Throughout our histories, the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force have been unrivaled partners. Our collaboration has been forged and renewed many times as we have confronted the dangers that have threatened our way of life and imperiled the freedom of people across the globe. Together, we have created the most feared and respected air forces in the world.
The collaboration we enjoy today is as strong as it has ever been; and it has never been more important, because these are challenging times. The international system that has existed since 1945—which we rely on for our security and prosperity—is being eroded by states like Russia, China and Iran, which are actively destabilizing the world order and challenging our security, stability, and prosperity.
We operate today in a state of constant competition and confrontation, with threats to our nations diversifying, proliferating, and intensifying rapidly. As the U.K.’s Chief of Defense Staff, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, remarked recently, “It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex, and more dynamic.”
The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, has remarked that the U.S. Air Force of 2030 will be in the fight with the Air Force that he and his team are building for them today. I am equally conscious of the imperative to prepare the Royal Air Force for the challenges in the decades to come, as well as ensuring our success on operations today.
Both our Air Forces recognize the added value each brings to our capability, efficiency, and lethality. Consequently, in 2018 our two Air Forces agreed on a shared vision statement, which recognized the need to integrate and cooperate more deeply than ever before. That is not to say that we were not already deeply and meaningfully connected—we were and have been (to ever-increasing degrees) since Billy Mitchell first met Hugh Trenchard at his headquarters in France in the spring of 1917.
Still, for today’s leaders, there is more to do, especially as we address a future in which potential adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are becoming more expeditionary in their outlook, more confident in their approach, and more dangerous in the capabilities they field.
It is the fight against violent extremism and the toxic ideology underpinning it that has set the context for operations in the 21st century so far. In that context, air and space power has been the critical enabler in tackling violent extremists across Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The streets of the U.K., the U.S., and our allies are safer as a result.
We have been able to achieve all of this because we have had almost complete control of air and space. But there is a risk of complacency about the freedom of maneuver that unchallenged control of the air has given us. Likewise, our undisturbed reliance on space has too often been taken for granted as a “free good.”
Why would we be concerned? The British armed forces have not suffered a loss to enemy air attack since 1982, and with our overwhelming reliance on space for just about everything we do in our day-to-day lives, are we too complacent about the disaster of losing services from space, even for a day?
Our potential adversaries have not been idle these last decades. They have watched us, and they have learned. Fifth-generation combat aircraft are no longer the sole preserve of our friends. Long-range, surface-to-air missile systems are becoming more capable and proliferating to proxy states, too. They are aggressively challenging us across multiple axes and through multiple domains, from sub-threshold threats in the gray zone of conflict to state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles—and from industrial-scale spam on social media to interference with our national interests in space.
Our potential adversaries are contesting our operating spaces across the board. Over Syria, we have been operating in close proximity to sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile systems and their latest combat aircraft, and in Europe the tentacles of Russian surface-to-air missile systems extend into the sovereign airspace of our allies. At the same time, Russian aircraft and maritime units operate routinely around the edges of our sovereign airspace and around our shores. So, as Airmen in particular, we need to remain as vigilant as ever, for as one of Britain’s greatest army generals, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, observed, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the whole war, and we lose it quickly.” Today, space is just as important.
As the U.K.’s Chief of the Air Staff, maintaining the RAF’s ability to secure control of air and space for all our operations at home and abroad is my foremost responsibility, ensuring we have the right equipment and the best people to do that.
The operation of cutting-edge aircraft such as the F-35B from our Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will ensure we remain the United States’ leading military ally. But of equal importance to equipment in maintaining our combat edge will be the ability to manage vast amounts of information and to make decisions more quickly and accurately.
The superiority of the decisions our people make will preserve our Air Forces’ decisive edge into the future, and with that, control of air and space. Underpinned by the principles of multi-domain command and control, information advantage will be a critical enabler of our future success. Speed is the real key here. So it is vital that our command and control systems are connected, networked, and resilient if we are to establish and maintain that advantage. Our shared vision statement recognizes these imperatives, with the aim of enhancing our ability to operate seamlessly and interchangeably as a single force—or alongside each other—as the situation dictates.
The F-35 Lightning II is the trailblazer in this regard. Already paying dividends is the close relationship between Royal Air Force Marham in eastern England, where the RAF’s Lightning Force is based, and nearby Royal Air Force Lakenheath, which will be home to all the U.S. Air Force F-35s in Europe beginning in 2021. In October 2019, the U.K.’s first operational F-35B Squadron (No. 617 Squadron of Dambusters fame in World War II) embarked in HMS Queen Elizabeth for operational trials, off the east coast of the United States. We will integrate evermore closely with the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, the latter of which will operate side-by-side on our new carriers. But integration goes much further than simply being able to operate in the same piece of sky or from the same carrier deck. The real challenge is ensuring that our information systems, data links, tactics, and logistical systems are all aligned.
