In the previous part of this series, Humphrey looked at the proposals for what an independent Scottish Navy would look like, and whether it would be fit for purpose. His general conclusions were that any force would struggle to achieve the goals placed on it due to the lack of support, infrastructure, money and manpower. The next part of this series will focus on the proposals for the Air Force.
The current proposals seem somewhat vague – they seem to imply the acquisition of around 12 Typhoon jets for QRA and 6 C130 Hercules, presumably operating out of Lossiemouth and a helicopter squadron (type unknown) plus contributions to wider regional air defence and seeking fast jet training overseas. The assumption is that around 2000 personnel will be required for this task.
The first challenge is the Typhoon fleet and how it can be operated to best effect. QRA is a very expensive thing to do properly – its not just about having pilots based in a cockpit ready to take off. Setting up QRA is about having a Recognised Air Picture, a means of sharing information and communicating it to the airbase. It is about having the C2 links in place so that in the event of a scramble, the means exist for the senior decision taking Minister to be able to authorise a shoot down decision and then for the pilot to carry it out in an appropriate manner. This ability needs to be available 24/7/365 and is an onerous task on aircrew and support teams.
In the SDF the reality is that with only 12 jets available, their entire effort will be taken up doing QRA – assuming two training aircraft come over, this gives a squadron of 10 aircraft to generate 2 airframes on a constant basis. Take two out of the equation for servicing, two on the flight line and two being prepared to take over, and this leaves you with a flex of four aircraft to conduct all training and flying for the fleet.
The MOD currently estimates that Typhoon costs £70k per hour to fly (full costs), so assuming that it flies for 30 hours per airframe per month over a year (an averaged figure as there will be peaks and troughs), you suddenly realise that it would cost £2.1 million per month, £25 million per year to keep each aircraft going, or a total of nearly £300 million per year to ensure that two jets were constantly available for QRA. This is well over 10% of the putative budget. Add to this the operating costs of RAF Lossiemouth currently exceed £100m per year, and you realise that nearly 20% of the SDF budget is going to be taken up just to run QRA.
The next challenge is manpower and support. Finding the Typhoon pilots to join will be a headache – there is no guarantee they will come over at independence, and it takes many years to train new ones. A job offer of a career where your entire flying life will be linked to QRA is unlikely to be a draw for many pilots unless they want long term stability. Retention is likely to prove a major issue for the SDF as it simply will not be able to offer the sort of opportunities that other Typhoon operating forces can.
More worryingly still is not the pilots, but securing sufficient trained groundcrew and engineers to support the Typhoon. There is no aviation engineering training facility in Scotland, meaning the SDF will either need to build one at very substantial cost, or try to get places on courses elsewhere (presumably in the UK). Given that these come at significant cost, and there is no guarantee of places on a long term basis, one cannot escape the sense that either the SDF will have to invest heavily in local training, or it will have to accept it is utterly dependent on the UK for provision of training of its ground crew in perpetuity. Humphrey predicts that securing sufficient trained engineers in the force will be the biggest challenge facing the SDF.
The other problem is who actually supports the aircraft – a lot of deep level RAF servicing has been contracted out now, and these contracts will be null and void for the SDF airframes. The SDF will either have to spend a lot of money to introduce servicing facilities (which are not cheap) or it will have to enter into all manner of very expensive commercial arrangements with UK companies to get them to support Typhoon in Scottish service. This sort of arrangement cannot be skimped either – if you don’t service your aircraft, then you quickly lose the ability to fly them. As such a newly independent Scotland may find itself hamstrung by a need to pay a great deal of money in support contracts and servicing contracts and not capital investment in new technology.
The final issue with adopting Typhoon is what batch of aircraft will be taken and how Scotland proposes to work with the Eurofighter consortium of nations? Typhoon is subject to a multi-national development programme which isn't cheap, but is designed to keep the aircraft at the cutting edge. Either Scotland buys into the programme (again at very considerable cost), ensuring its airframes remain current and relevant, or it has to save money in the short term by not working with the partner nations, but instead finds itself solely responsible for updating and upgrading an increasingly obsolete fleet. The costs to the Scottish taxpayer would rise as this would essentially become an orphan fleet, incurring significant costs to industry to support it.
So when looking at the proposal to operate Typhoon, there seem to be real and clear difficulties in providing the aircrew (and there is no guarantee of getting flying training places given how taught the training pipeline is for most nations these days with very little spare capacity to sell), and the ground crew to support the aircraft. There are huge and immediate support costs to be incurred to run the airframe, and the long term investment costs are substantial. Of course it could be done, but it will cost far more than people think, and will place great pressure on a defence budget which looks increasingly overheated.
The proposal to acquire C130s seems similarly expensive. There is not, and has never been a C130 basing presence in Scotland. This means that the SDF would need to pay out from the start to set up a C130 support facility and hangar in Lossiemouth. They would also need to find sufficiently trained crews and groundstaff – a small point, but the C130 fleet has been based at Lyneham and Brize Norton for nearly 50 years. Finding a sufficient pool of operators and support staff to uproot from their home to go to a newly independent Scotland is going to be a major challenge in itself.
The next challenge is that C130 is due to leave RAF service in 2022 (or thereabouts). This means that the SDF will not be able to draw on RAF resources in the medium term for shared training or support places, thus meaning a requirement to set their own training pipeline up. Given the age of the ‘J’ fleet, the heavy fatigue on most airframes as a result of TELIC/HERRICK and the lack of a long term future in the RAF, one feels that the SDF will find itself saddled with a great deal of costs to keep the airframe going. Of course it can be done, but it is going to be much more expensive than planned – particularly once you factor in the costs of training all the ground crew and aircrew locally, as there will be no UK pipeline for them to try and secure places on.
The proposal to acquire a squadron of helicopters has similar challenges – where do the crews come from, where does the support come from and where do you get it serviced? Frankly the lack of planning as to how you would recruit the aircrew pipeline, and where they would be trained is perhaps the biggest worry in these plans. The time it takes to get people to the front line is measured in years, and requires training schools, training aircraft fleets and a lot of investment of time and money. The SDF will get a one time injection of equipment but cannot guarantee what level of personnel it will get. It has to retain the people it does get, while recruiting and training at a fast pace from the start of independence to ensure that in 5-10 years after independence, there are sufficiently qualified pilots, engineers and other key staff in the system. This is going to place a large burden on the training pipeline, and cost an enormous amount of money.
So in summary, the proposals for the SDF Air Force appear to be built around the concept of operating a very expensive and enormously capable fighter jet purely for QRA, while introducing an aged and nearly out of service transport aircraft into an environment where it has never been based before. It assumes that this will be done on a manpower ceiling capable of retaining key personnel, and recruiting / training more staff through a training and ground school environment which doesn't yet exist and would be extortionately expensive to create. All of this will be done within a shared wider budget of £2.5 billion.
Bluntly the sums don’t add up, the manpower totals don’t add up, and the ability to generate a long term and credible airforce is probably in doubt due to the lack of thought about the training and support implications of the plan.
In the final part of this series, Humphrey will look at some wider aspects of the plan and see whether the plans really do add up.