The other day over at Think Defence a tired old issue was raised in one of the comments; the argument against independent air forces.
Now that's an argument that has been done to death multiple times, but it occurred to me in the moment that one of my original intentions for setting up this blog was to provide a repository for what were essentially long comments that could be quick referenced. And so today I'm going to do just that and write a sort of extended comment on independent air forces.
And immediately it runs into its first problem; where are the savings? The aircraft still need pilots. They still need ground crews. They need basing somewhere. They need almost all of the same support chain behind them perhaps save for a few higher level administration posts. They need senior officers to head their branches within their own service and indeed when you do that for both the army and the navy you can end up offsetting any of the small number of reductions that were otherwise made in the "head office".
Rather what you end up doing is collapsing an entire organisation on cost saving grounds, only to end up saving maybe a few million pounds. But perhaps an operational advantage could be achieved? History would suggest that's not the case.
Probably the most famous example of this came in the US during the early twenties. With the end of the first world war the US Navy began reassessing its naval forces and preparing for a new round of battleship construction. Meanwhile an experienced army aviator by the name of Billy Mitchell was pressing his senior brass to realise the true potential of aviation in warfare.
It was Mitchell - a man with no naval experience - that was actually at the forefront of promoting naval aviation. Against much resistance from the naval top brass he advocated the future of the US navy residing in the aircraft carrier and warned about the danger that aircraft would pose to heavy warships.
At the time he was roundly ignored and in many cases became the target of counter briefings, even by his own army commanders. That was until a series of tests involving aircraft attacking decommissioned warships with bombs proved that his theories actually had a lot of merit. It had taken an army man who dreamed of an independent air force to convince many in the navy of the value that airpower could bring to them. The events of December 7th, 1941 at Pearl Harbour would further reinforce this point.
Our own experience in the UK during world war one flags up many other problems. In this regard it was actually the reverse of the US experience, in that many naval aviators were the first to recognise the benefit on an independent air force.
The major problems were with aircraft acquisition and deployment. Both the navy and the army were trying to purchase different airframes for the same role, namely that of fighters for air defence and air superiority. Problems regarding contracts for exclusivity of supply meant that in some cases the best airframe designs and the best engines were being restricted to one service or the other as they competed for the then limited resources of the nascent British aircraft industry.
Naval aircraft were primarily assigned for fleet support and home defence, while army aircraft were primarily concerned with operations over the western front. This led to situations where often significant numbers of valuable aircraft and their pilots were sitting around in the UK waiting for the occasional air attack by a German airship or long range bomber, instead of being diverted to fight the air war over the trenches.
It wasn't until after the war that the two separate air arms were unified, bringing the acquisition and operation of fighters, bombers and transport aircraft under one single command. Even this situation had its problems though.
During the inter-war years all the services saw the axe fall on their budgets and the RAF was no different. Priorities were made and among those the recently formed "Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force" (1924) was not as high as home defence. This sounds a lot like a conspiracy against the navy (and is often presented as such) but the reality is a lot more pragmatic.
Up until the late 1930's most of the RAF fighter force came in biplane form and this included the FAA. When we consider that the Hawker Hurricane didn't achieve its first flight until 1935 - and didn't enter RAF service until 1937 - we begin to realise that the general replacement of biplane fighters with monoplanes didn't occur until very close to the outbreak of world war two. By this point Germany was the main concern of the British and by extension the RAF.
Preparing to fight the Germans in the skies over Holland, Belgium and Northern France - and eventually in the skies over Great Britain - was clearly the priority. For this reason the introduction of modern monoplane fighters into the FAA was put on the back burner in favour of tooling up Fighter Command first. This wasn't a conspiracy; it was a rationale distribution of limited resources to deal with the most pressing threat to national security.
By this point the damage to the reputation of the RAF regarding their treatment of naval air power had already been done and control of the Fleet Air Arm reverted back to the Royal Navy. In hindsight this might actually be advantageous in the long term, something we'll look at later.
For now though, let's move on to the third concern, that air forces have no independent role.
The common line of this argument is that all air forces do is act in support of the other services. The comment I mentioned at the start of this post went along the lines of "we all know that the USAF only serves to transport the US army around". This is an often touted opinion by those that oppose organisations such as the USAF and RAF, but it is a significant misconception.
