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Defence Committee 

Oral evidence: Aviation Procurement, HC 178

Tuesday 28 June 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 28 June 2022.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Mr Tobias Ellwood (Chair); Stuart Anderson; Dave Doogan; Richard Drax; Mr Mark Francois; Mr Kevan Jones; Gavin Robinson; John Spellar.

Questions 1 - 77


I: Dr Sophy Antrobus, Research Fellow, Freeman Air and Space Institute; Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology, Royal United Services Institute.

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Sophy Antrobus and Justin Bronk.

Chair: Welcome to this Defence Select Committee hearing on Tuesday 28 June 2022, where we continue our investigation into aviation procurement and the Royal Air Force. I am delighted to welcome Dr Sophy Antrobus, who is a research fellow at Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London, and to welcome back Justin Bronk, who is a senior research fellow for airpower and technology at RUSI. We are delighted to have you this afternoon.

We are going to start off by looking at strategic concepts. I invite Stuart Anderson to take us away.

Q1                Stuart Anderson: Hello to you both. I want to look at the defence aspects of the integrated review. In your opinion, was the role of airpower sufficient in the integrated review? Was there any recognition and priority around it?

Dr Antrobus: The integrated review is quite general in how it talks about airpower. There is not an awful lot of detail. In the defence command paper, there is a little bit more. Overall, it did identify Russia as the main strategic threat in conventional, nuclear and sub-threshold terms, although that was slightly incoherent with a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, which had a more maritime flavour than speaking to the other two services.

I would not say that the integrated review ignored airpower or that it was under-represented. We will go into some details about where perhaps some gambles or risks have been taken in terms of removing extant capabilities in order to invest longer term in new technologies. That is a theme we have seen in defence reviews over decades, to be honest.

Q2                Stuart Anderson: We will come back to some more of those points with my colleagues. Justin, is there anything you would like to add?

Justin Bronk: I agree across the board there. I would just say that, in comparison to the other two services, where there is the geographical balance in terms of the Euro-Atlantic area being the primary threat but also a desire to tilt to the Pacific, that has less relevance for air than perhaps the other two services, by dint of the fact that air capabilities can be moved around relatively quickly. The enablement is typically provided by the US air force where we cannot do it ourselves, and that has a presence across the globe. In that sense, when moving squadrons around, it is a bit more difficult to go further afield.

I would say that the bigger issue for air in both the integrated review and the defence command paper is that the IR specified a lot of policy ambitions, and the DCP specified the current force structure and rough plan force structure, but there were a lot of “ands” in terms of what we are going to do and very few, if any, specifications of what mission sets we were not going to do anymore in order to afford those up arrows.

As Dr Antrobus pointed out, the early retirement of C-130 and the cut of Puma were intended to fund modernisation and to increase capability, but it was never really specified as to where. The key for me in terms of lacking detail is which mission sets you are going to prioritise, because, as opposed to geographical areas with the other services, the key question for air is whether you are prioritising the ability to operate in contested or denied airspaceas, for example, we see over Ukraine in the face of a state opponent like Russia or, indeed, over a state like Iran or North Korea, which still have a very impressive ground-based air defence capabilityor you are prioritising missions that take place in peacetime, in contingency or in permissive airspace, where things like large-scale transport capability, big-wing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and remotely piloted systems like Protector are much more applicable.

There was not much direction in the IR or the DCP in terms of where the RAF was to focus, which contrasts quite strongly with CGS’s comments this morning at the land warfare conference that the key priority for the British Army is being ready to fight and beat Russia in Europe. The RAF has no such strategic direction at the moment, and so force structure planning is that much harder.

Chair: Thank you. Let us stay with the integrated review.

Q3                John Spellar: And also the defence command paper. Are the decisions there on airpower, and on fleet size and capabilities, consistent with the strategic direction set out in the integrated review and, in particular, the theme, as you were just saying, of persistent engagement?

Justin Bronk: In terms of persistent engagement, it is fine, in the sense that persistent engagement with air can typically be done with relatively small numbers of platforms, and it is almost business as usual for the RAF, which consistently performs missions all over the world at pretty short notice, whether for disaster relief, shows of force or things like Operation Shader.

In terms of being a core NATO member, particularly in the current environment, where you are looking at a serious state-on-state conflict, I do not think there was anything like enough detail or identification of priority to justify the required decisions, prioritisation decisions in particular, in the air environment.

Q4                John Spellar: Pursuing that slightly, are there particular capabilities in aviation that demonstrate that those cuts that are proceeding were particularly unjustified?

Justin Bronk: The biggest problems for high-end warfighting are not the cuts that occurred in the defence command paper, which were cuts particularly to mobility and big-wing ISR fleets that had given invaluable service throughout long-term deployment in contingency operations, particularly in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but which are of extremely high utility, but second-line relevance to warfighting capability against Russia, for example. They were intended to fund investment in other priorities, but a lot of the headroom that might have been created has either been taken up by defence inflation or been funnelled into programmes like Tempest, future UCAVs or other high-innovation, high-risk programmes that hope to deliver capability in the 2040s timeframe, not in the next five to 10 years.

Dr Antrobus: Just to add to that, I agree with Justin. On the theme of persistent engagement, one would perhaps think that a focus on prioritising air mobility, if that is what you are looking at, projecting force and moving equipment and troops around the world would be more of a priority.

Clearly, the cut to the C-130J goes against that logic. I do take the point that the C-130J does not have the range of the larger aircraft, so that is an argument that some could make, but it did seem odd that, if you are talking about system engagement, air mobility takes a short-term gap or takes a risk on capability and capacity particularly.

Q5                Chair: Do you think the MoD has the balance right between RDEL and CDEL?

Justin Bronk: I suspect you know the answer to that question. I do not think that it has the right balance at all, in the sense that RDEL has consistently lagged well behind CDEL in terms of prioritisation for new money and oversight. What always tends to be cut to fill the black hole year on year is RDEL, which, as we are seeing from the Russians in Ukraine, has serious long-term impacts on what your force is capable of versus what it is capable of on paper.

If you do not have realistic training and exercise experience against realistic threats in conjunction with the allies, and, crucially, drawing on the logistics and the support arrangements that you would draw on in reality, you may well find that your force is pretty hollow when it comes to trying to use it in a high-end context, where you cannot rely on the commercial sector or the Americans coming in just in time.

Dr Antrobus: I agree with that. The answer is the same.

Q6                Richard Drax: Good afternoon to you both. As you know, the situation in Europe is getting worse and the threats are very real. What effect might that environment have on the UK’s airpower requirements in the medium to long term?

Dr Antrobus: We are thinking about that question, because it is the medium to long term, and we are looking at the short term as well. Defining short, medium and long term in this context is probably quite important. You listened to CGS’s speech this morning; I read it on the train on the way here. He makes the point that I made in a couple of meetings recently that there really are no options. How did he put it? In most scenarios, Russia will be an even greater threat to European security after Ukraine than it was before. A weakened Putin or a strengthened Putin presents problems either way in defence and security terms.

The short term is seeing how that plays out, but in the medium to long term, although we are very much focused on the threat, and Russia is the threat that we need to be talking about, we cannot take our eye off the rest of the world either. There are views—and CGS referred to this as well—that, if we in Europe address the theatre closest to us, of which we are part, we may take some pressure off the US, which can then keep its eyes further afield on the Pacific.

In terms of airpower, my view is that we need to be taking seriously deterring, and deterring by denial rather than ever trying to countenance deterrence by punishment, which means seriously reviewing our combat capability in the air. That would include things that we will come on to, I am sure, and Justin might want to say some more about things like munitions and so on. He is much more of an expert on that area, but we will also, I am sure, talk about training and that capacity or ability to ramp up and, therefore, show credible capability. That is the core to deterrence by denial, and there is a way to go.

Q7                Richard Drax: So what you are saying is that our capability is not credible right now or in the short term.

Dr Antrobus: There are issues around how resilient it is. That is how I would put it. Look at something like the F-35 or the newer Typhoon, which are extremely capable aircraft. Typhoon reliability is very good. The E-7 Wedgetail is, by all accounts, an excellent future capability. We should not be buying three, but we will come on to that too. The issue is not with the types of programmes; you might argue that other services might have more of a problem with the other programmes that they are engaged in. That is not a problem for the Air Force. It is what comes below it, so that slightly refers back to what Justin said before, but he probably has a bit more to add on that.

Justin Bronk: There are a couple of credibility problems that Ukraine in particular has thrown up for UK airpower. The first one is that airpower has manifestly failed to have a decisive effect on either side in Ukraine. In deterrence discussions or in strategic service discussions, we tend to refer constantly to the last major conflict, so Ukraine will be the yardstick from here on out for the foreseeable, until something worse happens, God forbid.

Therefore, there will be a pressure on air to demonstrate why it would be different in terms of a UK experience versus the Russian or Ukrainian experience, where there was mutual denial, in effect, of air superiority or control of the air, and specifically an ability to deal not just with the things that we have been looking at in an enemy air defences role of the very long-range, high-end S-400, S-300V4, long-range SAMs, radars and command modules that form the baseline for an integrated air defence system, which we were trying to work towards having answers for as a joint force—a mix of standoff fires and stand-in soft teams with the F-35 and that sort of thing.

As the Ukrainians themselves have shown, even a disaggregated force of much lower-end, mobile, medium-range and short-range SAMs can still prevent an air force that lacks a credible destruction of enemy air defences capability from operating sustainably at medium or high altitude. There is a credibility gap there for forces that do not have SEAD/DEAD capabilities in any significant way, of which the UK is one, and so are all the other NATO members, apart from the US right now.

The second point would be that the traditional airpower theocracy in the old days, as it were, but also particularly the modern age, of the short, sharp, clean war, in which a relatively bespoke force with a relatively small inventory of extremely precise weapons made sense, at least on paper, has been categorically disproved by the Russian and the Ukrainian experience in this war, where both sides have shown an extraordinary capacity to take an enormous amount of losses and punishment across economic, civilian and military spheres, and are still fighting with no sign of reduced willpower.

This goes back to not just an ability to fight the right kind of air operation and to justify why we think that is the basis of part of our defence capability, but also being able to do so at a scale and for a length of time that fits in with what we now know is a state’s pretty high capacity to take losses for a while without letting up their willpower.

Q8                Richard Drax: To paraphrase, you are saying, in effect, that, with a very sophisticated ground-to-air ability that negates aircraft over the battle zone, we are looking for aircraft that can fire something from a longer range accurately on to something, whether it be anti-aircraft or a battalion in place and dug in, where the ground-to-air cannot reach it. Is that where you are seeing the future use?

