The UK is not capable of winning another Battle of Britain due to Government cuts to its air defence, Parliament’s Defence Committee chairman has told i.
Tobias Ellwood, who heads up the influential committee, has also claimed that the retirement of the fleet of Royal Air Force (RAF) Hercules transport carrier aircraft has also reduced the operational capability of UK elite Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS).
Mr Ellwood’s comments come as his committee publishes a damning report on the UK’s ability to defend its airspace and deploy special forces in combat zones around the globe.
The report finds that cuts set out in the 2021 Defence Command Paper will create a combat air capability gap which will persist into the 2030s.
The committee concludes that while the RAF’s combat aircraft fleet is made up of highly capable aircraft, the reduction in military aircraft numbers “raise serious questions” as to whether the RAF “could defend the UK in an all-out war”.
Mr Ellwood, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, claimed that if the UK was to face another attempted invasion from a growing list of hostile states the RAF would not be in a position to defend its skies in the way it did in 1940 when Spitfires and Hurricanes saw off Germany’s attempts to win the Battle of Britain.
In an interview with i, Mr Ellwood said: “We would not win another Battle of Britain.”
“Therefore, we would be looking for sort of [Neville] Chamberlain moment, if I can put it that way,” he adds referring to attempts by the then Prime Minister to appease Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II in 1939.
“We would be forced to try and delay, or appease, to give Britain time to very quickly build up our defence capability.
“Right now, we simply don’t have the capability for an all-out war against our nation.”
The UK has 29 operational F-35 Lightening fighters and 101 combat-ready Typhoons. Over the next two years, the MoD expects a further 15 F-35s to be delivered to the armed forces.
Mr Ellwood added that the retirement of the RAF’s fleet of Hercules troop and equipment carriers will be “particularly tough on our special forces”.
The remaining six Lockheed Martin Hercules aircraft were retired on 30 July after 56 years in service around the world. They have been replaced by a fleet of 22 Atlas A400M and 14 Voyager tanker transport aircraft as the UK’s next generation of air mobility aircraft.
“The government and the MoD always hide behind the caveat that ‘we do talk about our special forces’, but between the lines, it’s very clear that the A400M simply cannot do everything that the Hercules provided to our special forces,” he said.
While the MoD insisted that the A400M and Voyager offer a greater capability than the Hercules, Mr Ellwood claims the aircraft is not suitable for special forces operations in the combat arena.
While assault boats could be deployed from Hercules craft flying above the waterline, “it’s simply not possible” from the A400M, Mr Ellwood said.
“Not only do we have fewer fighter jets to defend Britain, we have also damaged the capability of our special forces to operate,” he added.
The Defence Committee’s report, titled Aviation Procurement: Winging it?, calls on the new Defence Secretary Grant Shapps to increase the UK’s combat air capability as a matter of urgency, and to implement planned upgrades to our existing fleet immediately.
As well as criticising the retirement of the Hercules, the report also calls for the “immediate reversal” of the decision to reduce the UK’s Wedgetail E-7 early warning and control aircraft fleet from five to three, claiming it stands out as “the most perverse” in the Command Paper with the fleet cut by 40 per cent for an acquisition saving of just 12 per cent.
The committee concludes that the UK’s reduced air fleet will leave the country unable to meet our commitments to Nato “as well as our own sovereign needs”.
The findings also claim that the RAF’s senior leadership “has failed to address problems within the pilot training pipeline”, which the committee believes “is clearly not fit for purpose”.
Mr Ellwood adds: “Air power capability can make or break a military. The ability to control the skies is critical in modern warfare and aircraft provide unparalleled reach, height and speed for our Armed Forces.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the RAF’s fleet has taken a nosedive in numbers, down to just a third of its previous size. Our report found that budget cuts – including those in the last Defence Command Paper – have led to gaps in air capability that will persist into the next decade.”
The inquiry found that the RAF has prioritised “quality at the expense of quantity”, leaving the UK with a fleet of combat aircraft that are “high-spec and expensive yet alarmingly low in number”.
“Our current fleet fails to reach the mass necessary to survive the attrition of an all-out war with a peer adversary,” added Mr Ellwood. “Fixing this is a matter of urgency. Allowing capability gaps to bed in will only widen them in the long term.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signalled the beginning of a darker and more dangerous era for Europe. Despite this, the MoD has failed to reverse any of its 2021 cuts to our aviation capabilities.
“If the MoD refuses to see the writing on the wall and fails to make adequate investment, there are turbulent times ahead.”
A spokesman for the MoD said: “The RAF remains a world-leading defence force and has the necessary capabilities to fulfil NATO and UK commitments.
“Offering 24/7 defence of the UK and protecting our overseas territories and interests, the RAF’s capabilities and people play a vital role in addressing threats rapidly and wherever they emerge in the world.
“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.
“The committee’s report recognises that the updated Defence Command Paper seeks to tackle the threats we face, now and in the future.”