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The Thin Sky Blue Line

british military
Written by Adrian Hill

The dangers, our needs, and the technology are changing fast, and the potential costs are huge. How should we provide for this essential aspect of our security?

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I Our Needs

A helping of luck comes in handy when shaping one’s defences against a potential enemy of unknown speed, agility, ceiling, range and navigation skills. After the Geddes Axe in 1923 ludicrously reduced our fighter squadrons the Air Staff sat down to decide how they could defend the United Kingdom from air attack. Germany was disarmed therefore, logically, the only country close enough to attack us from the air was France. A line of fighter airfields across southern and eastern England to defend London, Portsmouth, Chatham and the south coast was just about affordable. This was done with grass airfields and biplane fighters patrolling in daylight. None who made that decision foresaw Dunkirk or an air battle above southern Britain fought against a victorious Luftwaffe based along the French coast. Thanks to a perverse whim of that fickle mythical lady, when summer 1940 came all our fighter airfields were in the right place –– equipped only just in time with radar and fighter control along with high speed monoplane fighters armed with machine gun batteries in their wings, moreover courageous pilots and ground crews who fought and won the actual battle.

We face challenges and choices of similar time scale and gravity today. Only we can decide how much money we spend on our safety and our ability to influence other parts of the planet. Our diplomacy has far more impact when our defences are global and strong. During the Cold War this country invested more than 5% of our annual GDP in our Armed Forces – in today’s money that’s £ 100 billions a year, not far short of three times what we presently spend. Unless we take our defence forces seriously, we won’t survive as a free people, let alone restore strategic air power above anywhere on the planet. Not all the time but air supremacy sometimes, where and when we want it.

Our suburban politicians don’t care much about the defence of the realm until they’re facing the voters, or an invasion. The wheel of fortune has a nasty habit of catching them with trousers down. Not quite fifty years after the P 1154 project was cancelled, 17 Reserve Squadron RAF formed – at Edwards Air Force Base in California – with the first RN and RAF trainee pilots for several brand new supersonic jump-jets. The F 35 B Lightning II[1]  enjoys huge advances over its cancelled 1960s predecessor, not least stealth and a ferry range of 1700 miles and combat range of 800 miles on internal fuel, almost enough to take off from Lincolnshire and fly to Moscow and back. Stealth missions require a clean fuselage – no weapons and fuel tanks hanging under the wings. Artificial Intelligence may change this by allowing the aircraft to carry drones and smart weapons below the wings for launch well ahead of hostile air space.

The combined order of F 35s proposed for both services is 138 aircraft.[2] This does not seem enough – given that each super-carrier is designed to carry an air wing of 24 to 36 fighters plus up to 14 helicopters and has enough room for a surge compliment of up to 65 aircraft. In other words both carriers together could accommodate the whole F 35 fleet. I would have thought that the Royal Navy should order at least 80 plus aircraft and the Royal Air Force at least 150 plus for its own squadrons. The RAF would provide the surge squadrons for both super-carriers along with the US Marine Corps. The latter, however, bring with them Aegis destroyers able to shoot down ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

Originally the RAF planned a Eurofighter Typhoon[3]  fleet of 232 aircraft. Following total orders of 160 aircraft over the last twenty years, the RAF has a fleet of just over 100 operational aircraft fitted out for multi-role duties.[4] Typhoon began life as an air superiority fighter. A quarter of a century of low intensity warfare from Syria to the Hindu Kush gradually led to an interceptor becoming a ground attack aircraft that can look after itself. Today the pendulum is swinging back, great power clashes once more a potential risk. Typhoon was a product designed and built before stealth technology, quantum computers and drones and although modernised for on-line command and control of weapons in flight, cannot carry the same payload as the new Lightning nor slip through hostile defences.