Justin Bronk: Standoff munitions are a critical part of the puzzle, but Russia has now fired more than 2,500 standoff munitions with a pretty high degree of accuracy and reliability, which is worse than we would expect, but it has not had a strategically decisive effect. There is no evidence that I have seen in any previous conflict of standoff strikes winning a war. They are a crucial part of a combined air operation to establish control of the air and, therefore, conduct operations in support of a joint force, as we wish to.

Standoff munitions are very good at hitting fixed targets and can hit mobile targets, like mobile radars, if they have eyes forward in terms of some sort of penetrating capability to give real-time targeting data. What they cannot do is reliably hit really mobile, moving targets or relatively low-value ones, because the trade-off for having long range is high cost and, therefore, not having many munitions of a given class.

What you need the capacity to do, and what the US does, is to follow up your wave of standoff strikes that will blind an enemy’s early warning radars and, hopefully, crater their runways and things, with a very large-scale air campaign, which then exploits that to deal the main damage. For that, you need the suppression and destruction of enemy air defences capability to escort your strike packages in and write down an opponent’s SAMs as you do it. That is what the Russians do not have and why they have not been able to obtain air control.

In Europe, we used to have that capacity in the Cold War. It was mainly provided by Italy and Germany with the Tornado ECR, and the UK had its own capability there with ALARM on Tornado. We have no replacement for it. F-35 is very capable of finding them and it can get relatively close, but not close enough necessarily to attack with three or four bombs, which, at the moment, is all it has. Even then, we have very few F-35s. We would have fewer in terms of ones that we could put over an enemy-held zone at any given time, and they are probably not there specifically to hunt down and kill mobile medium-range SAMs. If they are carrying only two, three or four bombs, they are probably not going to spend it on those targets. What they need is things that they can carry a lot of internally and fire from a relatively safe distancefor example SPEAR 3.

Q9                Richard Drax: You have answered the next part of my question, which was about the key strengths and weaknesses from NATO’s perspective of our airpower. Obviously that is one: the aircraft is limited as to what it can do. Is there anything else that you want to add to the key strengths and weaknesses of airpower from our perspective?

Justin Bronk: Air to air, we are brilliant. We will take out any air force that rises up. That has never been the concern, but we have allowed that to become a panacea for talking about control of the air. It is the ground-to-air threat that is the bottleneck. In all the previous conflicts that we have seen in the past 20 years, the US has gone in and smashed up the enemy ground-based air defences in the first week, and then the great strength of the bulk of fourth generation, as we would term it, multirole fighters can come in and destroy the enemy at leisure. Until you have done that suppression and destruction of enemy air defences role, the bulk of NATO airpower is currently unusable against a serious state opponent.

Dr Antrobus: Related to your supplementary question but also what Justin was talking about, I was talking about this with senior people in the Air Force last year. The discussion about control of the air waned over time, I would argue, in the same way that the discussion about deterrence outwith nuclear deterrence has waned to some extent. That is understandable after 20 years of expeditionary operations where control of the air was a given. As somebody put it, the US did not think about deterrence, but just about defeating and, in the same way, so did the UK.

It is a more esoteric debate, but the Air Force has to get back to that basic, fundamental role of control of the air, bringing in all the elements of what Justin has just discussed, and really dig in deep into understanding that. That is a conceptual and technical/economic challenge. That is what I would add to that.

The only other thing is in terms of fifth-generation aircraft capability. We are one of the lead nations in NATO in terms of having F-35B. The other thing, related to plans for future combat air systems and so on, is the desire by our Government—and, I would agree, by the MoD and the Air Force—to sustain the defence industry. Retaining engineering capability to be able to build future aircraft systems, crewed or uncrewed, is really important. If we lost that capability, we would be the only member of the P5 that would not have it, so that is quite relevant.

Q10            Gavin Robinson: Good afternoon to you both. Dr Sophy, you just mentioned F-35Bs. The premise of this question is the complex decisions that lie behind the optimal mix for combat air or air strength. Are Government transparent enough about those considerations and the rationale that lies behind their decisions? If you would like to take F-35Bs as an example, do we understand the rationale for decisions around procurement and, indeed, the number that are due to be procured?

Dr Antrobus: Yes, the number issue—as you are all aware, the IR was very non-committal in just saying “above 48.We sat around for a few months, wondering what on earth that is going to mean. You will be well aware that there has been a verbal commitment to another 26, which takes us up to 74. The MoD, bless it, said 73, but I think that 26 plus 48 is 74. In its written evidence to you, it said 73.

Mr Francois: Yes, but do not forget that it dropped one in the Med.

Dr Antrobus: Yes, that is correct.

Justin Bronk: The plan now is for 27, so there will be a replacement as well. It will be 27 in total.

Dr Antrobus: The issue is partly what more in terms of numbers: are there going to be any more? I appreciate—and the point was made in the MoD’s written evidence to you—that the sequencing of acquiring F-35B has to work with the into-service and out-of-service date of the Queen Elizabeth II carrier class, which is, at the earliest, 2068 at the moment. Therefore, you have to stagger this, which I guess allows wiggle room in terms of commitment.

From my perspective—Justin will speak for himself—we have had statements in other Committee hearings talking about a current squadron and another squadron next year. There is a feeling for where it is going in squadron number terms, but it is not sorting out this land-versus-maritime basing issue or the prioritisation between the two. Justin is better on the exact numbers and squadron details, but there is a lack of certainty around the prioritisation. With 74, you have a bit of a challenge in terms of having a full carrier strike capability and a reasonable land-based capability. All the expectations are on the head of F-35B, and you have a bit of a problem if you assume that it is going to be doing all of the things that we would like it to be doing, at the same time, in one high-end conflict.

Q11            Gavin Robinson: Even your answer highlights the first part of the question: is there enough transparency around the decisions? The focus in your answer was on what the number is—whether it is 27 or 28, or 74, 73 or 75—but that completely dismisses the transparency around the rationale. What do we need? What are we trying to achieve? Are we buying this because that is how much money we have, and so we are just going to buy what is in the budget? Are we saying that we have four squadrons with 12 in each, making 48, plus we need a couple in for cohort training?

Is there transparency around the rationale? Do we know what we are getting because that is how much money is available, or are we getting what we need because of the job that has been planned and tasked for?

Dr Antrobus: Your question makes the point that I would make perfectly. The real answer is that these are the numbers that have been agreed on terms of, “What is in the budget?” I do not know if it is a lack of transparency, although that could be one way of terming it. If it is not agreed because the money is not there to commit further, and the balance of prioritisation between land and maritime cannot be agreed, it is a lack of transparency and/or we do not yet know. They are two sides of the same coin.

Q12            Mr Francois: If we are going to have that number of F-35Bs, assuming that we do not keep dropping them in the Med, that will probably be enough for the lifetime of the two carriers. In other words, they would be overwhelmingly fleet air arm-orientated, even if they are joint squadrons, and so that is your carrier air wing sorted out.

In terms of the Royal Air Force, the rumour on the street is that we are going to cap it at around those numbers for F-35, take the money that we save, because the F-35 is so expensive to operate, and put that into Tempest. Have you heard anything to that effect?

Justin Bronk: I would draw your attention to a couple of things in terms of budget numbers that are out there. To hang over it all, the air command budget for the next 10 years is about £39 billion. The combat air budget is about £21.5 billion to £22 billion of that. That has to cover everything for combat air and, increasingly, beyond a main gate decision, Tempest is going to be competing directly with F-35 for that. You are trading off a capability that we are double, triple and quadruple hatting now in terms of reliance across the joint force of F-35s being in harm’s way, because they are the only penetrating thing that we have that gives a fantastic situational awareness picture. If we can then get it off and pipe it to other things then great, that makes a lot of other very thorny problems much easier.

It is not just a lack of transparency per se. As Sophy hinted, there is a direct trade-off between cost when you buy it and the cost to upgrade it to block 4, where a lot of the really advanced capabilities are fully unlocked, as it were. If you are getting them in 2027-28, that is when the majority of the 27 additional ones are being delivered. The sequence is a couple in the out-years beyond 2025, and then you get quite a lot in 2027-28. That is the idea, although it is not contracted yet and, of course, other people are frantically buying F-35s, so we might want to think about pipeline capacity.

The key is that, if you are getting them in 2027-28, they come with block 4, so you do not have to spend money upgrading them to block 4 standard, which is more expensive the older the airframe is, in terms of how far back in the blocks you go. We probably will not upgrade the really oldest ones to block 4, because it would just be uneconomical to do so.

There is a trade-off. If you wait longer, you get a better aircraft in capability terms, but, of course, the advantage you get from having that aircraft in stealth capability terms is less the longer you wait, because enemy radar continually improves. Its advantage in that sense degrades with time, although it will still be better off than non-stealthy aircraft in terms of detection and tracking resistance, but then you also look at what Tempest is likely to cost and where that money is going to be found. From that combat air funding of £21 billion or £22 billion over 10 years, in the equipment plan, Typhoon cost about £21 billion in 2011 in terms of cash spend for R&D and acquisition as part of a much larger four-nation consortiumcompared to Tempestthat had much more spending power in real terms than the current Tempest consortium has.

If you just take a midpoint spend of 1998, and you take that Typhoon real-terms cost in 2011 and put it in today’s money, it was £35 billion last year and is probably significantly more now.

Mr Francois: I am just about still with you, Justin.

Justin Bronk: Sorry. In real terms, roughly speaking, on R&D and acquisition alone, not operating costs, Typhoon costs about £35 billion to £36 billion in today’s money as part of a consortium of four. That is about the entire air command budget for the next 10 years for Typhoon in real terms. Tempest is going to be far more complex, far more capable and far more lethal, and is being done as part of a smaller consortium with a lower aircraft number, inevitably, that are going to be made. The odds are that the costs are going to be higher because you are going for a much more complex and difficult thing.

There is a load of really good stuff being done on digital design, testing, manufacturing, new relationships with industry and being able to do things more quickly and efficiently. Even so, even with all that really important work that is going in, it would still be fairly amazing from an objective standpoint if they delivered Tempest for less in real terms than Typhoon cost us. Even if they did, where are you going to find £25 billion? That would be amazing. It would be £10 billion cheaper in real terms than Typhoon for a brand new aircraft suitable for the threats from 2040 to 2070. Where does that come from in a 10-year combat air budget of £21 billion to £22 billion?

