Defence cuts have left a gap in the UK’s ability to fight from the air that will last well into the 2030s, a group of MPs has warned, calling the weakness “unacceptable”.
The defence select committee used a new report to urge the Ministry of Defence to reverse a cost-cutting decision to shrink the size of an order of surveillance aircraft to three planes instead of five, condemning the reduction in the E-7A Wedgetail fleet as “irrational”.
The MPs also heavily criticised the early retirement of a highly capable military transport plane – again to reduce costs – saying that the move left the UK’s special forces exposed because of the unique capabilities the C-130J airframe had been able to provide.
These capabilities, such as launching a boat out of the back over sea, are something a substitute fleet of A400M planes is growing – but this has not yet been achieved. Sky News reported grave concerns about the axing of the C130 fleet earlier this year.
In addition, the committee slammed RAF chiefs over persistent failures in the UK’s flying training system – as also reported, repeatedly by Sky News. Delays on courses mean trainee pilots have been left on hold for months, sometimes years, waiting for slots to open up to progress through their training.
“With the prospect of UK involvement in a major war on the European continent closer than it has been for decades, there are serious questions as to whether the UK’s reduced combat air fleet still provides a sufficient deterrent and whether its limited numbers of admittedly highly capable aircraft could overcome a peer adversary in a warfighting context,” the MPs said in their report published on Sunday.
“These questions arise not only in the context of the UK’s sovereign capability, but also in relation to its contribution to any wider alliance.
“The RAF’s combat aircraft fleet now provides a boutique high capability: it lacks numerical depth and has an inadequate attrition reserve. Exquisite capability has its place, but in a peer-on-peer conflict such as a shooting war with Russia, every airframe will count.”
The committee noted that the number of UK combat aircraft was already much diminished.
A table showed that the number of fighter aircraft in the RAF had dropped by almost two-thirds over the past three decades, down to just 159 airframes this year, compared with 463 in 1990. These numbers exclude those planes in store.
A 2021 defence review imposed further cuts to the RAF, including the decision to ditch the C-130 transport fleet, seven years early despite its utility.
“The Defence Command Paper cuts will create a combat air capability gap which, on current plans, will persist well into the 2030s. This is unacceptable,” the report said.
“The MoD and RAF must consider as a matter of urgency how they can increase combat air mass in the short term.”
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, added in a statement: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signalled the beginning of a darker and more dangerous era for Europe. Despite this, the Ministry of Defence has failed to reverse any of its 2021 cuts to our aviation capabilities. If the Ministry of Defence refuses to see the writing on the wall and fails to make adequate investment, there are turbulent times ahead.”
A spokesperson for the MoD said: “The RAF remains a world leading defence force and has the necessary capabilities to fulfil NATO and UK commitments … The RAF is also spearheading transformation by investing in cutting-edge technology and modern aircraft necessary to fly and fight effectively while also rapidly addressing known challenges, such as the flying training pipeline.”