If all runs to plan, the RAF’s next combat aircraft, sixth generation Tempest, comes into service from 2035 to replace the Typhoon. This is a long gap where the RAF has fifth generation Lightnings for air strikes but up-graded fourth generation Typhoons for air defence.[5] Tempest’s flying performance may offer incremental rather than dramatic improvements on that of Typhoon; the big changes will be found in the materials and design that provide its stealth, on board computing performance, merging cockpit and helmet into one, fuel efficiency thus much longer range, its communications electronics and firepower including direct energy weapons and drones. Tempest may well reflect many of the ideas that follow below.

Fellow taxpayers, this is our fighter and we should ask questions. Starting with whether the flying performance is ambitious enough when the rival Russian MIG 41 aims to cruise along the edge of space. In an interview for Russia Today, the Director General of RSK MiG, Ilya Tarasenko, speculated that it would be a new construction capable of Mach 4–4.3, equipped with an anti-missile laser, able to operate at very high altitudes and even in near space. The aircraft may cruise at speeds of at least Mach 3 (3,675 km/h; 2,284 mph) and fly at high altitudes to cover the most possible of Russia’s very large territory in the shortest time. A variant of the Izdeliye 30 engines currently under development for the Su-57 might be chosen and the aircraft will use stealth technology. Tarasenko also stated that it could enter service in 2025 and an unmanned version developed later.

II  how Are the Us Air Force Meeting This Challenge?

Three years ago Air Power magazine put it this way……

‘Every aircraft sitting on an Air Force ramp today was designed before the smart phone revolutionised the world through redefining the way in which people gather, process and share information. These same trends have had a profound impact on modern combat operations.

Just as a landline is of increasingly diminishing value, ( I don’t buy this entirely – I’m using one right now, globally if via satellites, while the phone company are busy laying fibre optic cables all round the village.) one way or another, so are the vast percentage of aircraft that currently comprise the US Air Force’s fighter aircraft inventory. With the F-22 and F-35 standing out as exceptions, over 80 percent of the service’s fighter aircraft are based upon designs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is precisely why Air Force leaders in written testimony to Congress explained that “to meet emerging worldwide threats across the spectrum of conflict … the cornerstone of the Air Force [must be a] shift from 4th/5th-generation to a 5th/6th-generation fleet.”

This looks as though it’s happening. The next bomber on the drawing board, Northrop Grumman’s B 21 Raider, is an advanced, very long-range, large, heavy-payload, stealth, intercontinental strategic bomber, able to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons. The USAF is talking about at least 100, possibly 145 aircraft. Almost more interesting the US Air Force is planning to acquire a new long-range fighter, known as “Penetrating Counter-Air” that would accompany the B-21 Raider deep into enemy territory. Few details are known of the new fighter, neither whether it will need a pilot, nor how it would help the bomber survive enemy air defences. Possibly it’s a modern version of the Mustang, that Anglo-American fighter with the performance of a Spitfire and the range of a B 17 Flying Fortress.

Although designs are still at an early stage, some distinct characteristics may become common to most sixth-generation fighters. Today’s fifth-generation abilities for air-to-air combat and survival against area access denial defences need to be enhanced and adapted to overcome the future threat environment. An initial focus on air superiority has moved away from close-in dog fighting – though who knows – and instead broadened to embrace ground support, cyber warfare and even space warfare capabilities, with beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile capability remaining important. The flexibility to undertake manned and unmanned missions is also sought, along with the ability to integrate with more numerous fleets of satellite drones and ground sensors in a high-traffic networked environment to deliver full “data-to-decision” (D2D) capability. Perhaps we should add to this list direct energy weapons, fleets of escorting drones as wingmen or indeed as BVR or air to ground ordinance. All of which makes it essential that British and US aircraft know exactly where they are from the same Global Positioning System and talk to each other and exchange accurate information seamlessly with everyone on the secure network.

Some design characteristics pursued to deliver these roles include:

  • Advanced digital capabilities including high-capacity networking, AI, data fusion, cyber warfare, D2D and battlefield Command, Control and Communications (C3) capabilities.
  • Optionally manned, with the same airframe capable of conducting piloted, remote controlled or onboard-AI controlled missions.
  • Enhanced human-systems integration, with virtual cockpits presented via helmet displays which allow the pilot 360-degree vision with AI-enhanced battlefield awareness, and replacing conventional instrument panels.
  • Advanced stealth airframes and avionics.
  • Advanced variable-cycle engines able to cruise economically but still deliver high thrust when required.
  • Increased-range stand off and Beyond Visual Range weapons.
  • Potential use of directed-energy-weapons such as a laser Close-In Weapon System.