Q13            Mr Francois: The MoD has told the Public Accounts Committee that it wants Tempest as a programme to be delivered far more quickly than Typhoon. It has made a direct comparison. It is intimating an IOC for Tempest of about 2035, which is quite aggressive. Let us assume for a moment that it is right. Surely, there is going to be no way that it can afford the Typhoons, an early battle Tempest and the 138 F-35Bs. The numbers just do not add up, do they?

Justin Bronk: No, they do not.

Mr Francois: So something has to give, and the rumour is that what is going to give are those latter F-35s. By the sound of it, you are saying that, mathematically, that makes sense.

Justin Bronk: I am saying that, mathematically, if you are going to fund Tempest from inside the equipment plan, you will, inevitably, have a very low cap on F-35 orders and a huge amount of opportunity cost taken across other parts of the air command budget, because it is still going to be huge sums of money and there is just nowhere for it. It is a questionable decision, in my mind, given the intensity of the threat and the reliance on airpower that the joint force has over the next 10 to 15 years, because, even on best case, if they start delivering an IOC for Tempest in 2035, that means FOC in about 2040. That is a very long time to take that gap in terms of a reasonable quantity of penetrationcapable combat aircraft.

Gavin Robinson: Whether transparency is a good thing, after that exchange, I have no idea.

Q14            Dave Doogan: I have a supplementary question for Justin. Can you just remind and refresh the Committee? In response to Mr Drax, you said that we lack the capability to do the significant initial kinetic effect that the Americans would do, and we used to be able to do it in Europe with Tornado. Was that the UK’s GR force?

Justin Bronk: ALARM was initially on the F-3s, but also later the GR force.

Q15            Dave Doogan: Just explain to us what that capability is in layman’s terms.

Justin Bronk: What we used to have is what is called SEAD—suppression of enemy air defences. You would launch anti-radiation missiles—missiles that home in on a radar signal. We used a huge amount in Gulf War I, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, and then again in Gulf War II. They generally do not have a very good record of killing the target, because a surface-to-air missile operator will see the launch on their screen and will turn off their radar, since they do not want to be hit. That has a suppressive effect, hence SEAD.

Q16            Chair: So the missile cannot keep going to another target.

Justin Bronk: The missile will keep flying. The standard one is HARM—high-speed anti-radiation missile—which is still in use in various versions, but that would just fly and, when the signal goes, the latest versions have some degree of ability to store the position, so if the radar turns back on it can then home in. The ALARM used to pop up and then sit under a parachute at high altitude to wait for the enemy to turn the radar back on and then shoot down.

Even so, the probability of kill was pretty low, but the advantage that that gave you was that it presents the enemy radar operators with a very difficult dilemma. Either they keep illuminating in order to try to engage the strike package that is coming in, which will do unacceptable damage if it gets through, and then they will eat the anti-radiation missile, or they switch off, in which case they probably will not get hit, but that gives the ability for that strike package to get through. Then what the US did was follow it up with what is called DEAD—destruction of enemy air defences. While those radars were suppressed, they would have aircraft that would, having located it, come in and drop cluster munitions, generally speaking, or fire rockets or even, occasionally, guns to physically destroy those SAMs.

F-35 gives you some inherent suppression capabilities, in that it can do directional electronic warfare to reduce the threat to itself, but it is not really an escort jammersomething like the US navy’s Growlerso it is not really providing massive support to other aircraft around it. You could fire anti-radiation missiles, as the Russians have been doing a lot in Ukraine, but, generally, you are going to only suppress, not destroy, so that threat is still going to be there and it is not going to open up access over time. What you need for destruction is an ability to reliably kill those targets when they briefly illuminate.

Q17            Dave Doogan: So the fact that the Typhoon and all its operators are not equipped with that capability is a legacy strategic decision that now looks very much out of date.

Justin Bronk: When ALARM was retired and sent away for decommissioning, someone told me that the ship was turned around, because someone in air command went, “You’ve done what?” But it was never officially cleared on Typhoon, and so it would have had a very limited capability for self-defence anyway. Modern Russian and Chinese radars are relatively resistant to anti-radiation missiles anyway, which is why you have munitions developed like the SPEAR 3. The American navy has gone with something called AARGM, which is a new version of HARM, but it is not going very well in testing, apparently.

What you want is a multimode seeker, where the aircraft gets a very good location. The F-35 in particular is superb at this. It will give you a very precise location on the SAM from quite a short illumination period. If you have an advanced missile like SPEAR 3 with a multimode seeker, it can use that position to fly close, then seek for and find the target. That would give you a very good DEAD capability, but you would need to order significant numbers of the missiles and to train with them regularly, which is what we do not yet have.

Q18            Dave Doogan: We have already established from your evidence so far that the drawdown in tranche 1 Typhoon and the vagueness of the total F-35 figure presents, however you cut it up, something of a capability gap in terms of the size of combat air that we would expect within the United Kingdom. Have I got that right? Are we content with that analysis?

Dr Antrobus: We do need to be a little careful. I alluded to this very slightly earlier in terms of comparing numbers for numbers in different areas. In particular, from what I understand, Typhoon’s reliability—how many aircraft you need to put out on the line in order to take off in a four-ship—is significantly better in availability terms than, for example, Tornado was 10 or 15 years ago. I do not have the figuresthat is something for you to ask others who dobut it is a little like apples and oranges, because we are talking about needing fewer aircraft to get the number of aircraft into the air, and they have a significantly greater capability, so each aircraft can offer more. At the end of the day, if you go below a certain number, you have a problem.

In terms of a capability gap, I do not know your view, Justin, but I do not see the tranche 1 Typhoon retirement as hugely significant overall in affecting capability. You might have a different view.

Justin Bronk: There are a few elements underwriting the tranche 1 retirement, the first one being that, of the 53 tranche 1s out of the 160 Typhoon we bought, about 30 were twin-seaters and not combat capable.

Chair: So they were for training.

Justin Bronk: Yes, for type-conversion training and other bits and bobs. Generally speaking, the RAF is now putting new pilots in their first solo into a single-seat Typhoon, so it does not draw on the twin seats nearly as much for the original conversion work, because the simulators are now very good and also, having had a chance to try it myself, it is a remarkably easy aircraft to fly—really amazingly so.

It is worth noting that the RAF’s safety record for Typhoon is perfecttouch wood. Having flown it more than any of the other European partners, the RAF has so far demonstrated exceptional flight safety, despite not using the twin-seaters very much for type conversion.

When they were trying to quickly build up a pool of instructors and pilots at the beginning of the programme, they really flew the wings off the twin seats, so most of them are knackered. One of the stories around, for example, retiring the tranche 1s with a large amount of their hours remaining is that the tracking of airframe life in that instance is referring to nominal flight hours, whereas it is a better metric to track fatigue index. The original aircraft, to put it bluntly, had their wings flown off.

One of the reasons that Typhoon is a superlative within-visual-range dogfighting aircraft is that it will sit at 9G for as long as the pilot can take it, but, of course, that puts huge strain on the aircraft. Metal aircraft generally have a shorter nominal lifetime, but you can extend it by replacing parts in a relatively predictable way, because we have decades and decades of understanding exactly how metal fatigues, whereas composites are much stronger and lighter, but they fatigue in a fundamentally different way and it is much harder to refresh airframe fatigue life once you have used it up.

A lot of the 30 or so that have gone so far were not combat capable to begin with; they were really worn out and, for the remaining tranche 1s, the argument was always that it was uneconomical to keep them, based on the opportunity cost of that money going elsewhere—for example, into more F-35s or operating the ones that we have more—because tranche 1 Typhoons are so expensive to fly relative to 2s and 3s.

Q19            Dave Doogan: Why is that?

Justin Bronk: Just because they are older. They also have obsolescence issues, so a lot of the electronics and hardware in it cannot be upgraded, at least not without a complete overhaul, which would be extremely expensive. The Germans, for example, are replacing theirs with new builds. You cannot upgrade them to use a lot of the newer software, which means that you are running much older software on much older hardware and on much more tired aeroplanes that break a lot more, so it just costs a lot more to fly them.

The one major loss in terms of output will be the loss of the dedicated aggressor training capability. At the moment, we have a squadron of mostly tranche 1s doing QRA and red air simulation. It is the highest in red air that is around in Europe and one of the highest in NATO, because most red air providers fly things like Hawk or Albatros trainers, not a supersonic high-end combat aircraft, so there will be a loss of capacity there.

Q20            Dave Doogan: So there is no economic opportunity from the disposal of all 53 tranche 1s. They will go for scrap and are no use to anybody.

Justin Bronk: I am sure you could find uses for some of them; the question will be how many. For the RAF, the choice is reasonable in terms of the argument that the money you would spend keeping them going could be better used elsewhere. For other operators that are looking for a Typhoon-type capability, it might make more sense if they are not trading off on a bespoke TyTAN-type support arrangement against things like F-35.

Q21            Mr Francois: The Russians are shelling cities in Donbas as we speak. We have had an atrocity, with at least 18 civilians murdered in a shopping centre overnight. If you will forgive me, everything that you are saying is talking about operating an air force in peacetime. What if we had to go to war for real? You will need every combat aircraft you can get.

I was at Warton once and I asked BAE how long it takes to build a Typhoon from scratch. They said, “Three years.” I said, “If you had to go flat out in a national emergency, how quickly could you build it?” They said, “Two years.” If you had to fight a come as you are war without two years’ warming, you would need the aircraft that you have, so to take 53 out of 160 off the table is madness. At the very least, should we not do what the Americans do, which is to put them in Davis-Monthan out in the desert and maintain them so that, in the event of war, we could recall and use them? To simply get rid of them is madness, is it not?

Justin Bronk: For the combatcapable ones, there is definitely an argument for preserving in mothballed status. The bigger issue, though, is whether the RAF takes a strategic approach. As CGS outlined this morning, for the British Army to say, “The planning assumption is that we have to be ready to fight the Russians in eastern and northern Europe in the next three to five years” is an extremely sensible approach to take, because the Russians have burned all their other means of competingeconomic and soft power of any kind. The history of countries deciding to abandon the military instrument after they have failed or had questionable success in a war is pretty limited. Argentina is the only one that I can think of.

They will almost undoubtedly pose a threat continually over the next few years from the air and the sea, including potentially land in three to five, but the first step for me would not be increasing the number of Typhoons; it would be buying more munitions. We will run out of munitions far before we run out of aeroplanes. Equally, if I was buying more aeroplanes, first of all I would buy one more E-7.

