WASHINGTON — On March 16, the United Kingdom rolled out its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a document that will serve as the guidepost for its military going forward. Included in that document were both cuts to existing systems and investments in new technologies.
During an April visit to Washington, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the head of the Royal Air Force, sat down with Defense News to discuss the impact of the review on the service, program cuts and future investments.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The integrated review pushes a lot of money into high-end capabilities, but cuts programs and end strength. What do you say to criticisms that the document goes too far in the “capability vs. capacity” discussion?
We all recognize over the last two, three decades, perhaps longer, [that militaries] have had to make that trade-off between mass and technology, because technology came at a high price, and that technological sophistication cost significantly more than the simpler platforms that were being replaced. But I think we’re at a turning point now, and I think we’re at a point where we can look to technology to bring us mass. We can have mass and technology and technological sophistication. And it’s that technology that that enables us to have that mass.
[Look at] today’s tactical unit of an eight-ship of Typhoon or eight-ship of F 15s. Well, in the future that eight-ship equivalent might be 100 swarming drones, 10 uncrewed combat aircraft loyal wingmen and two piloted motherships. The numbers and the calculus changes because of technology.
There’s an opportunity now for us to reframe that narrative of “it’s a choice between mass and technology.” I think you can have both.
The review hints at a reorganization inside the Royal Air Force but without much detail. What specifics can you offer?
Everything tells me we’re going to need different skills into the future. I’m going to need more people that understand space, I’m going to need more data analysts, I’m going to need more digital engineers. The workforce is going to have to change, and it’s going to have to change quickly, probably faster than we have changed our workforce and our professional skill base in the past. We’ve got to be more agile about how we transform our workforce.
The second thing is how we train that workforce — synthetic training, virtual reality, the opportunities for coaching and training in the workplace. The other changes we’re going to make is around our infrastructure and our bases, bringing a much higher level of automation into everything we do, from guarding the bases to running the supply networks on the bases to servicing the aircraft and platforms on those bases. That’s work that we’ve got underway now. And again, it’s work that’s benefiting from the enormous leaps in digital technology and the technological revolution that we’re seeing in the private sector and across the commercial sector.
As part of the review, you decided to retire the E-3D Sentry aircraft while also cutting the planned purchase of its replacement, the E-7 Wedgetail, from five planes to three. Why?
It’s a really good question, and it was a topic of a lot of discussion during the integrated review as well. I’m delighted that our government has recognized the importance of stepping to the future with the E-7. The E-3 has served us brilliantly for many decades, but it has, to my mind, reached the limit of its ability to develop and our ability to innovate and technologically [prepare it] for the future battlespace, and some of the threats and some of the threat systems that we’re going to be facing. And the E-7 offers all of that. The E-7 offers that generational leap in technology and digital technology in terms of the sensors, in terms of how it moves data and information around to other platforms, other aircraft, other users in the battlespace, and its ability to reshape the terms of what airborne warning as well as command and control actually means.
As far as the numbers are concerned, yes, working with a fleet of three is going to have its limitations. I think anybody would recognize that. But there’s scope for working with NATO, there’s scope for working with the United States Air Force as we operate as allies around the world. And I think the connectivity of the Royal Air Force’s E-7 fleet in the future and our ability to work with allies will make up for any shortfalls in capacity in the short term.
Do you want to get that fleet back up to five planes?
Well, I think that’s an option, and I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. As it stands at the moment, the announcement and the plan is for three, and of course we can make that work. And we will work with NATO, and we will both contribute to the NATO airborne early warning and command-and-control network, and we will use the NATO platforms as well. So I think there’s always a scope to come back to us in the future. But right now we’re focused on introducing this new platform, this exciting new platform and taking advantage of everything that it offers as a step into the future.
The U.K. had an official target of buying 138 F-35B fighter jets. However, the integrated review only says the government plans to buy more than the 48 planes already under contract. Officials have dodged when asked for specifics, such as if 138 is still the target. Is that number still in play for you?