The feasibility of some of these ideas is still foggy. Development time and cost will likely prove major factors when deciding the best routes forward, those practical roadmaps in the professional jargon. Specific requirements should become clearer over the next five years.

Where does all this leave the RAF?

III  Spreading the Risk

Jump-jets allow widespread dispersal. That’s a huge advantage in this age of smart weapons, quantum computers and drones. There is an obvious way of increasing the F 35’s range – put the fighters on an aircraft carrier that can sail anywhere on the planet where the sea reaches and is deep enough. Straight away that allows our F 35 fleet to cover a huge proportion of the globe. Mind, reduced radar cross section was a feature of the Avro Vulcan bomber which flew higher than contemporary fighters and missiles both could reach – an example of how advanced British aviation was sixty years ago, and a reminder that we should have had more confidence in ourselves. We might even disperse the F 35s as we did Vulcans and base a couple of squadrons at RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus. That puts the Crimea within range and much of the Near East. Yet, there are other ways to increase range, and if the Americans think their long range stealth bombers need stealth fighter escorts, should the RAF go for multi-task aircraft that operate on the edge of space?

As are the Russians.

Artificial Intelligence lends itself to air combat almost more than it does for the other two elements – sea and land. Instead of a small number of costly multi task platforms, AI allows the task and risk to be shared among many independent and cheaper platforms, sometimes significantly cheaper. A good example is AWACS – Airborne Warning and Control System. Presently this task is carried out by big vulnerable aircraft that require a large crew of highly skilled specialists staring at screens to carry out their mission. Hostile nations such as China and Russia design and build long range, extremely fast and agile SAMs to shoot down AWACs aircraft and thus deny US, UK and allied forces an accurate picture of a tactical situation – in other words, leave us blind, deaf and dumb with their opening shots.

Suppose these scouting and command jobs were taken over by dozens of clever drones. The F 35 has been designed with the potential of AI very much in mind. Tempest is being designed – one prays – as a sixth generation fighter to exploit all the possibilities opened up by modern electronics and AI is just one of them. All those cunning drones could take the brunt of future air combat. What sort of drones could escort our F 35s – or more advanced aircraft such as Tempest – on missions into hostile air space?

A contract recently was awarded to Spirit Aerosystems of Belfast to develop Mosquito – a prototype for the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) concept which looks to offer increased capability, protection, survivability and information when deployed alongside the RAF’s present combat aircraft, Typhoon and the F 35 Lightning II ( which is actually Lightning III for the RAF). Spirit Aerosystems are designing Mosquito to survive and fight in air combat and survive SAMs. It might even provide an un-crewed combat air ‘fleet’ in the future. This innovative concept also aims to deliver dramatic reductions in traditional cost and development timelines for combat air systems. The aim is a first flight in late 2023.

“We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and un-crewed fighter aircraft like Mosquito, alongside piloted fighters like Tempest, that will transform the combat battle space in a way not seen since the advent of the jet age,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, said in a press statement.

Another taxpayers’ question – as well as reviving all these famous Second World War aircraft names, are the air marshals thinking far and wide enough ahead?

In recent wars, US heavy bombers played vital roles, reaffirming the value of aircraft that can deliver huge payloads, cover long distances, strike with precision and yet loiter over a battlefield for extended periods. Since as long ago as 2004 the US Air Force has wanted more of this long-range strike capability, and moved to obtain it. The USAF has gone far beyond its former roadmap for sustaining bomber forces. That plan, hammered out during the Clinton Administration, would have delayed the fielding of any new long-range strike system until the mid-2030s or beyond. For some time USAF leaders have been warning their nation can’t wait that long.