Mr Francois: We will come on to that.

Justin Bronk: But, in terms of combat aircraft for the war I would need to fight in five years, if I look at the balance of NATO combat air in Europe, and in the UK from a sovereign point of view, I would buy F-35 along with SPEAR 3, because, without an answer to that air defences problem, you have no way of using your Typhoons in a meaningful way over contested airspace against a near peer, let alone Russia. Until someone does that SEAD/DEAD job, we are completely reliant on the Americans to open the airspace for us, which will be awkward if either the US continues down a very unpredictable political path and becomes a less reliable ally, or, perhaps more likely, it is involved in a high-end flashpoint contingency or a serious standoff with the Chinese in the Pacific at a time when it does not want to transfer things.

Q22            Mr Francois: Could you not rewire those double-seater Typhoons to be combat capable? It would cost you, but you can do it.

Justin Bronk: It would probably be more cost-effective to buy new ones. The Germans have looked at this problem and are buying new ones.

Q23            Mr Francois: At the very least, you would mothball the ones that you take out of service.

Justin Bronk: A lot of the 30 that have gone have been dismantled and are gone anyway, but it would be a huge job to combat code and wire the twin sticks, because we never designed, specified or built them for that.

Mr Francois: It is just that the integrated review is a brilliant document unless you go to war.

Q24            Dave Doogan: Very quickly in conclusion from me, in the scenario that Mark paints, where we are looking for a rapid solution, if it is more F-35s, is it cogent to look at the A variant rather than the B variant? Are they much cheaper? Do we have enough full capability already?

Dr Antrobus: You restrict yourself and flexibility is taken away.

Dave Doogan: They must get used for them, though.

Dr Antrobus: Yes. My personal view is that I would stick with making sure that you have maximum flexibility for the numbers of aircraft, because there are so few overall.

Justin Bronk: The key decision point is whether you are buying a sufficient number. If you were buying, for example, two squadrons’ worth of primarily land-based F-35s, it would start to make sense to buy As, because they are a bit cheaper to buy and significantly cheaper to run. They are also longer range and have significantly more internal payload flexibility.

On the other hand, they are dependent on boom refuelling, although quite a few of our capabilities are dependent on boom refuelling, which is American, and you could retrofit an A330 Voyager. You would have the benefit there, in the sense that, while you would lose flexibility within your fleet, there is a lot of maintenance and support commonality, so you would not lose a huge amount of financial efficiency there and you might gain back, based on it being cheaper to run.

You would also inherently solve your aircraft naval-versus-land basing problem, because the A variant would not be able to be put on the carriers, so you would have a de facto fleet within a fleet. Again, you are introducing a lot of additional inefficiency and lack of flexibility there, so, unless it is a significant chunk of additional aeroplanes, it does not really make sense. If it is another, let us say, 16 on top of the 27, it probably makes sense to stick with Bs.

Q25            Chair: So you are looking for a chunky number to make the A variant worthy.

Justin Bronk: Ultimately, if you are asking me how I would equip to fight a war in five years against the Russians, I would buy as many F-35s as I could.

Q26            Chair: But which variant is interesting, because, if it is against Russia—

Justin Bronk: For the RAF, I would want As, because it is more capable for less money, but it only makes sense if you are buying a significant chunk over what we already have.

Q27            Chair: We are going to move away from fast jets, but, in Gulf War I, we had 36 fast jet squadrons. We are down to about half a dozen now—about six, depending on how you measure them. That is a substantial difference, is it not, if we are back into some form of Cold War?

Dr Antrobus: It is substantial. In terms of what a four-ship in the first Gulf War could achieve versus what it can achieve now, there are light years of difference—one four-ship then attacking one target and the chances of getting it, versus now multiple precision targets with one aircraft—so like for like is impossible. As I said, on the reliability side—i.e. how many aircraft you need to put out on the line in a line in order for eight of them to get airborne—that number has changed. But there is no way of getting away from it: the number of fast jet combat aircraft and squadrons that the RAF has is a significant step back from where we were at the end of the Cold War.

Q28            Chair: Yes, because there is also the force presence. If you have half the squadron in the Falklands, one in Cyprus and one watching our skies here, you divide up your assets very quickly indeed. We are then spread thinly.

I will just make a point before we move on to missiles. I recall going up in a twin-seat Typhoon. The manufacturers are missing a political trick here, because, when you take a Minister up in one of these planes, you have then pretty much sold the plane in that way. The Typhoon is such an impressive aircraft; I flew it myself. You cannot do that with the F-35, because they do not make twin seaters any more. In fact, all fast jets have moved to single-seaters.

Dr Antrobus: It is all synthetic training up to first solo.

Q29            Chair: If you want to flog an aircraft, take the characters up so that they can see it. The V-22 Osprey sells itself.

Justin Bronk: It is worth noting, though, that, in every competition where a country has been allowed to see behind the black curtain and see what it does, the F-35 has won over the competition, so I would suggest that the capability does sell itself. I am not cleared to see what that does, and that is one of the issues in terms of the capabilities. It is easy to see the cost, because it is incredibly heavily over-cited, if that is a word, and rightly so, because it is much later than promised and it is a much higher cost. You have to have special access programme clearance through the States to see what it really does, but it is notable that every country that has seen it has opted to buy it.

The other angle, on the number of squadrons, is resilience, in the sense that it is not just the number of task-lines of aircraft. That can be mitigated significantly by the extra capability, as Sophy said, that each aircraft now has, with much more effective sensors, weapons and everything. At the moment, our entire combat air force is on three main operating bases, with no air defence of any kind, and all of the deep maintenance on those bases is in commercial standard buildings that are easy to identify. Either we need to be able to disperse them over far more bases, or we need to put in layered air defence as protection, because, right now, they are pretty inviting targets. The only more inviting target for Russian long-range precision strike is Mildenhall.

Q30            Mr Francois: We have spent two decades fighting wars of choice with airpower against enemies that could not shoot back. If we are fighting the Russians, not only can they shoot back, but, as you just said, they can attack us at source and they have very large numbers of aircraft. At the end of the day, there is no perfect substitute for mass. You see this again and again in defence. We end up with ever more sophisticated units of equipment, of which we have fewer and fewer, and that is fine until you go to war, isn’t it?

Justin Bronk: It is, although the Russians are quite an interesting example on that, in that they have a lot of aircraft but that has not really done them any good. They have not established anything more than very localised air superiority over Donbas. Where they do have localised air superiority, they cannot use it effectively to conduct close air support against battlefield targets because they do not have that sophistication. They do not have targeting pods, they do not have serious modern PGMs that are affordable at a price point where you can use them regularly and be familiar with them, and they do not train regularly with JTACs across their force. But, of course, they do have mass. They have the resilience but perhaps not the effectiveness.

There is a balance point to be made here, but it is worth noting that you can at least take steps to protect a small exquisite force in making it less of an attractive target. The Norwegians, for example, have chosen to concentrate on one main operating base, with the logic that, although it is only one aiming point instead of two or three, they can then afford to put a layered air defence structure around that to force the Russians to shoot multiple missiles per target and they do not have unlimited launch platforms. There are different ways to skin the cat and at least make it a lot harder for the Russians to target effectively. Right now, it is a bit of an open door to push on.

Chair: Interesting. Of course, all these kinetic aircraft are only as good as the things that they can fire. You mentioned SPEAR 3, and I hope we can circle back to that. Stuart, take us forward on that.

Q31            Stuart Anderson: I want to look at air-launched guided weapons. The defence command paper said very little about them. Is that omission concerning?

Dr Antrobus: It is concerning. I smile slightly because I know Justin is a weapons and munitions expert and I am not.

Stuart Anderson: Let me go first with Justin on that, and I have a supplementary that I will come to you with.

Dr Antrobus: The only thing I would say is that neither of us is cleared to know exactly what there is, but, like Justin, people tell me that it is not enough, so I will back up what you are about to say on that.

Justin Bronk: If you are looking at Russia as the main problem, it would be very good if there were more on the air-to-air side of things, but it is probably not the most serious deficiency, in part because the Russian air force would have a limited capacity to conduct any sort of sustained penetration operations against NATO territory, since the one thing that NATO has a huge amount of in the air domain is defensive counter-air. If you look at, for example, the Luftwaffe, it is very capable in defensive counter-air terms. It has far more Typhoon than we do and it pretty much exclusively trains for counter-air, because it is the only thing it is allowed to do politically.

A mature discussion within NATO might be that perhaps we should put a bit less focus on DCA, look at the punchier penetrating things, and accept that others are likely to have that covered off, because they are more comfortable there, but that is a slightly different point.

On air-to-ground munitions, the RAF has pursued a strategy through the complex weapons pipeline, whereby we have tried to get a more affordable cost per shot by centralising around only a very small number of munitions, such as the Paveway IV guided bomb, which is dual mode—it can be laser or GPS-guided—and is amazingly flexible in terms of what you can do with it for fusing options, approach angles and all sorts. That is great for counter-insurgency and for semi-permissive, but means that you have to get close enough to drop a free-fall bomb on somebody.

If it is F-35, it is cleared only for external carriage at the moment, although it may be cleared now internally. Even then, you are talking about two weapons because of the—

Q32            Chair: Just to clarify, that is the stealth mode.

Justin Bronk: Yes, internally. You can carry them externally, and you can carry more, but then it is not stealthy. The problem with the Brimstone anti-armour missile, which has a bit more standoff range, is that it is fairly pricey, particularly the latest version. For Brimstone II missiles, we were re-manufacturing older Brimstone missiles to the later standard. I think they are having to make all Brimstone III missiles from scratch. They have also added an insensitive munition and insensitive repellent requirement, which is, I think, fairly unique to the UK in that you have to be able to burn the fuel and the warhead, and not have it go off, which is really expensive. It makes it safer, but it is notable that very few other air forces pursue that route, and it results in a very high cost per weapon.

It is also not really enough range to deal with modern medium-range SAMs like SA-17 and M3, the later Russian versions. It is marginal. You would have to be very high and fast, and that leaves you pretty vulnerable to really long-range SAMs. In general, a SAM is more of a threat to you the higher you are in terms of range. Then you have Storm Shadow, which is an excellent long-range low-radar-cross-section cruise missile. It is pretty pricey, partly because it has to be large, long-range and with sophisticated navigation and warhead options, but that means that we tend to use them only for pretty high-end targets, or at least we only plan to use them for high-end targets. Occasionally, they get used for other things. You cannot fight an entire air campaign with Storm Shadow; that is what I am getting at.