The F-35 is a hugely important program for me. We’re still in the early stages. I’ve only had 21 delivered so far of my 48 original order, we’ll be up at 33 next year and 48 in the years after that. I’m very conscious that the reason we bought the F-35Bs was to pair them up with our two carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. [The carriers] are going to be in service until the late 2060s, at least. And so I need a fleet of aircraft that is going to last into that sort of time frame. So I’m taking a very steady view to how I build a fleet up because I need these aircraft to last for that amount of time.
We are committing to growing the fleet and we’re going to continue to grow the fleet. And in that regard, nothing has changed. We’ve had discussions with the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin this year, and decisions are to be made next year about the next batch of aircraft that we will buy. We have now established two squadrons: a training unit and a front-line squadron. I’m looking to establish a third squadron, and I think I need at least three, probably four squadrons worth of F-35Bs to work off the carriers.
But as I say, this is still a force that we’re growing. And we are going to be operating these platforms for potentially 50 years. So I’m not in any hurry to get to any final figure in the short term. And we will just make sure that we’ve got a force that is sustainable through the life of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Could you see the U.K. shifting from buying the “B” model to the conventional “A” model?
Yes. It’s been a live topic over the years in the United Kingdom, and to that, I also say: “Never say never.” But that’s a decision for the future, and that’s something that perhaps my successor will come back to.
But there is no question that for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, our focus right now is on building sufficient F-35Bs that we can operate from our two carriers, and not be trying to do it with too few aircraft and too few people and putting unnecessary strain on the force.
One program getting a big funding boost is the Future Combat Air System, and specifically the Tempest fighter. Did getting that money for Tempest require trade-offs elsewhere in the budget?
The U.K. government is committing an additional $2.8 billion over the next four years for the Future Combat Air System program. I think that sends a very clear signal of how important the government sees the requirement for a future fighter aircraft that’s ready to protect the U.K. and our allies’ airspace, something that’s ready to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon from the late 2030s, something that can compete on the world stage as an exportable platform, and something that gives the United Kingdom the opportunity to work with allies, like Italy and Sweden, in the development of it. So for me, it was a very clear statement of sovereign ambition from the United Kingdom.
I don’t see it as [requiring] trade-offs in those terms because the additional money that the government decided to invest in the U.K. armed forces over the next four years, which equates to $33 billion — the Future Combat Air System and space were all part of that, and our ambition to do more around space and with our allies, like the United States in space. So the Future Combat Air System is a hugely important program, but that’s something that didn’t require a trade-off with other aspects of our program.
Another kind of futuristic capability in which the U.K. is investing is the Mosquito, which is a unmanned loyal wingman program. What is the target date for it to be operational?
When we talk about the Future Combat Air System, Tempest is the piloted fighter within that. But the Future Combat Air System will be a mix of piloted combat aircraft, of unpiloted or autonomous or remotely piloted combat aircraft, and then down to cheap, expendable drones all working together. The date for the Tempest (the piloted fighter) is from the late 2030s. For me, I want to see — and I think technology allows us to get our loyal wingman, our uncrewed autonomous combat aircraft Mosquito — on the front line this decade. And that’s the target I’ve set for our team who is working on it. I want to see it flying on the wing of the F-35, I want to see it flying on the wing of Typhoon this decade, as an operationally deployed platform and as a concept demonstrator, and to de-risk the Future Combat Air System program. So the first flight within the next couple of years [as part of] a really impressive, digitally enabled design program where we are iterating the design very rapidly, and then fielding it within a matter of years, is the ambition.
Will you seek international partners for Mosquito the same way you did for Tempest?
There’s no question that there’s an opportunity for international collaboration on that system. At present, we’re doing the concept of development with a company in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But I know that we’ve had a lot of interest from potential allies, potential partners to join us in the program. And of course, we’re watching what Australia is doing, what the United States is doing, because we’re not alone in developing this technology. But for me, the imperative is to get this into service as quickly as we can. And as I say, getting our Mosquito loyal wingman in service by the end of this decade is my challenge to the team.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.