Britain's Air and Space Power in a Changing World

Published on 28th July 2020

The global picture has changed. Threats are coming from all different angles. Nor are they necessarily hard power dangers. Today we’re facing Coronavirus…tomorrow it could be a high-level cyber strike. It’s clear the binary distinctions between war and peace have disappeared. Our adversaries now wear many masks. They know we’re dependent on IT. They know that Information Advantage is key. They know globalisation makes us more vulnerable. So there’s a danger our competitors will use proxies and new technologies to outflank us

For too many years we simply sat back admiring the problem of hostile states and other actors outmanoeuvring us below the threshold of conventional conflict, instead of making the tough choices necessary to unmask and counter our opponents in the interests of promoting our national peace, purpose, and prosperity.

But we cannot pick and choose isolated battles any longer. We cannot be focused on fighting the last war. Instead, Global Britain must step in in an increasingly unstable world of constant competition.

That means asking ourselves what the air and space environment of 2030, 2040 or even 2050 will look like. How will we operate? How will we fight? What are the attitudes? What are the ranges? What are the altitudes? What are sunset and sunrise capabilities that we need in the battle-space of tomorrow? What will be the role of our aircraft? More particularly what will the role of our air and space forces be in the world of constant competition?

We need to think carefully about the threats and opportunities we face in the new domains of warfare, such as cyber, a theme that runs right through this conference.

We need to look at the lessons of others. Look how Turkey has been operating in Libya where it has used Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs since mid-2019. Those UAVs have conducted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and targeting operations against frontlines, supply lines and logistics bases. In July last year they struck the Libyan National Army controlled Jufrah airfield destroying several command and control nodes as well as two transport aircraft.

Or consider Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its use of Electronic Warfare (EW), lightly-armed drones and smart ammunition to stop tanks, armoured cars and air defence systems in their tracks. According to reports, Assad regime suffered heavy losses “3000 soldiers, 151 tanks, eight helicopters, three drones, three fighter jets vehicles and trucks, eight aerial defense systems…and one headquarters, among other military equipment and facilities.” Even if only half of these claims are true the implications are game changing.

Similarly, consider Russian activity in the Ukraine where according to open source they’ve used electronic warfare to jam enemy communications locate and target troops with artillery, turn Ukrainian tech against their own operators, and sent out false GPS and even used psychological warfare by sending texts to individual Ukrainian soldiers.

Even in the midst of Covid, our adversaries have continued using social media tools to spread malicious misinformation and muddy the narrative.

If we’re to attain information advantage we must work out how we can be as nimble as our rivals.

Acting at pace in an era when disruptive capability is advancing exponentially through the aggressive application of machine learning, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

That’s why we’ve just signed a £65m contract for the production of our first ground-breaking Protector aircraft. It’s a major gear shift, replacing Reaper with Protector, a remotely piloted aircraft with an incredible endurance which will give us global reach. It is due to be in service by 2024.

As we look towards tomorrow we must also understand the new parameters we’re operating in. What is the philosophy of this new battle-space? The doctrine of these new domains is embryonic and evolving rapidly. So what are the new rules? What sort of kit will we need? What sort of people do we require? What should our aspirations be?

Our opponents are constantly seeking to go higher, faster and further. We know they’ve got thermobaric weapons. We know they are developing hypersonic glide vehicles. We know UAVs and deep strike pose us a lethal threat, however, dispersed your forces are. We know increasing numbers of actors have the ability to hit us with precision and at range.

And we know, all the while, that Russia and China are developing offensive weapons in space, a major cause for concern given that satellites don’t just provide our global communications, critical intelligence, and surveillance and navigation. But underpin our critical national infrastructure, from mobile phones to cashpoint to the stock market. That’s why, in the future, what’s above you will be often more important than what’s in front of you. So hiding and finding will be at the centre of tomorrow’s battlefield. If you can be found, you can be killed.

To return to my theme of hiding and finding. If you can’t find your opponent whether in the physical world or in cyber space,it’s no good. If you can’t hide up in the air, it’s no good. But if you can do both you’ll win.

I see this as a unique moment to repurpose UK Armed Forces and the RAF for an era of constant competition. An opportunity to ensure future structures and capabilities are relevant and sustainable in a security environment that demands proactive, campaigning mindsets.

That demands we deter threats and size opportunities every single day instead of holding capabilities in readiness for a ‘rainy day.’

We need to do things differently, moving on from a joint force to an integrated force, with every asset and capability we have, seamlessly, in real time, with our partners and allies, to hold our adversaries to risk.

I have a vision of UK Defence, where we’re able to join the dots between space, air, surface and sub-surface, so that the sum of the parts means much more than the value of the individual parts, and where we can do this in real time at the time and place of our choosing. That requires a rebalancing from Industrial Age to Information Age capabilities – investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy – coupled with their integration with the best of what already exists.

By The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP 
UK Defence Secretary


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