If you were looking at trying to deal with the Russians from the air, you would want that relatively affordable, multimode, medium-range weapon that you could fire from relatively safe standoff distances with Typhoon, so ideally a bit more than Brimstonea SPEAR 3 would be goodbut at a lower price point than Storm Shadow, and that you could carry a reasonable number of internally in the F-35 without compromising the signature.

We have developed a very good weapon in the shape of SPEAR 3, and it has an ability to carry a stand-in jammer developed from the BriteCloud decoys that Typhoon has, so they can do a bit of suppression of enemy air defences as well to protect other aircraft. Again, so far, we have only funded the testing, integration and initial small purchases for that. We are doing the testing and integration on Typhoon, so we are test flying it and firing it from Typhoon because it takes time to get it integrated in F-35 as part of a multi-nation programme where we have to take our turn, but we are not actually buying it for Typhoon because that would be too expensive. We are already doing the integration work, but we are not paying to integrate it on Typhoon as well.

Q33            Stuart Anderson: Can I come in on that point and look at the amount of stock we have? I would be very interested to know, first, your view, and then Dr Sophy’s, looking at the supply chain resilience of that stock specifically. Are we anywhere near where we should be? Is it concerning?

Justin Bronk: No and yes.

Dr Antrobus: Yes.

Stuart Anderson: Those are very succinct answers.

Justin Bronk: I do not know the exact numbers because of secrecy.

Q34            Chair: If you find out, can you let us know?

Justin Bronk: Everyone I have talked to who does know the numbers makes deeply worried faces and frowns.

Chair: We are getting the same.

Justin Bronk: When one occasionally gets a glance, which one probably should not, at individual numbers, usually from a little while ago, they are pretty concerning.

Q35            Stuart Anderson: We are not asking for the specific number or for you to release anything that you should not in this open forum. How long would it take, and would it be within budget?

Dr Antrobus: This relates to supply chains. At no point has anybody allocated a whole load of budget to increase stock, so all we can assume is that stock has gradually been declining. The fact that it is gradual means that each iteration is a little less worrying. Clearly, what we are talking about is an immediate threat from Russia and the potential to fight it. The problem is that everybody will want to upgrade their weapon stocks at the same time, and that is probably where my biggest concern would be, not only with the actual relative numbers. As Justin said earlier, you can have as many aircraft as you want, but if you do not have anything to put on them, they are not that useful, so that is where one would want to frontload as much as possible to try to recover the situation, because the later we leave it, the more competition we have.

Justin Bronk: It is also worth remembering that it is difficult to know how far back down the supply chain in terms of lower and lower sub-component levels you can go before you run into a dependency on China with things like rare-earth metals.

Q36            Stuart Anderson: Yes, that was my next point. With rare-earth metals and critical minerals, 90% of the world’s rare-earth metals arrive in or are processed with some involvement of China. The Committee has just been to Australia last week and met with its team, which is pushing so much into this but could not even confirm that some of its areas did not have Chinese influence. There is a whole host of economic issues there. If you are trying to buy parts or buy a new car now, there is $200 of rare-earth metals in a normal car. There is far more in missiles.

Dr Antrobus: Buying a new car, you would probably think nine months ahead at the moment. Read across.

Q37            Stuart Anderson: How concerning should that be on supply chain resilience?

Dr Antrobus: It is very concerning—there are no two ways about it. As you said, there are a number of dependencies. There are things we do not know and you do not know, because some of it is not available in open source, understandably, because our ability to arm ourselves correctly is also a deterrence issue.

Justin Bronk: By the way, one thing that the Ukrainians have done successfullythey are still desperately short of munitions in various key categoriesis what we currently cannot do, which is to blend the high end and low end effectively: stopping a Russian column with relatively scarce Western-supplied ATGMs and then doing the majority of the killing with unguided, really cheap artillery. We do not really have much cheap unguided firepower. I am not saying we necessarily should do things that way, but we probably need to have an answer to how to kill massed opponents or an opponent that has mass like Russia if we do not want to rely on things like cluster munitions and large-scale unguided firepower. Something is going to have to do it.

There are options you could play around with like sensor-fused munitions to avoid a lot of the indiscriminate angle of things like cluster munitions, but it would require a relatively mature legal discussion about how we were going to approach that and whether we were going to stay within the number of submunitions guidelines of the cluster munitions treaty. Notably, any nation that seriously looks at warfighting has refused to sign the treaty, because it is required for killing things in the open or in confined areas but outside urban areas, in other words.

A lot of the force design trials work, on things like the major Army exercises in the US, relies on simulated access to US munitions that we do not allow ourselves to buy. Part of the answer to the air munitions question needs to be a discussion about how the Army is provisioned with firepower because, however you skin it, overhead CAS to kill every target is not going to be a thing in contested environments for most of the relevant period that defines a conflict with the Russians, so there is going to have to be a serious degree of uplift in Army firepower.

Q38            Mr Francois: Just on that point, Ben Hodges, who was the commander of the US army in Europe until a few years ago, gave evidence to this Committee on exactly that point. He told us that 3 Div was part of a command post exercise with the US 18th Corps where they simulated a full-on peer-on-peer conflicta war with Russia—and 3 Div ran out of artillery ammunition in a week. That is pretty appalling. What we hear privately is that, in the air domain, it is even worse.

Justin Bronk: I would not be surprised. It depends on which critical munitions you are talking about. In those exercises, if 3 Div was expending figures like 13,000 or 14,000 GMLRS rockets in eight days, which I believe was the figure, I suspect that is more than exhausting our ammunition figures. The air consumption of munitions will have been predicated on that rate of consumption being available to the ground forces, so, in reality, the demand on air would have been higher if we were constrained in terms of what we could fire on the ground.

There is just a straightforward problem across defence, across all of Europe and in the US, but it is far better there than it is here. We have just bought far too few munitions of all kinds, if we wanted to be prepared to seriously war fight against another nation, over the last 20 years.

Q39            Chair: We will need to make progress. You mentioned SPEAR 3 a number of times. Could you just clarify where that is in the procurement cycle, because I understood it was not quite there yet?

Justin Bronk: It is in flight testing, and there is test firing that has either already been done or is being done this year on Typhoon. Its integration on F-35 is, I believe, part of the block 4 upgrade programme in terms of getting it cleared and integrated in software terms. The UK has very little influence over the timing of that, but there are also, for example, issues about how we would integrate it with the ammunition loading systems on carriers, which are not currently set up to take SPEAR 3, I understand. Just how many we buy of SPEAR 3 also would make a huge amount of sense for the Typhoon force, but, currently, that is neither budgeted nor planned for, despite the fact that we are doing the test firing, clearing and launching trials on Typhoon.

Q40            Chair: We are clearing it for use. We are getting it approved. It is signed off, but we are not going to buy any.

Justin Bronk: For Typhoon, no. Incidentally, with the new radar, the ECRS 2, which gives a significant degree of capability against ground targets as well as a degree of self-protection capability, and with SPEAR 3, Typhoon itself is potentially quite a capable SEAD/DEAD asset against medium-range and short-range systems.

Q41            Richard Drax: The beloved Hercules, the C-130, is due for retirement seven years before its out-of-service date. This has caused a lot of controversy and is causing a lot of controversy right now, not least with our Special Forces, the Parachute Regiment and others, who see this aircraft as probably one of the most versatile aircraft of its type, which can land on a very short strip. I believe there was a rescue in Afghanistan when no other aircraft could be got down in time. It dropped in at night and got the soldiers out. There are endless stories like that.

Being an ex-soldier myself, I have sat in this aircraft. I know a little bit about it. When I wrote to the Ministry of Defence, as I think our Committee has too, the answer comes back: “The A400 Atlas is going to resolve all your problems. For those I have spoken to in the Special Forces, there are number of issues they are very concerned about. There is the loss of static line, which, at the moment, they claim an A400 would not be able to do. It has not been adapted to do that. It cannot drop boats out the back, which is a common form of insertion. It certainly cannot land in the short spaces in which the Hercules can. There is a whole raft of other issues. What impact will the loss of this aircraft have, and can it be mitigated, not least by the A400?

Dr Antrobus: I have a declaration of interest. I was duty operations officer at RAF Lyneham when the first C-130J landed there, so I remember its arrival in 1999.

Richard Drax: So you love the aircraft.

Dr Antrobus: Yes, perhaps that is a slight bias. This is a serious issue right at the moment, particularly with the context of what is going on and the strategic situation. What the defence command paper and IR are taking at risk are these next few years. I can see a logic of it perhaps coming out of service a couple of years earlier, but, in the middle of this decade, we are just going to take an awful lot of risk. You are exactly right. The J can do things and can land on shorter strips; you can get more aircraft on a patch of airfield than you can with the larger aircraft. Obviously, the A400M is a hugely capable aircraft, but it is at the tactical air mobility end particularly, which is what you are referring to, that we would take a hit.

We would be going from 44 aircraft capable of tactical air mobility, albeit using longer runways and strips, to 30, so you are cutting your tactical air mobility assets by a third. Clearly, they can carry different amounts of stuff, but, if you only need to carry a certain amount of stuff, the aircraft can be enormous or small. You just have more flexibility with the C-130J. My view is that it is a real risk.

My understanding is that everybody is very happy with the performance and capability of the Atlas A400M, but there are reliability issues. The written evidence you got from the MoD did discuss that. It is not a state secret. Although the intention is to iron these things out, if we are taking J out next year, it is two years of real uncertainty about that additional capability and capacity. I cannot see the logic of giving ourselves that problem right at the minute.

Q42            Richard Drax: Unlike the other aircraft we have talked about so far, flown by the RAF or the Royal Navy, this is with our Army as well. The two are interlinked. The Special Forces rely on this aircraft and have done for many years. I would argue that, even in two years’ time, getting rid of this aircraft would be a very foolish move because there is nothing to replace it unless someone is going to design something of the same size and modernise the aircraft.

Dr Antrobus: The intention is that Atlas will, to a large extent, replace most, if not all, of the capabilities.

Q43            Richard Drax: That is not what the soldiers say.

Dr Antrobus: I appreciate what you are saying.

Richard Drax: They do not agree with that.

Dr Antrobus: That is the intention, but my point, in agreement with you, is that, even if that is the case, it will take time to develop those capabilities. There might be fits that are needed that we do not have yet, so, either way, it is a big risk in the middle of this decade.