In reality an independent air force has four main phases/spheres/roles (pick your choice of buzzword) in which it operates; air control, offensive air operations, supporting operations, and transport operations, with an overlap at times between the four.
The first is fairly self explanatory, being the battle for control of the air over a given battle space. This starts with the home nation (Battle of Britain), extends to control of the air over allied nations (Operation Desert Shield), to control of the air over own or allied forces (such as during the Normandy landings), to control of the air over enemy territory (February-April 1944 over Germany. Desert Storm).
The purpose is to deny the use of the aerial domain to the enemy, preventing them from conducting attacks against friendly forces, infrastructure and facilities, as well as preventing them from using aircraft to gather intelligence, while paving the way for friendly aircraft to do the reverse to the enemy.
This is aptly demonstrated by the example of the Battle of Britain - an air war that raged mostly independent of events on land and at sea - which saw British towns and cities subjected to repeated air attacks. Eventually these attacks were reduced by casualties first to night time only operations, and ultimately they largely ceased altogether. This required not just aircraft and their pilots, but a comprehensive air defence system integrating everything from radars and observers to airfield repair specialists and ground directors.
The second sphere of operations, offensive air operations, is also fairly self explanatory and encompasses air attacks against enemy territory. This can range from complicated multi-year offensives such as the allied bombing offensive against Germany during world war two to smaller, more focused attacks against very specific targets such as the Iranian and then Israeli attacks against the "Osirak" nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 (Operations Scorch Sword and Opera respectively).
While such operations can often slip over into the realm of supporting operations (such as attacking an enemy naval intelligence centre for example) these are primarily operations designed to achieve objectives that go beyond the mere support for local forces.
In 1991 for example the air component of Desert Storm was designed to attack a variety of targets that included; Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) sites to impede Iraqi production of these items. Scud missiles and their supporting infrastructure to prevent them being used against Israel. Attacks against Ba'ath party facilities and the state security apparatus, designed to loosen the grip of Saddam Hussein and his followers on power in the aftermath of the campaign. And attacks against the Republican Guard, both in the field and its peace time quarters and administrative centres, again to loosen the grip of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party post-war.
Like many of the operations conducted by the Israeli Air Force against a variety of targets in a variety of countries over the years, these targets were chosen because of the long term consequences that their destruction potentially represented, and were designed to deliver effects beyond and independent of any land or naval campaign. Meanwhile the allied air offensive against Germany during world war two can be compared more appropriately as the aerial equivalent of a naval blockade, designed to degrade the economy of a hostile nation and its ability to wage war.
Thirdly we come to supporting operations which has a large cross over with transport operations so we'll tackle the two together. Indeed most transport operations would fall under the remit of support with the exception of transporting an air forces own personnel and equipment, and for the transport of things like humanitarian aid.
Supporting operations would cover all those activities that are conducted primarily in the support of either the army or navy. This ranges from transport as previously mentioned, to things like conducting aerial reconnaissance operations, electronic intelligence gathering, maritime patrols by aircraft and close air support of ground forces.
Here is where we begin to cross into the murky territory where the army and navy would begin to argue that boundaries should exist between the remit of the RAF and their own air arms. And here is where I begin to agree that some separation should exist.
Attack helicopters is a good place to start.
In many countries the attack helicopter falls under the purview of the air force, such as in Israel and the Netherlands. For me this is taking the air force concept a little too far. In the same way that the RAF has its own soldiers for ground defence and the navy has its own soldiers for security and boarding operations, so I can see the advantage in the army retaining its own limited "mini air force" in the shape of certain helicopter operations primarily for attack, liaison and battlefield reconnaissance.
To me the attack helicopter is just a very fast moving, very heavily armed anti-tank platform. While they have been used in the past for some odd alternate missions such as taking out radars in support of air operations in the early hours of the 1991 air campaign against Iraq, the attack helicopter is mainly a platform that sits comfortably in the arena of the army. Its operation is deeply entwined with and completely inseparable from that of the ground forces, and as such it makes sense to fall under army air corps control.