We have driven forward fourth- and fifth-generation integration through the Point Blank series of exercises that involve RAF F-35s and Typhoons, and USAF F-15s and F-35s. Back in July, our F-35s exercised with B-2 Spirit bombers during their deployment to Royal Air Force Fairford in England—the first international fifth-generation training of its kind. We have hot-pitted and cross-serviced visiting F-35 fighter squadrons, just like the old Ample Gain exercises we conducted as NATO partners in Germany before the end of the Cold War.
Our ambition doesn’t stop there. The ability to share data and forge deeper interoperability across data link networks has to reach the point where U.S. and U.K. F-35s are interchangeable in a four-ship formation, where our synthetic environments are fully connected to allow relevant collective training, and where follow-on operational test and evaluation is optimized to get enhancements to our warfighters as rapidly as possible.
The Next Frontier
Naturally, the benefits of collaboration and integration extend well beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and the virtues of cooperation in the ultimate vital high ground of space is inarguable, in my opinion. No nation—not even the U.S., dare I say—can work alone in space, so the imperative to work multilaterally is arguably greater in this expanding operational domain than anywhere else. The RAF and USAF have been working together in space for over 50 years, and we have taken great strides in recent years to expand our combined efforts. This reflects the reliance we share on space for all our military activities, but it also recognizes the threats to our national interests there.
Building on several years of commitment to the Combined Space Operations initiative, the RAF is now a key member of the U.S.-led multinational Space Coalition under operation Olympic Defender, giving us the opportunity to provide additional staff to the Combined Space Operations Center [CSpOC], to include key leadership roles. In October 2019, an RAF group captain (O-6) was appointed as a CSpOC deputy director, a move that testifies to the enormous trust the USAF and U.S. Space Command are placing in the RAF.
Both of our countries recognize the need to generate and, if necessary, replace space vehicles quickly and cheaply if we are to improve the resilience of our space-based capabilities and respond swiftly to operational demands. Under the Royal Air Force’s Project ARTEMIS (not to be confused with NASA’s lunar program), we are developing the military utility of small satellites as operationally responsive space capabilities with the aim of getting the best information as quickly as possible to the warfighter, whether on land, at sea, or in the air.
Project ARTEMIS builds on the success last year of our Carbonite-2 small satellite, which was the first satellite in low-earth orbit capable of downloading full-motion color video in real time. This project was just as much a triumph of process as it was a technological one—program initiation to launch in nine months—and we are expanding the novel approaches developed by the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office to deliver aircraft and systems across our portfolio quicker, cheaper, and better than ever before. We are vigorously exploiting these principles in the development of our next-generation combat aircraft, the Tempest.
Our collaboration in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sphere is especially noteworthy, because it exemplifies the integration that exists between our two countries. The RC-135 Rivet Joint is a case in point. At our bases in the U.K., in the U.S., and on operations elsewhere around the globe, the seamless integration of our crews, aircraft, and systems is a genuine force multiplier. Added to this is the exceptionally close relationship which our MQ-9 Reaper forces have enjoyed, paving the way for the RAF’s new Protector Remotely Piloted Air System, the lead derivative of General Atomics’ SkyGuardian. It will provide the RAF with a remotely piloted air system that can operate worldwide for up to 40 hours in unsegregated airspace.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the extremely close relationship we have developed with the U.S. Navy, whose unstinting support has been the critical factor in helping the RAF regenerate its maritime patrol capability. We could not have asked for more, nor learned more, in preparation for the receipt of our first P-8 Poseidon on Oct. 30, 2019.
In this article, I have only scratched the surface regarding the extent and depth of the cooperation between our two countries, and especially between the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force. But let me make myself clear: It is one of my key goals to reinforce and expand our cooperation and integration over the next three years, building on the solid foundations we have constructed together in peace and war over the past century.
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston is Chief of the Air Staff in the Royal Air Force. A career Tornado pilot, he has served as the Chief of Combat Operations in the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar; as Commander of No. 903 Expeditionary Air Wing at Basra International Airport, Iraq; and as Director of Air Operations in Headquarters ISAF Joint Command in Afghanistan. This article is adapted from an October 2019 address at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.