Q44            Richard Drax: Physically, it will not be able to do what this aircraft can do. It cannot throttle back, for example, to the same speed that the Hercules can. What is your view, Justin, on this controversial issue?

Justin Bronk: I agree entirely that it is a significant capacity decrease. There is no way round it. It is the same with Puma. There are things it does that A400 will struggle to replicate exactly, particularly static-line parachuting, just because of the way the propwash works. It is a very powerful aircraft, to do its job.

From talking to the CO of the OCU, who, for most of his time, has been an SF C-130 guy, his perspective on the boats insertion point was that it is a matter of clearances and time, and that there is nothing in the platform that would stop that being a thing.

Q45            Mr Francois: We have been told it would take years to get those clearances.

Justin Bronk: Indeed, but there is always a question of the amount of urgency and how much you allow the MAA to get in the way of that. Would other countries take as much time to deploy that capability? For example, if you look how long the French have taken to do things with A400 versus how long we have taken to do things with the exact same aeroplane, there are years of difference, so there is an element of prioritisation.

It is also worth noting that, at the end of the Afghanistan withdrawal in Kabul, specifically at night when the threat to the aircraft was much higher, the A400 was the only thing capable of going in and out safely because it had the ability to do non-illuminated approaches and departures at night without using NVGs. Night-vision goggles are brilliant if there is not much ambient light, but, if you are trying to land on a dark strip in the middle of a lit-up city, they do not really work.

In Kabul, A400M was the thing doing the really high-end extractions when the threat was up at the end. It is also worth remembering it can do things like create its own radar instrument landing approach on to a hill strip, for example, when there is zero visibility or at night, which the C-130 cannot, so it can get into some places that a C-130 could not under certain conditions.

Of course, part of the logic for buying extended-range CH47 Chinook is to replace part of the shorter-range end of the SF insertion capabilities on the C-130. We keep saying air desperately needs to fill all these gaps, but there is no way it is going to get additional funding to cover everything, so you have to put down arrows in to pay for it. The only way you can possibly free up the sort of money you are talking about is by cutting entire fleets to get rid of an entire logistics tailback and training pipeline. If you looked at the fleets that the RAF has across its whole force, the two that you would cut to lose the fewest discrete mission sets, albeit it will always be a loss of capacity, are C-130 and Puma.

With Puma, you have, at the lower end, the battle taxi Wildcat. You have Merlin, which, in a Commando guise, fills a similar role, albeit it is very different for the Navy. You have Chinook at the upper end. For C-130, you have long-range Chinook at the lower end, and you have A400M and C-17 at the higher end, plus A330 for moving personnel in airliner style. It is notable that, if you look at any comparably sized air force, the air mobility fleet for the RAF is massively outsized compared to anybody else. That was because we right-sized it for sustained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, that is not to denigrate the fantastic work that it does, particularly with the SF for C-130, or to say that it is not a huge loss of capacity, but the RAF keeps being told that it needs to modernise and fill all these gaps. There is no massive influx of funding to buy all this new capability, so it is going to have to get rid of old stuff. That was the choice.

Q46            Richard Drax: The soldiers, who are the people who use this aircraft to a huge degree, are saying, “We do not want to lose it. As you were saying, Dr Sophy, maybe it would be wise to hold on for another, say, two or three years, which is still within their lifetime, rather than, at a moment where the world is facing a very unstable time, to get rid of it. The A400 cannot do, right now, what our Special Forces want it to do.

Justin Bronk: True, but they are also not going to parachute insert against the Russians ever under any circumstances, so what you are talking about in the Russian case are large-scale movements of munitions, supplies and everything that cannot be moved by rail or need to be moved really quickly to eastern Europe. For that, A400 is better than C-130. Interestingly, if you look at all the studies that have been done around air insertion, large-scale air assault and parachute assault is dead because, even if you can get people in, as has been shown at Hostomel or Mariupol, you cannot support them there because then you are fixed to supply routes. It is the old Arnhem problem.

There is a sense that parachute insertion is what we have always done and we are very good at it, so there is a sense of wanting to keep it. If you look at the way the Army is planning to fight, it does not really feature. The last time I saw a Parachute Regiment justification of where they were going to employ a contested parachute insertion, it was in the case of a coup in a part of Africa where we do quite a bit of training but where it did not have any air capability because there was a political limitation.

You are really falling over yourselves to try to come up with a justification for what is a very expensive theatre entry capability as opposed to looking at how you might better use superbly trained and extremely high-readiness infantry who, for example, given decent numbers of portable anti-tank weapons and small UAVs could be phenomenally effective at delaying and blunting Russian armour thrusts, let us say.

I am not trying to denigrate the whole thing. I am saying there is actually some thought behind why it was done given that the alternative was to say, “We can’t plug any gaps or modernise because the existing op tempo demand is just overwhelming.

Q47            Dave Doogan: It contrasts with Puma. As a platform, Puma is exhausted and has reached the end of the road, really, unlike C-130. Unlike those tranche 1 Typhoons, I bet there would be an orderly queue to buy up ex-RAF C-130s. I bet there will be a queue, subject to airframe hoursI do not know if you know anything about thatbut I would be very interested to know the disposal future for them.

Justin Bronk: As you say, I am sure there will be plenty of people very keen to buy them.

Q48            Dave Doogan: Related to that, are you aware of any other peer ally nations that are disposing of or reducing their C-130 fleets?

Dr Antrobus: I am not.

Justin Bronk: No, not that I can think of off the top of my head.

Q49            Mr Francois: On the A400M compared with the C-130, first, the SF do not want to lose the Hercules because they are the people who would have to go to war in it. Secondly, you have not even touched on all the costs of retrofitting the A400 with the SF kit that the C-130 carries. We will not talk about that in public, but you know what I am talking about. That retrofit will be very expensive. Thirdly, the A400’s reliability record is appalling.

People make jokes about Select Committee visits and junkets, but part of the reason for doing them is that you learn what is really going on. We went to Rolls-Royce at Bristol. We asked, “What is the real problem with the engine and the gearbox?” A Rolls Royce technician said, “When they designed it on a computer, it worked perfectly. When they built it, it didnt. The components in the gearbox keep burning themselves out, so they are forever having to take the engines, put them through deep maintenance and rebuild the gearboxes.

That is not what you want in a tactical aircraft, particularly not one that might, at short notice in difficult conditions, have to deliver Special Forces troops on an extremely dangerous mission. One thing about the J is that you turn the key and it goes. That is even without all the computer problems that the A400 notoriously has. It can take hours just to fire it up. Why give up a perfectly serviceable aircraft with a brilliant reliability track record in order to give that vital role to an aircraft with an appalling track record that you are going to have to pay a fortune to retrofit anyway? Where is the logic in that?

Justin Bronk: The modelling, as far as I understand it, showed that the loss of the 22 A400Ms, which would be an alternative to the 14 C-130Js, would be a massively greater hit to strategic lift and mobility capabilities and support capacity to the Army. If they wanted to find the money for the modernisation that they needed to do and partly had been told to do, they had to cut fleets, and that was the one that gave the lowest overall drop in total mission capacity. Either they need more money or they have to make cuts in order to fund modernisation.

Q50            Mr Francois: The modelling said the gearbox would work. It does not. If, post-Ukraine, we are going to look at the review again and see not perhaps how we rip it up but how we tweak itour Chair is on the record, rightfully, as saying that the review has been overtaken by events in Ukrainewe might decide that we need to spend a bit more on defence. Rather than have an acid choice between the C-130J and the A400Meveryone tells us it is a financially driven decisionif we did add a bit more money back into the defence budget, would that not be a very logical place to spend part of it and keep both?

Justin Bronk: It would be if you are assuming your focus is on the ability to move troops and contingency, and inserting support short of high-intensity combat. However, if the primary role of the RAF is to obtain and secure control of the air over contested airspace over your allies, for example, in eastern Europe, you cannot do that at the moment. I would therefore say that almost anything else is a luxury until you can do that. If you cannot obtain control of the air, none of the rest of your capabilities is particularly useful. While you might get things to theatre more quickly in an air mobility context than taking it by road or rail, if you cannot obtain air superiority and use it, your force design does not work as a whole in high-intensity combat.

Arguably, I would suggest that has to be the priority, unless you want to write the strategy that says specifically that we are going to let other allies do that bit and we are going to concentrate on support mobility and SF, in which case it would make perfect sense. It is just a strategic policy choice.

Q51            Mr Francois: Lastly on this, we understand the sale of the Js has been put on hold. Is that your understanding?

Justin Bronk: I do not know about that I am afraid.

Chair: Richard, is there anything further on this?

Richard Drax: No. I think we have gone as far as we can, thank you.

Q52            Chair: The bottom line is that this is all financial pressures. You would not be going down this avenue if not for the fact that there is a peacekeeping budget of about 2.2%, we have ventured into cyber and space, and there is not enough money for the conventional.

Dr Antrobus: Yes. That is essentially, I understand, what Justin is saying.

Q53            Chair: You are then forced to look at whole platforms and ask, “What can I keep?” You then have to make very tough decisions about this, which has led us to where we are with the Hercules. Is that a fair summation?

Dr Antrobus: Yes. I would make one final point. My particular worry is the risk that we are taking in the shorter term. I would say that, when the J replaced the K, it was said that the Special Forces community will never get on with the J and it will never be any good. Actually, it worked. Now, I know that is a slightly different thing because the K and the J are similarly sized aircraft and so forth, but I can see A400M becoming highly capable when things are sorted out. I am just concerned about this short term.

Q54            Richard Drax: Justin, as for static-line parachuting, I disagree with you. I can see tactical situations where, to get 40 or 50 members of the Parachute Regiment on the ground in order to cut off the enemy or take a bridge, there is nothing better. You can get men on the ground in a matter of seconds out the back of an aircraft. I would not say that static line is over. Putting them over the Ukraine and over anti-aircraft devices would, of course, be madness, but I can still see a role for static line.

Dr Antrobus: It was scoped in 2003 and dismissed in planning for the invasion of Iraq, just so that you are aware of that.

Justin Bronk: They did a training jump recently, and I believe the attrition rate, just from the training jump, was 20% in terms of injuries.

Q55            Richard Drax: The risk was always that people get hurt jumping out of aircraft.

Justin Bronk: The other thing on SF insertion and uplift is that I would prioritise upgrading the defensive aid suites for the Chinooks. We will not discuss that here, but the upgrades for the defensive aid suites on Chinook are where I would put additional uplifts for SF insertion funding, particularly given that most of the defensive aid suites have been developed for operations in places where the main threats are heat-seeking, not radar-guided.