The same can be said of the battlefield recce and liaison roles fulfilled by helicopters such as the Lynx and previously the sprightly Gazelle. Their capabilities and advantages are of dubious utility in RAF hands, but make perfect sense for the army.
So why then not include transport helicopters and ground attack aircraft within the army air corps remit?
Part of the issue is the wider utility and I think part of it comes down to the pilots. Transport helicopters like the Chinook, Puma and previously the Merlin make more sense as flexible assets that could be deployed by the RAF wherever needed, whether that was supporting army troop movements or indeed supporting various RAF movements.
Having a large pool of potential pilots also helps. The RAF - like many air forces - will have plenty of recruits looking for the chance to fly and make a career in their chosen service. Not all of these men and women will have the sufficient aptitude required for fast jet piloting.
But rather than consign perfectly good pilots to the scrap heap, especially after so much has already been invested in their training, it makes much more sense to give them the opportunity to take on roles either as multi-engine pilots or as helicopter pilots.
By keeping helicopters inside the RAF, it also offers more career variety for ground crews. And considering the RAF already has prime responsibility for air movements, adding on the final part of the chain in the form of the helicopters makes decent sense. All in all I've yet to hear a good argument that would explain any kind of operational benefit to moving transport helicopters to the army, aside from "but, but, but.... we want rid of the RAF!".
The subject of ground attack aircraft on the other hand is more emotive and probably cloaked in more myth than the issue surrounding helicopters.
The example people immediately reach for is the US Marine Corps and their "every man a rifleman" schtick. This is all well and good but kind of glosses over the fact that close integration of air attack with ground forces was mainly pioneered by the RAF and the British army in the deserts of North Africa during world war two (and not the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France as many people believe. Response times for Stukas were reported at around 40 minutes on average).
This was happening long before the US Marines got involved in ground support and was gradually refined over the course of the war, to the extent that during the Normandy campaign the RAF was providing aircraft dedicated to the air support role, complete with cannons and rockets specifically selected for anti-tank work.
Indeed the marine corps approach is really the anti-thesis of all that was learned about close air support by aircraft. The stated purpose of training every marine pilot to be a soldier first is so that the pilot can learn to read the ground like a soldier. Except that reading the ground like a soldier is not the problem. We have soldiers for that, soldiers who are more than capable of carting around a Forward Air Controller with them and keeping him safe.
The problem found was quite the reverse. The soldier on the ground has a good view of the area in front of him. A commander looking to point out an enemy position to his troops can do so easily using quick terrain references ("edge of treeline, left 50 metres"), often with small and detailed features forming the basis of the instruction.
Talking a pilot onto an area is much harder because of his position well above the terrain. Picking out small features such as an individual house is a lot harder, because from the pilots perspective there may be lots of individual houses, all of the quite difficult to pick out. What is needed is not so much someone in the air who can see things from the soldiers point of view, but someone on the ground who can see things from the pilots point of view, using large and easily recognisable terrain features as a guide to help the pilot narrow down his search onto the target.
Thus the idea that pilots who are soldiers first is beneficial has largely been proven to be a fallacy. The performance of various NATO air force pilots over Iraq and Afghanistan encompassing thousands upon thousands of successful ground support sorties would also add weight to the argument that air force pilots are more than adequate for the task.
But it's the development of the aircraft itself that has had the bigger impact. I mentioned earlier the situation that developed during world war two where entire air groups were assigned to the tactical support of ground forces. The pilots were extensively trained for such operations and their aircraft equipped uniquely for it.
This was a time when aircraft had to dive down "into the weeds" to be able to engage individual targets such as tanks and artillery units. Their guns, rockets and small bombs could only be accurately aimed by sweeping in low and flying directly over the target area. Such methods favoured slightly slower, more stable aircraft, as well as ones with heavy firepower, redundant systems and armoured protection against ground fire. Aircraft that could be patched up easily and returned to battle quickly were also favoured.
If all this sounds very familiar, then it should do; it's basically a perfect description for the A-10 Thunderbolt II, an aircraft that was designed using advice gleaned from interviewing top ground attack pilots from all sides involved in world war two. The problem is that it was designed for a different era, one where scraping the tops of the wheat fields with the barrel of your gun was the best (re; only) way to guarantee a tank kill. Things have changed markedly since the A-10s' inception.
