Comment from the Telegraph. At least one vote for Tempest vs a warmed up Typhoon.
Ukraine shows that Britain needs fighter jets more than ever
Ukraine and China show that airpower is still unmatched. If you want peace – prepare for war
‘If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war, and we lose it quickly.” Zelensky’s desperate pleas for military support show that General Montgomery’s words, uttered 80 years ago, are as relevant as ever.
In modern Britain, this is easily forgotten. Air war is a type of conflict that is rarely seen first-hand. It embodies the extremes of modern warfare: high-tech equipment, supersonic speeds, and devastating precision weaponry. But the activity mostly occurs on secret radar screens, or hidden above the clouds, or analysed imperfectly through the dusty haze of an airstrike.
Defence issues are frequently taken for granted. Outside of stuffy lectures in military colleges, Air Forces are not good at explaining their role, or the timescales and efforts required to set the conditions for success.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is being hammered daily by air attack. In October the Israeli Iron Dome was saturated by over 5,000 simultaneous Hamas rockets and missiles. In the Red Sea Houthi rebels are firing missiles at international shipping. In these places, it is understood that airpower has to set the conditions in order for the other arms to thrive.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Ukraine, where the ongoing horror of Russian Flanker jets pounding glide bombs into Ukrainian troops, who are hunkering eye deep in frozen trenches, reveals a sickening contrast between modern warfare and an ancient defensive strategy. Despite the hopes offered by air defence missiles and budget drones, Russian airpower retains the upper hand.
Drones – however compelling – cannot stop Flankers. Ukrainian air defences can only push so far towards the threat. Portable systems are short range, and long-range Patriots are expensive strategic assets that cannot be lost. The Flankers can release their glide weapons just outside of these system’s ranges with near impunity.
Without mastery of the air environment, to quote Air Marshal Edward Stringer, we are asking Ukraine “to fight in a way that we would not, and take casualties we would not.”
There is a lesson here for Britain. Russian air defences, including the modern S-400 systems, are not impenetrable. Wars are often won not on the frontlines, but in the deep, dictated by supply lines and the ability to apply mass to a given point. Air forces excel in the sort of the complex targeting necessary to disrupt these.
Yet defence cuts have left UK combat air spread extremely thin, and we have a clear problem of mass. The 33 fighter squadrons we had available in 1991 have been reduced to just eight.
British Typhoons are currently engaged on UK Quick Reaction Alert 24/7, patrolling the eastern flank of Nato, shepherding intelligence aircraft that have been shot at by the Russians, and sustaining continuous operations over Iraq and Syria. Squadrons roll weekly from one, to the other, to the next.
Investment in capabilities is needed. If Russia was the wake-up call to the West to pay attention to the state of airpower, China is the rising threat that poses an even greater challenge. Brinkmanship in the Indo-Pacific can seem distant to London, but as we’ve seen in the Red Sea the economic cost of disruption can be considerable. Given the timelines involved, we need to start building forces now.
We’ve made an excellent start with the Global Combat Air Programme, headquartered in the UK, that will see the development of a 6th generation combat aircraft with Japan and Italy due to be fielded in 2035. The timeline seems depressingly optimistic, and the Ministry of Defence will almost inevitably need to work through the set of unforeseen and expensive setbacks accompanying any major defence project.
But if successful, the aircraft will be world-class, and give the UK a top-tier sovereign capability, matched only by the US, China and Russia. Fast jets frequently draw critical commentary from the armchair general brigade, nearly all of which is defeatist nonsense.
In 2023, Ukraine learnt brutally that Montgomery’s analysis of the ends of airpower remains intact. In 2024, it is up to us to provide the means for the RAF to operate at the top level – and set the conditions for our Armed Forces to succeed. While the next war may seem distant, this thinking – and spending – needs to be done ahead of time. As Ukraine has found to its cost, when the balloon goes up, it’s already too late.