Q56            Mr Kevan Jones: The real issue here, surely, is not actually retaining the C-130s. If we have taken this decision, it is really to increase the tempo like the French have done in terms of making the A400 more capable. That would help plug the gap that, Sophy, you are talking about. Although C-130 has been a very capable aircraft and people love it, if we are talking about the idea of inserting troops, you are never going to do it by air or C-130. Special Forces are going to be doing it with the likes of Chinook and other things. The idea that there are going to be mass parachute drops anywhere is for the birds, isn’t it?

Dr Antrobus: Personally, I would not go that far, but I tend to agree. I am not arguing that we keep the capability short term for mass parachute drops. I have every faith that A400 will become a mainstay of tactical and other forms of air mobility, but 2023, next year, is when Js are going out. I note with interest that the written evidence from the MoD and the comments generally say, “This remains under review”.

Q57            Mr Kevan Jones: Therefore, should the money not be spent on making A400M more capable of plugging that gap?

Dr Antrobus: You may know more than I do. Justin referred to MMA regulations and that kind of thing, but, just in general, if you know it is taking a little while to get everything running just as you would like, betting that next year it will be fine is not a bet I would want to take. I guess I would leave it at that.

Justin Bronk: Just to stress again, there are capabilities that will be lost with the C-130J on particular types of insertion. There is no way round it. There are certain things that the C-130J is particularly well suited for as a niche that you will lose by retiring that fleet. The question is how much of an opportunity cost you are prepared to pay for that particular niche to be really well served and whether there are ways you could meet that need in a slightly different way, with things like long-range Chinook or A400M, with a lower amount of investment still at a satisfactory level to allow you to put a lot of that money elsewhere.

Q58            Chair: That is an accountant’s ruthless view of it. That is sometimes what happens in the MoD. The point that I think Richard was making, and with which we all agree, is that one thing we are good at in this countryour offering, if you like, to NATO and particularly with our relationship with the United Statesis our Special Forces capabilities. Providing them with the necessary equipment capabilities is absolutely critical. That is part and parcel of where the C-130 was very important indeed. We need to make sure we do not lose that. That is one of the main jewels in our crown.

Justin Bronk: To Mr Francois’ point, it is perhaps slightly less relevant if the main goal is high-end warfighting because, as the Russians showed, you can lose your Special Forces incredibly quickly in a high-intensity warfighting scenario and then you are left with the poor bloody infantry.

Chair: We have given that a good shot. Let us move on to another dimension of this, which is ISTAR.

Q59            Mr Francois: Whether it is relevant or not, I would just like our Armed Forces to have aircraft that work, particularly when we have spent £2.5 billion of British taxpayers’ money buying them. Having, sometimes, only five or six available on one day is unacceptable. I hope that is relevant.

Now, coming on to command and control, E-3D Sentry left service in 2021, just months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, so that sovereign capability for us is now gone. The IOC for the E-7 Wedgetail, we now understand, is 2024, not 2023. Do you think that retiring that capability early was a gamble that has been shown not to have paid off?

Dr Antrobus: I do not think three is the right number and I cannot see it ever being the right answer. You will have heard these arguments rehearsed before, so I will be relatively brief. If you have one aircraft in deep maintenance, you have further two aircraft, you are trying to cover 24-hour orbit and one of those aircraft has a minor fault, you are stuffed, effectively. I know that the RAF would very much want to go back to five, four at the very minimum. It is just the wrong number, and there is no point in me going any further than saying that.

I would make the point that if there is a decision or revision of that decision, as you mentioned the IOC date, the FOC date is intended to be 2026, so that would be when the third Wedgetail, as currently planned, comes on stream. It is being developed and finished, as you will know, in Birmingham. If the decision is not made by then or in time, that production facility will cease to exist, so there is a relevance of dates and timings.

Q60            Mr Francois: I think the Australians have six from memory. Am I right that the United States has now committed to buying Wedgetails?

Dr Antrobus: Yes.

Q61            Mr Francois: How many is it buying and over what timescale?

Dr Antrobus: I do not know at all. I only know that it has.

Justin Bronk: The US has not committed to buying it yet. They have publicly invited Boeing to submit an uncompeted proposal to fulfil the requirement. In other words, they have said, “If you can provide something that looks satisfactory, it is yours,” which is about as strong as they tend to go on self-sourced selection upfront. At the moment, it looks pretty likely that the US will buy, in its initial purchase, 17 with the option to go for another similar amount. I could be wrong about the precise figure.

I think they have 34 E-3Gs. There is an option to buy more. That is roughly the ballpark at least. Forgive me, I think it is in that ballpark.

Mr Francois: That is extremely helpful. Thank you.

Justin Bronk: To your point about desiring to have aircraft that work, the other thing to say on the E-3D retirement date is that the availability was really shambolic by the time they were retired but that it was becoming a flight safety concern to keep them going.

Q62            Mr Francois: You have some previous MinAFs around the table. In my day, the availability of the E-3D was very poor as it was, and we were spending a fortune trying to keep even the last ones going, so the switch to E-7 is the right thing to do. I think what concerns the Committee is the gap and also the numbers. If we look at the numbers now, with E-3, you will struggle to have one online on any given day and two on a good day, but you will not have three. If we come back to a wartime scenario, we have a number of fixed radar sites along the east coast, and we are now back at Saxa Vord, mercifully, all of which would probably go to submarine-launched cruise missile strikes in the first 24 hours, realistically. Most of them would be gone within two days.

You then fall back on a very limited number of mobile radars, plus your E-7s, and they will absolutely be priority targets for any enemy air force. If you only have three and can only field two, you are almost blind, so, surely, militarily, three is just too few.

Justin Bronk: Absolutely, I would agree entirely with Sophy. Three is an incredibly expensive way of not meeting your commitment properly. It is also worth remembering that we do, I believe, have a commitment to NATO to provide an AWACS orbit. One of the questions I believe the Treasury asked internally during the debates back and forth about numbersfive, four or threewas how we are going to meet our NATO requirement. I am not aware that a satisfactory answer was given on that.

It is too few, and it is worth being careful about potentially buying another one on underspend. The C-17 programme, for example, of buying them on underspend led to perhaps an underestimation of the spares, costs and support requirements for that because, a bit like buying things on UOR, you do not necessarily put in place the full support, contracting and budgeting that you need for that. An uplift seems to me to be incredibly logical as a high priority.

Q63            Mr Francois: Here is the $64 million question. If it is unlikely that we could rely on NATO E-7s because they would be busy elsewhere at a European conflagration and we have to rely on our own, if three is too few, the Australians have six and the Americans are contemplating, but have not signed on the dotted line for, 17, what do you think, realistically, is the minimal credible number of E-7s that the Royal Air Force would require? We are putting you on the spot slightly here.

Justin Bronk: If four is the minimum number to give you an orbit somewhere you want it and you are saying that, for territorial defence reasons, you probably want the ability to put up another orbit at a much shorter projection distance near the home airbase, you are probably looking at a fleet of six or seven. That is close to what we had E-3D on for a long time for, I suspect, good reasons.

Q64            Mr Francois: Yes. I think, at one point, we had seven on paper, but we could not field anything like that.

Justin Bronk: Having spoken to some of the Australian crews who took E-7 to recent red flags, one of the reasons why the US Air Force is looking to buy ours is that it was incredibly impressed with the performance it gave against high-end threatssimulated low-radar-cross-section missiles and other things like that.

Another thing on the land-based radar sites is that it might be worth taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook on the vulnerability of those to potential cruise missile strikes early on in a conflict and explicitly linking them to our nuclear warning network. One of the reasons we would probably hesitate to hit Russian long-range over-the-horizon radar sites is that it is part of a nuclear command and control chain and we would probably not want to touch that for escalation reasons, so signalling about our own, as we view them, critical early warning capabilities might be smart as a deterrent.

Q65            Mr Francois: I understand your point, but, again, we are dealing with a nation that has just murdered 18 people whose only crime was to go shopping, so let us assume that they are ruthless and just take all those out anyway. I take your point, but let us assume that they are ruthless and they destroy them. During the Cold War in the 1980s, as you know, with the old Martello system, we had a number of mobile radars and dummy convoys. We had a whole air defence system that was designed to take punishment and continue to fight. We do not have anything like that now, do we?

Justin Bronk: No. Probably the lowest-hanging fruit on that would be to do what has been mooted around joining the Americans in something like their agile combat deployment exercises, where they run serious live-exercise sorties from dispersed locations, because, at the very least, breaking that extremely high concentration of all your combat power on a few main operating bases makes Russian targeting harder, up to full ground-based ballistic missile defence capabilities. If the question is how much you could spend on improving resilience against missile attack, the answer is probably infinity in terms of how far you could go. Prioritisation is the Government’s job.

Q66            Mr Francois: We are tight for time, but thank you, Justin. Dr Antrobus, you said three was not enough. Your colleague said six or seven. Where do you place your bet?

Dr Antrobus: I would hope for at least five, so a return to where we were. That would be my bet, I guess.

Justin Bronk: There might be a capacity issue with five at Lossiemouth. They were moved from Waddington to Lossiemouth to save money by common-basing the PA. I believe there is space for four but not necessarily five.

Mr Francois: To be clear, you said at least five, and Justin said six or seven, so both of you are well above three.

Q67            Dave Doogan: Let us give the Department the benefit of the doubt. I am sure they were very challenged when they made that reduction to fleet, because they will not be unsighted on some of the criticality that you have outlined to the Committee in terms of that platform availability and the ability to create the effect that you want to in the mission space. What would have been at the forefront of their mind when they made that reduction to three? Is it the capital cost of the aircraft or is it the cost of crewing, fuelling and maintaining it and having a spares inventory for it?

Dr Antrobus: They are still working on that.

Justin Bronk: I do not think the RAF made the choice of three.

Dave Doogan: Who did?

Chair: It was above the RAF. It was the MoD. It was the main building.

Q68            Dave Doogan: Whoever it was, the Civil Service or Ministers, what was sticking in their craw? Was it the capital cost of the aircraft or the revenue cost to operate it?

Justin Bronk: The particular issue was twofold. One was a concern about the number of UK platforms that were being bought off the shelf from the States. The second was a desire to send an internal message about our behaviours around budgets and estimations of cost in order to incentivise what would have been seen as better behaviour in future, rather than necessarily any sort of actual capability audit on what three would mean in practical terms.