Over Iraq in 1991 the A-10 actually proved a lot more vulnerable to ground fire and short range air defence missiles than first thought. It was also found that a much safer, more efficient and accurate weapon for destroying tanks than the A-10s' gun was the combination of a laser target designator coupled with 500lb laser guided bombs.
We had entered the era where fast jets were now not just the equal of the dedicated ground attack aircraft in providing close air support, but had actually surpassed them. This trend has continued into contemporary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where aircraft otherwise suited to be fighters or deep strike aircraft are equally capable of strafing targets with their cannon or dropping very large explosive devices on them with pinpoint accuracy.
The reality is that modern aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Lockheed Martin F-35 are not just high speed fighters and precision building demolishers, they are also capable of engaging small point targets with guided munitions in support of ground forces. Thus an aircraft designed first and foremost to shoot down other aircraft can now be readily rigged up for close air support as well.
The argument that the army would invest in dedicated close support aircraft is now not only largely mute, but in actual fact has become a negative. Such a single role aircraft is increasingly becoming an unaffordable luxury in the modern world, as demonstrated by USAF cut backs to its A-10 fleet.
Further evidence is provided by the US Marine corps, in yet another example of the sort of thing that first brought about independent air forces. By this I mean their "contribution" to the F-35 program.
The program was supposed to be about building a common platform for the air force and navy, something that in the grand scheme of things shouldn't have been that hard. That was until the marines got involved with their specification for a vertical take off and landing variant.
Thus a "mini air force" was able to derail what should have been a relatively straight forward program with a ridiculous design requirement that essentially crippled all the designs for the program by forcing them to make room for a vertical lift system. This in turn led to McDonnell Douglas being knocked out of the competition at an early stage despite having probably the most stealthy of the three proposed designs, along with the experience of producing highly successful combat jets such as the F-4 Phantom, F-18 Hornet and F-15 Eagle.
Vested interests strike again you might say.
But what of naval aviation, which we touched on earlier? If you remember I mentioned the Royal Navy regaining control of the Fleet Air Arm and saying that I thought this would prove advantageous in the long run. Which I do.
When it comes to the specifics of operating aircraft off of ships I think the navy is best handling its own businesses. As has been pointed out in the past by both serving and retired naval officers the ships helicopter is integral to the operation of the ship, and its crew and maintenance staff are integral members of the ships company.
Helicopter variants such as the Merlin and Lynx operated onboard by the Royal Navy are rather specific to the environment found at sea and have limited utility away from it. Thus deployments will almost exclusively be at sea. In theory at least you could go back to an era of the "Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force" with all the recruitment materials making it clear what was in store, but in essence the pilots and maintenance crew would be members of the Royal Navy in all but name.
The same argument applies to naval pilots and maintenance crew of fast jet aircraft such as the future FAA squadrons that will fly the F-35. I can appreciate some arguments that would be put forward for an RAFFAA such as the greater career opportunities for people to move from naval helicopters to something like Chinook and vice versa, but I'm just not sure as that's an advantage that would really stack up in the long run.
Where I would say the air force gains an advantage is in the operation of large land based aircraft such as Maritime Patrol Aircraft. While having naval personnel on board to operate some of the systems and to help provide expertise in both anti-submarine and surface warfare operations makes sense, having the pilots come from the navy doesn't.
As the RAF already dominates fixed wing multi-engine flying, and as large MPA like the old Nimrods are fundamentally tied to land operation it makes sense to me to keep them under the RAF banner. The training stream is there, the operational profile is very similar, the opportunity for career moves back and forth to other fixed wing multi-engine operations are numerous.
When all is said and done I think history has proved that independent air forces are very valuable, that they have a mission set that often divides them from land or naval operations, and that they are now sufficiently complex to require a particular mind set and career path distinct from the other services.
I have seen no convincing arguments that any real sum of money would be saved by amalgamating the RAF into either the Royal Navy and/or the army, or that any kind of genuine operational advantage would be achieved over the current system. Indeed, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the reverse would be true and that the full potential of independent air power would be lost if diluted into the other two services.