to replace the E-3D Airborne Early Warning & Control Aircraft in the name of cost cutting reflects a lack of commitment from the UK government to defence, undermining the overall credibility of the UK’s military infrastructure. This is especially noteworthy, given the scale of the programmes being implemented by several comparatively smaller nations.

This current level of UK air power has been described as ‘boutique’, suggesting that small quantities of high-end capabilities would likely struggle to sustain high-intensity operations on a large scale. By identifying near-peer adversaries as the current key threat, the UK should rather seek to return towards the capability depth and combat mass evident in 1990. Currently, the RAF’s inventory does not reflect the ambitions of a ‘Global Britain’, whilst it signals a lack of intent to named adversaries, such as Russia, who are clearly capable of massing vast forces and sustaining heavy losses.

Throughout the war in Ukraine, dispersal and intense sortie generation have been vital to the Ukrainian Air Force’s survivability and effectiveness in light of this. However, doctrine and tactics alone is not sufficient, and combat mass is crucial for longevity and sustained success; acknowledging this has ultimately fuelled the Ukrainian F-16 acquisition project.

NATO is working hard to apply these lessons to its own operations, improving resilience through the ACE doctrine, a deterrent and reactive scheme of manoeuvre intended to protect and efficiently disperse friendly assets across a theatre of operations to rapidly generate combat air power and confuse adversary targeting. This is crucial to recover from the comfortableness developed out of geographically separated operations in uncontested airspace during the War on Terror.

However, ‘Winging It?’ demonstrated that the insufficient fleet sizes would struggle to sustain sufficient mission rates, being further limited by factors such as maintenance and attrition. UK air power, therefore, must now follow our NATO counterparts, growing numerically, in accordance with the size and ambitions of the nation and in light of current near-peer threats. The UK must acknowledge that combat mass is fundamental in sustaining the operational tempo that would be required in a conflict scenario. Generating effective air power is thus essential in developing credible military capabilities which can threaten and deter potential aggressors and will be sustainable and effective should the UK enter a near-peer conflict.

About the author

Luca Chadwick is a Postgraduate student taking MA Terrorism and Insurgency in the school of Politics and International Studies. He is currently studying the 'European Defence and Security' module and has a longstanding interest in military air power as a tool within states' security infrastructures.