Q69            Chair: Can you just explain the relationship between the F-35 and the E-7 and how they work together on the battlefield?

Justin Bronk: The F-35 is the only part of the UK inventory at the moment that is relatively independent, if it needs to be, on an AWACS. In effect, a traditional fighter radar can be thought of a bit like a flashlight in a large dark warehouse. It illuminates very well anything you point it at, but it also shows everybody else where you are and it does not give you the big picture. AWACS is like turning on the ceiling light for one side only.

The F-35 has not only its own forward-looking suite but also a very capable 360-degree infrared and electro-optical targeting and situational awareness capability. It also shares data much more effectively between aircraft in the formation to have a wider situational awareness. It is not that it does not benefit from an E-7 around it. It absolutely would, but it is less dependent than traditional fighters would be, because it has more wide-area situational awareness, and it is also less vulnerable to radar-guided threats, so it needs less early warning to have a given level of risk.

The E-7 primarily gives you excellent target performance against any sort of normal combat air targets. It is also much better than something like an E-3D against low-radar-cross-section targets or cruise missiles. It has the potential to be upgraded for some quite impressive standoff electronic warfare capabilitiesso, support to things like Typhoon or F-35 going further in. Those are not part of the IOC fit as I understand it, although, again, that probably sits at a higher classification level, so I may not know.

Q70            Chair: Simply put, if there was a large theatre of operations, you would want an E-7 allocated to the airspace.

Justin Bronk: The E-7 is taking over the E-3s role as the glue that allows you to go there together with all the different pieces from tankers to fighters. Also, crucially, it is the node through which things like Link 16 are actually managed. One of the things that E-3 did and E-7 will do is act as the manager and gatekeeper for who accesses what on the link and managing all that.

Q71            Chair: That is very helpful indeed. The final question is to do with the people who fly these things. Maybe you could give us a quick summary as to where we are with the number of pilots we have coming into line, staying in the service and, indeed, meeting the training requirements that we need to make sure we have combat effectiveness.

Dr Antrobus: I took quite a lot of time looking at Ascent’s evidence and the MoD’s as well, because it is quite interesting. It probably raises more questions than it answers, so I might not be answering questions. I may be giving you questions that you may want to take further.

Chair: We get a lot of that.

Dr Antrobus: I would start by saying that military flight training pipelines are messy, difficult and long, hardly ever work perfectly, and cannot react quickly to change in the peacetime way that we do them.

Q72            Chair: Is that a British thing?

Dr Antrobus: I would say it is universal. If it takes you years to train to the frontline then, when your needs change, that messes things up. I have seen that for years and yearsdecades.

A couple of things stand out for me in particular. First, in the MoD evidence, it says that, because of downturn in the aviation industry and the global pandemic, people are staying in the services, and that this has contributed to a fully populated frontline with a commensurate impact on frontline conversion training, so there is that issue. There is not an awful lot that the Air Force can do about that, and it is great that it has a fully trained-up frontline. That is a start, but that is bound to have reverberations backwards on the training system.

Secondly, in the Ascent evidence, the UKMFTS contracted statement of user need capacity did not include any requirement for refresher training. You pretty much always, at some point, need some refresher training. I cannot recall times at RAF Valley, and in other parts of the forces, when there was not an element of it going on. This is when somebody has been away from flying for a year. They would need to go back every six months and do a couple of weeks, so it is not the same length of time.

Q73            Chair: Or they have been on another aircraft, I guess, and then come back.

Dr Antrobus: Generally speaking, it would be on the last aircraft that you flew, but there may be exceptions to that. In terms of what Ascent is planning to do for its flying training plan for 2022-23, the stats it gives for fixed wing, in its contracted statement of user need capacity, which is getting people through training, are that 122 of the 301 are refreshers. This is where I raise questions rather than answers, and I apologise for that, because I do not know the answer to this. You cannot equate a refresher with a regular student because the amount of time it takes to go through, say, Valley on a Hawk T2 for the whole course is completely different from how long you need to get back in it and make sure you can remember how to drop a bomb and fly a circuit.

The numbers are really difficult to interpret. It says in its notes that instructor and refresher training is taking up the capacity that would normally be used for getting students through the system in an orderly fashion. That is not really Ascent’s fault. In the past, I have sometimes been critical of it, but that is a problem with the system. What I am seeing is that the words are saying it is getting better, but I cannot see how it can be getting better when the frontline is full and there is a large refresher and instructor burden at the moment. That is the question that it raises for me. My understanding is that the holding system is still quite full.

A serious issue for some of the people involved is their arrival on the frontline aged 30 or so. That is not ideal because, with less and less flying and more synthetic flying, you are getting people to the point where you are pushing them forward to be qualified flying instructors and weapons instructors with quite limited experience that has been scattered over training over several years. They may be only a few years from leaving, which is not a very economical way of doing things.

Going back to Mr Francois’s point about how long it takes to build a Typhoon or whatever, it takes too long if this emergency happens sooner rather than later. The issues around munitions, supply lines and training are the things that you are going to be able to try to change. Buying new aircraft, if we are talking in the next two or three years, is not the answer, so I would be interested to know if there is any planning and thinking about how you can make the system react really quickly to a national requirement. Sorry, that was a bit of a long answer.

Q74            Chair: No, that is very helpful. Thank you, Sophy. Justin, do you have any thoughts?

Justin Bronk: The RAF’s current plan is to move from five frontline Typhoon squadrons to seven without a notable increase in the number of pilots. It is, in fact, going to fewer jets because you are getting rid of the remaining tranche 1s, so you are going to 107 from about 130 now, with 10 in long-term storageI believe that is the current figure. The logic is that you can have slightly smaller squadrons but with a similar amount of flying training because you do more and more in the synthetic environment.

Even if that is true and you can maintain pilot currency up to 80/20, which is the figure being discussed by the current Chief of the Air Staff, in terms of 80% synthetic, that does not solve your problem of how you train your mechanics, ground crews and logistics chain to support moving to 100% live when you suddenly need to throw everything out the front door to go and fight somebody for real.

It is particularly the case because, with aeroplanes, it is amazing how differently aeroplanes that are nominally identical and have come off the same production line very close together break in completely different ways. It is a standard thing. The old term would be a “hanger queen” and a “beaut”the one that breaks all the time and it is always this fault. If you fix it the way the book says, that breaks something else, so the crew chiefs have worked out that, if you do this, it works.

That sort of intimate knowledge is what keeps the Typhoon force currently flying despite serious supply chain issues. That is impossible to do synthetically for ground crews, not to mention the fact that, generally speaking, it is anecdotal, so it is not the basis for policy making in and of itself. The consistent feedback from the frontline is that going above 70% synthetic is too far. The instructors, who are often feeling like they have to give up their flying hours to the trainees to make sure that they get to the required standard, use the phrase, “We are feeling more and more behind the drag curve. We are not where we need to be in terms of our own currency and requirements.

Particularly when you are asking the force to be multirole, so on top of a huge number of different competencies, most of which, particularly things like close air support or SEAD, are unbelievably complicated in terms of switchology that has to be second nature, you are asking a lot of both the pilots and then, even if you can do it, the maintainers and ground crew, if you suddenly have to go live.

Q75            Mr Francois: When Ben Wallace became Defence Secretary, he famously gave each of the heads of service one particular key objective. He told the head of the Army to sort out recruitingmixed record at best; the head of the Royal Navy to sort out ship availabilitymuch the same; and the Chief of the Air Staff to fix MFTS. Has it been fixed?

Dr Antrobus: Progress has definitely been made. I would say that. At the point when he was asked to fix it, some of the contractual capabilities like the Texan aircraft were just coming into place. It all derived from that NAO report in 2000. The decision was to move to the MFTS system, and, actually, all the final pieces are only just coming into place now, so it is hard to judge today. My understanding is that we are heading in the right direction. There was no way round the real horrible difficulties of five years ago when parts were being delivered by the MoD and parts were being delivered by Ascent. That is how it had happened, and we had that awful 2015 hump.

Then you also look at the fact that, because of the pandemic, more people are staying in. These are the things that always happen in the training system—they do. Different things impact it. There are just periods where everybody wants to go to the airlines and then suddenly the Air Force has a complete nightmare. I would say we are heading in the right direction, but the figures I can see here are not enough for me to really tell you 100%, and that is why I am saying there are more questions for you to answer.

Q76            Mr Francois: Is the jury still out?

Dr Antrobus: Yes, but I would have expected it to be out, given that it was 2019 when Ben Wallace gave that priority to the Chief of the Air Staff. Given that we are in 2022 just following a pandemic, my guess would always be that the jury would still be out.

Q77            Dave Doogan: Justin, you put something in my mind there when you were talking about the ground crews’ workarounds and such like. We talked earlier about how, in technical and capability terms, you can do much more with fewer aircraft. That is not very helpful when your aircraft are getting blown up on the apron by a very capable force because, if you lose two aircraft and that is 10% or 2% of your fleet, you cannot argue with the maths there.

Similarly, when things turn busy, aircraft are often operationally available because of robbery action on other aircraft. If you have fewer aircraft to rob, you are not going to have that operational availability. Is that a fair enough assessment?

Justin Bronk: Certainly, the smaller your fleet, the lower your opportunity for cannibalisation, although rates of cannibalisation generally indicate serious problems in the force anyway.

Notably, as I understand it right now, one of the key things that would be good to try to fix if we could is a backlog in servicing ejector seats. I do not know about at the moment but, for example, the last time I saw, because of customs-related difficulties around key components getting in on time, there was a backlog in the seats that was almost impossible to catch up on with the pipeline as it was. They were not having to cannibalise aeroplanes but having to pull the ejector seats out of perfectly serviceable ones to put them in others so they had certified seats ready to go. That means you have to pull the canopy offit is actually quite a serious thing to do.

Again, it is one of those things. Efficiency has been the watchword for such a long time. Efficiency means just-in-time and lean supply chains optimised for peacetime demand. War is an inherently inefficient business, so it is worth noting that efficiency in a military context is almost always a byword for fragility.

Chair: Thank you. I am reminded of that Independence Day film when they had to lean on crop-duster pilots to pilot the F6s. We always have that.

Richard Drax: There is always Maverick.

Chair: Can I thank Sophy and Justin? It has been a phenomenal session. We really appreciate your time this afternoon helping us to understand aviation procurement. Thank you very much indeed. That brings to a close this session of the Defence Select Committee.