The once politically mocked B1 Lancer bomber has proved so useful that instead of scrapping half the fleet of 60 the USAF added more. Even the venerable B 52 keeps flying as a fleet. The spear point of the USAF is the B2 Stealth, a huge flying wing shaped like a boomerang that weighs 140 tons fully loaded and fuelled and has a range of nearly 7000 miles. With a single air refuel a B2 can fly half way round the world. Such was the cost that only 21 aircraft were built. And yet, today, the USAF is busy designing and building its replacement, the B 21 Raider, with at least 100 aircraft planned, probably 150 in the end. The intention is that the B 21 will replace all three current aircraft – the B 1, B 2 and venerable B 52. The latter has been in service since 1956 and its most recent improvement was to mount jamming equipment in the otherwise empty wing tip pods, thereby take advantage of the aircrafts’ enormous range and provide cyber support to stealth fighter missions. Imagine had the RAF done the same with those V bombers instead of relegating most of them as air tankers before scrapping the lot. Add to this Cameron’s Tory Government sawing up the Nimrod airframes and one wonders why the men in white coats – on behalf of us, the tax payers – have not quietly taken away a large army of arrogant, mind bogglingly myopic British politicians.


The US Air Force says the Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD] programme exists to examine five major technologies that are likely to appear on future aircraft with the goal of enhancements in survivability, lethality, and persistence. The USAF has not specified exactly what four of those technologies are, so what can one assume, reasonably confidently? Moreover, although a prototype is flying, no photo has been released and I suspect that will remain the case for some time. China’s attempts at stealth aircraft look remarkably like the F22 Raptor and the F 35 Lightning. Revealing the new aircraft’s shape may give away too much too soon.

The single acknowledged NGAD related technology is propulsion. Over the past few years, the US Air Force has invested substantially in variable cycle engines. Other likely candidates include new aircraft shapes and kinds of stealth; advanced weapons, including directed energy; and thermal management. The current engine on the F-35 and variants expected to be on the B – 21 produce a tremendous amount of electrical power that can enable new weapons. That could require advanced techniques to manage generated heat, so it does not become part of the aircraft signature and make it easier to detect.

Is the goal of NGAD a new fighter? The technologies involved in NGAD are being developed to provide air dominance. Part of the programme’s goal is to determine how to achieve that end, independent of traditional ideas. NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and/or a number of complementary systems — manned, unmanned, optionally manned, cyber, electronic — forms that would not resemble the traditional “fighter.”

A large aircraft the size of a B – 21 may not manoeuvre like a fighter. But such a big aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon, with multiple engines making substantial electrical power for that weapon, could ensure that no enemy flies in a large amount of airspace. That’s air dominance, possibly air supremacy. There appears little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to out turn another plane — or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft. Imagine a super-sonic or even hypersonic V bomber armed with direct energy weapons and a squadron of drones as wingmen that can fire long range laser shots at the speed of light.

Other prototypes are flying or soon will. The X51 Wave Rider ramjet missile can already reach Mach 5 and could fly even faster. Australia’s Scramjet Space aircraft – Supersonic Combustible Ram Jet – is still on the drawing board though opens up a chance for Australia and Britain to revive our partnership for research and development projects at Woomera range in South Australia. The idea behind Scramjet is to stop the wasteful discarding of satellite launch rockets and instead fly satellites into space. That makes all manner of ideas feasible. Suppose we could build a hypersonic V bomber able to fly on the edge of space and faster than any SAMs or drones owned by the usual suspects?

No acquisition goal or fleet size has been suggested publicly for NGAD. Also, the air dominance role floated for NGAD is more in line with the current mission of the F -22 or F-15 than the F-35. These programmes all would have to fit within a US Air Force top line budget, which could lead to pressures to favour one programme over another in funding decisions. The F-35 programme is on the official record with funding projected for the next five years at least. The Air Force has not budged off its ultimate goal of 1,763 F -35s. Some of us would like to see our admiral and air marshals dig in their heels over numbers likewise with the same resolve as Oliver Twist over food.

