RAF unleashed

Dec 3, 2015

Shaping the Future of a Key European Strike Force

The Russian intervention in Syria started the process of a strategic reset in Syria and the fight against ISIS. Next up, was the power projection attack of ISIS into Paris. Then French strikes, coordinated with Russia, into Syria against ISIS. Next was the Turkish shoot down of a Russian aircraft, which the President of Turkey unapologetically took full responsibility for having authorized.

Yesterday, the Russians provided a very public presentation on how Turkey is supporting ISIS, notably through the oil trade. Then the British government voted to strike ISIS in Syria, and the RAF was "unleashed", to use the words of a senior British government official. 

From Cyprus, the Royal Air Force struck ISIS oil facilities in Syria. In so doing, in the words of the British Defense Minister, struck against the pocketbook of a force that simply does not recognize boundaries. Notably, the British strike followed a rather complete Russian chronicling of the movement of oil from Syria to Turkey. 

It is clear that the British would not have conducted the strike without clarity with regard to deconfliction with Russian aircraft operating in Syria. And the way might well have been paved by Hollande who, as a result of his latest meeting with Putin, indicated that not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting was being established with the Russians despite differences with regard to the future of Syria, and European views on the future of Assad. The French and British are acting on the assumption that 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

In contrast, from the U.S. President we continue to get a slow roll on strikes, which have been characterized by Lt. General (Retired) Deptula as an airpower drizzle. While the President argues that we needed better intelligence to strike against ISIS, the British had the intelligence to strike them where it hurts, namely in their pocketbooks.

The strike by the RAF from Cyprus with Tornados was conduced after an authorizing vote in the Parliament shortly before the strikes were set in motion. The British government clearly saw the strike as an important action in the war against ISIS, including in terms of the ongoing information war with the terrorists.  The British press had photos and reports from Cyprus of the strikes and photos surrounding the RAF base in Lossiemouth, Scotland, the launching of Tornados and Typhoons to deploy to Cyprus for the fight against Isis.

Frankly, I have never seen such wide coverage of a strike in the British press prior to this from the usually secretive British government. The British government decided to engage ISIS with a clear public statement, including clearly identifying the threat as both internal and external. And would undoubtedly be linked to UK internal security efforts as well as the tightening of EU approaches as well.

The package sent by the RAF was indicative of their way ahead.

“Overnight, RAF Tornado GR4s, supported by a Voyager air refuelling tanker and a Reaper, and operating in conjunction with other coalition aircraft, employed Paveway IV guided bombs to conduct strikes against six targets within the extensive oilfield at Omar, 35 miles inside Syria’s eastern border with Iraq,” read a statement from the British Government.


The recent UK Strategic and Defense Review certainly highlighted the importance of better funding for the RAF as it is modernized. The 'strategic holiday' seems over in Britain, and the RAF is a clear beneficiary. In addition to a full buy of F-35s, the Typhoon has a sensible, funded roadmap to 2040. 


In part, the RAF is being better funded because of the obvious relevance of airpower to global threats; and in part because it has a sensible template for modernization. 

The RAF is undergoing two fighter aircraft transitions at the same time. On the one hand, the Tornado is being retired and the Typhoon is subsuming its missions. On the other hand, the F-35B is coming to the fleet and will be working with the Typhoon for the period ahead.

These are three very different aircraft built in different periods of aviation history.

The venerable Tornado has seen a significant evolution over its time; from its initial use as an ultra low-level nuclear and unguided weapons bomber to an ISR-enabled precision strike and close support aircraft.

The Typhoon entered the RAF more than a decade ago as a classic air superiority fighter, but is now being asked to expand its effects and to subsume the Tornado missions.

The F-35B is entering the fleet as the Typhoon is making this transition.

This will mean that the RAF will be managing a double transition – Typhoon becoming multi-role and the F-35B operating off of land or ships to provide the fifth generation capability to the evolving RAF strike force.

The current crisis response for this urgency will have more effective capabilities available to it as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force modernize. Or in other words, today’s strike validates the RAF modernization strategy.

My visit earlier this year to HMS Queen Elizabeth, the aircraft carrier being built in Scotland, and interviews with the Royal Navy and RAF, anticipated the current event and are incorporated in their thinking about the possible evolution of concepts of operations.


The F-35B launched from the carriers is part of the picture; the very significant C2 capabilities aboard the ship are another. With the carrier afloat, the RAF is looking to build synergy among the various land-based and carrier-based aircraft to generate combat effects.

As an RN officer put it: “The strike force could be commanded from the ship, from the ground or from the air. We are building flexible C2 in order to get maximum combat value from aircraft launched from the carrier.”

The F-35B as a flying combat system, capable of integrated air operations with every other F-35 flying in the combat area is a significant foundation for shaping what the Queen Elizabeth will do in combat.

The reach of the F-35Bs coming off of the Queen Elizabeth will be expanded by the range of the operational fleet of other F-35s and the data grid generated over the expanded battle space.

And leveraging what Typhoons will be able to do as they undergo their current weapons modernization program will only enhance the strike effects of an integrated air-sea combat air force.

Projected forward in time, one can envisage how this might operate. The Queen Elizabeth is in the Eastern Mediterranean and, with its integration with the other F-35Bs aboard USN-USM or Italian ships, the data coverage would be significant.

The Typhoons operating in Cyprus would have a forward controller and defense shield as well as with the F-35Bs target acquisition elements. The Typhoons could operate with “greater survivability and lethality,” as one RAF officer put it.


Fortune favors the prepared. Much like in the preparation for the Battle of Britain, the RAF is planning for tomorrow’s contingencies. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was the architect of the approach that would defeat the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. He is most remembered for his unwelcome task of telling Prime Minister Churchill that no more fighters would go to France to get destroyed in a losing cause; rather, they needed to be husbanded for the coming conflict, which would later be known as the Battle of Britain.

What Dowding understood, and the politicians did not, was that the con-ops shaped by design was crucial to mission success; and the fighters were the tip of the sword, not just silver bullets to be chewed up in fighter versus fighter battles.

Those fighters would be needed to kill bombers, primarily, and fighters, and they would operate from British soil and operate within a very clear strategic context, one that brought together elements of new technologies, and new ways of operating which had not yet been tested in battle.


Perhaps by chance, perhaps by fate, the new CO of RAF Lossiemouth, from which the Tornados and Typhoons launched today to join their mates on Cyprus, is a Typhoon and Spitfire pilot, who also has been a key officer in the F-35 transition. Fortune favors the prepared.