RAF cuts 'could make Britain's air space vulnerable to attack'
Cuts to the RAF could leave Britain unable mount proper air defence, counter threats from hostile states or conduct major foreign military campaigns, its senior officers have warned David Cameron.
In a private speech for MPs on Monday night, the RAF leadership challenged the Prime Minister’s criticism of "Cold War" fighter jets and questioned the decision to favour the Army in the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Whitehall sources say the intervention may have come too late. At a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday, the Navy won its battle for two new aircraft carriers. With the Army facing only modest cuts, the RAF is now in line to bear the brunt.
Plans to order 138 new F35 Joint Strike Fighters are set to be cut to around 50, and the RAF’s entire fleet of Tornadoes faces the axe after next week’s review. It would lead to the loss of RAF bases in Lossiemouth and Marham and of almost 5,000 personnel.
Monday’s speech was understood by the MPs present to have been written for Sir Stephen but delivered by Air Marshal Timo Anderson. However, the MoD later insisted that he had been speaking in place of, not on behalf of, Sir Stephen.
Amid growing fears for the RAF, several aspects of the Prime Minister’s analysis of future defence needs were rejected in the speech. Last week, Mr Cameron indicated the RAF would face deep cuts, saying: "We’ve got aeroplanes that are ready to do dog fights with the Soviet Union air force. That’s not right."
But Air Marshal Anderson, one of the most senior commanders in the RAF, said: "High-end air capabilities are not synonymous with Cold War ‘white elephants’".
In a strong defence of the RAF’s fleet of fast jets, his speech argued that the Quick Reaction Alert Force of Tornadoes and Typhoons was vital to national security "despite what amateur theorists might assert from their armchairs".
"Without such an air defence capability, the UK would not be able to guarantee security of its sovereign air space and we would be unable to respond effectively to a 9/11-style terrorist attack from the air."
Ministers have said that the Army should be shielded from the worst of the cuts while troops are in Afghanistan — Mr Cameron’s deadline for an Afghan withdrawal is 2015.
Air Marshal Anderson argued that the air force was at least as important to the Afghan campaign, describing it as "unquestionably the glue that holds the campaign together".
The RAF provides transport to Afghanistan, "tactical mobility within theatre" and "persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and direct support to ground forces in contact with the enemy", he said.
Mr Cameron has largely protected the Army and the review will mean a cut of only 5,000 from its 100,000 personnel, but the speech challenged this, suggesting that money would be better spent on aircraft than troops.
"Air power offers a highly scaleable and flexible political and military tool, whose use is often less expensive in terms of blood and treasure than the large-scale commitment of ground forces," he said.
He also pointed to the unpredictable nature of future threats and that potentially hostile nations were investing heavily in air forces.
"The high level of investment in high-end combat aircraft and air defence systems by, for example, Russia and China … indicates that the essential requirement for control of the air has not been lost on nations whose future interests and political orientation may not necessarily be well disposed to the UK."
The full extent of the cuts still hangs in the balance as Liam Fox battles George Osborne. The Chancellor is pressing for a 10 per cent cut in defence, while the Defence Secretary is arguing for around 4 per cent.
But as the defence review nears conclusion, substantial allowances have been made to the Navy, with much of the Fleet surviving significant cuts and the future of the two new aircraft carriers secured.
It is understood that the Navy will not suffer severe cuts to its surface fleet despite offering up to half of its warships to secure the carriers.
Ministers have indicated that one of Britain’s current fast jets, either Tornado – operated by the RAF – or Harrier – mostly operated by the Navy, faces immediate "deletion" in the defence review. The Navy’s successful defence of the £5.2billion carrier project has intensified RAF fears for the Tornado.
It is understood that axing the entire fleet of 120 GR4 Tornado fighter-bombers would save £7.5 billion over the next five years. Cutting the smaller Harrier fleet would save about £1billion.
Downing Street last night said that "good progress" was being made on agreeing the defence review, which will be published in two parts next week.
On Monday, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, will present a report from the National Security Council. On Tuesday, Mr Cameron will announce the details of the defence review.