V  Strategic Intervention

Air power makes rapid strategic moves possible. While the RAF needs some heavy lift and smaller helicopters to support its own business, I find it absurd that in the 21st century the RAF still provides all the Army’s heavy lift choppers. Compare this record with the American Army’s. All breeds of military helicopter have belonged among the normal TO&E (Table of Organisation & Equipment) of a US airmobile division since 1965 when the 11th Airborne Division was reformed as the 1st Air Cavalry Division. Shortly afterwards the 101st Airborne Division underwent the same conversion into an airmobile division. When I knew the 101st in Vietnam from 1969 -1971 the division held just short of 500 helicopters on its TO&E – from small observation helicopters through Cobra aerial artillery and Hueys as gunships and troop carriers to Chinooks and Sky Cranes for heavy loads.

Make the Army responsible for its own choppers from its own budget. Spend the RAF budget on aircraft with strategic range and tactical flying ability.

On this website is an article about the future British Army and strategic intervention is discussed. I have long been an advocate of lightweight armour, so light that three or four small tanks would fit on board a transport aircraft. Two years ago the USAF wanted to disband its last C 130 squadrons and replace them with C 17 squadrons. The USAF had to explain to the politicians there was no longer a production line! Therefore my vision of the next generation of a combined strategic and tactical transport aircraft is another on the lines of the C 17 but with the ability to take advantage of whatever NGAD offers – including airborne NGAD escorts when delivering airborne or conventional ground forces. Let’s just consider two next generation transport aircraft ideas, vastly improved fuel economy and greater range through the aircraft shape and where the engines sit.

The 21st century’s buzz design, originally championed by Fred Nordmann in the 1940s, arguably today flies as the B 2. Nordmann’s ideas were used by Airbus for their big 380 airliner. Lockheed Martin have been working on a design for several years – called the Hybrid Wing Body ( HWB ) concept – that will carry all the outsize cargo that fits inside a huge C5 Galaxy while burning 70% less fuel. Over-wing nacelles allow large diameter, fuel-efficient, very high bi-pass engines. Retaining a tail adds 5% drag (over-wing engines reduce drag by 5%!)  though having a tail adds a lot of stability. Unlike a pure flying-wing aircraft such as the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the HWB does not rely on any advanced control effectors, such as thrust vectoring, to maintain stability. In other words, it’s designed to fly just like a normal aircraft using aileron, elevator and rudder.

In addition to the low-speed tests that were conducted on a model version, Lockheed also tested a heavy metal half-span model designed to withstand transonic speeds. With its flying wing shape the full sized HWB will be quite a large aircraft and give the headroom needed for military loads such as artillery, lightweight tanks and other armour. If all goes smoothly during the model flight tests, we just might see Lockheed lay out some plans for the development of a full-sized airlifter.

Such an aircraft will also make a useful maritime patrol or AWACs aircraft to control all those clever drones mentioned earlier, searching the seas for submarines and their escorting under water drone fleets. And, one hopes, sorting out China’s hundreds of militia fishing boats harassing the smaller navies of our allies in the South China Sea.

Boeing also have been testing a tail-less version of HWB for the USAF with the target of 30% fuel saving. Take note fellow Brits that both X-48B and X48C technology demonstration model aircraft were built to Boeing’s specifications by Cranfield Aerospace in the United Kingdom. Cranfield has done more research on HWB designs than most institutions, governments and aircraft builders. One of the most informative papers on HWB is by Toshihiro Ikeda as his thesis at Cranfield.


No question, wizard’s tricks are on the drawing board that we mere mortals can only imagine. Fake aircraft and drones to overwhelm the opposing air defences offer an obvious start. For I have every confidence that the country that invented radar, sonar, cyber warfare, television and the movies will rise to the challenge.

Adrian Hill is a former soldier and diplomat who is a regular contributor to BfB

Appendix:  How Long Will the Bombers Last?

The B-1 flies low-level, high-speed missions which take a physical toll on the airplane.  Based on continued rough usage, and gauging the rate at which B-1s have been lost in peacetime training, USAF expected the B-1 fleet to dip below a minimum-required level of 89 aircraft in 2018. The overall fleet will wear out in 2038.

No B-2s have been lost in accidents, so the Air Force guesses that its attrition rate will mirror that of the B-52, with one crash every 10 years. Based on that, as well as a design life of about 40,000 hours and a fairly benign flight profile, the B-2 fleet will likely drop below the minimum of 19 needed by 2027.

Most robust of the three bombers is the B-52, built at a time when little was known about aircraft life expectancy. To be safe, the B-52s were built to take twice the expected punishment. Now serving as a high-flying bomb truck, the B-52’s main limiting structure is the upper wing surface, which will give out sometime after 32,500 hours. Expected mishaps and fatigue will bring the B-52 fleet below the 62 required in about 2044. First built of the three, the B-52 will outlast its newer stable mates by up to 26 years, by Air Force reckoning.

The Air Force noted that the predictions for all three bombers will be affected by actual wartime usage, changes in tactics, unexpected technical problems, or changes in the threat.

Air Force Magazine June 1999.

[1] Lockheed Martin’s F 35 B is the STOVL – Short Take Off Vertical Landing version of the Lightning II fighter – designed for operating off aircraft carriers with no need for catapult assisted take offs. The Royal Navy invented the ski jump bow to assist take offs by such aircraft. They are not cheap – US $ 136 million each, roughly £ 100 millions. On the other hand, if one adds up the cost of a carrier and its escort including at least one nuclear patrol submarine, you won’t have much change from £ 12 billions – which is why David Cameron’s intervention to save US $ 15 millions per aircraft by ordering a less versatile version was not as clever as it looks on first sight. Fitting catapults to both aircraft carriers would have cost more than he saved.

[2] Total cost at least US $ 1.4 billions – presently £ 1 billion. Should the economy prosper the pound may rise in value. For example it’s still barely above half its value to the Swiss franc prior to the financial crash.

[3] The government originally ordered 232 Typhoons in the mid-1980s. That number has since been reduced by 72, but according to Channel 4 News in 2011, development and production costs had risen by a fifth to £20.2 billion, and support costs had also risen, according to the National Audit Office.  Altogether the NAO estimated that each individual aircraft cost £55 million – or 75 per cent – more expensive than planned and the total programme cost eventually will hit £37 billion

[4] Eurofighter – a consortium set up by the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain – presently sells its export version for US $ 124 million an aircraft, that’s about £ 80 million each.

[5] Generation of fighters? So far five have flown. The first were the original sub-sonic jets – Meteor, Vampire, Shooting Star. Second were the sound barrier breakers – Hunter, Sabre, Swift, Javelin, Scimitar, Mig 15. Third the early super-sonics:  the UK skipped the first phase – Super Sabre, Mig 19 – and went straight into the Mach 2 missile launching English Electric Lightning and the American McDonnell Douglas Phantom, both capable of twice the speed of sound. 74 Squadron flew Lightnings from Waterbeach before it became a science park. The fourth generation fighters had advanced avionics and limited stealth – F 16, Mig 29, Mirage 2000. Then there’s a 4.5 generation – F18, Su 390, Rafale, which the UK slipped and bought American to reach the Fifth generation – F 117 Nighthawk (pioneer aircraft), F 22 Raptor, F 35 Lightning II, SU 57 with even more advanced avionics and low observable stealth. The USAF also has the B1 bomber. Sixth generation projects are under way in the USA (developing the NGAD, B 21 and HWB), Russia, China, Japan, India, the UK and Europe. Britain, Italy and Sweden are working on the Tempest fighter. France and Germany with Spain are working on the Future Air Combat System, another fighter. American defence writers calculate that developing a sixth generation aircraft that combines stealth with integrated avionics – helmets combined with the controls and ability to control drones – won’t leave much change from US $70 billions, thus the cost for the EU project is probably double. The RAF may have saved a lot of money through Brexit!

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Adrian Hill