Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture 2009 - Combat Operations: The Asymmetric Advantage of Air Power

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The Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture 2009, was given by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff, Royal Air Force, examining the utility of air power by reflecting on historical and contemporary perspectives.


In his lecture at RUSI, the recently-appointed Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, stressed that ‘effective airpower is essential to all scales of medium or high-end war fighting’.  Providing Britain with an asymmetrical advantage in warfare, air forces are vital to campaigns around the world.  To sustain the role of air power within UK Armed Forces, Dalton urged the need for adaptability to change and a better understanding of the RAF by the British public.

The RAF has been involved in numerous conflicts in the last decades.  Over the past twenty years in particular, air power has been ‘consistently developing and maturing’, seeing vast innovations towards the ‘critical, precise and designed impact’ for which it was created.  In joint campaigns, the air capability arguably has the primacy, with land forces guiding the enemy to be neutralised by air forces.  The beginnings of this were seen during the 1991 Gulf war and have evolved until the present day, where air power has been decisive in Iraq. 

Beyond the importance of air power in conventional warfare, the capabilities of these forces have proved invaluable to irregular warfare and counter-insurgency campaigns.  Providing mobilisation and decreasing the number of troops on the ground, the ability to fly is at the heart of the campaign in Afghanistan.  But, as Britain bolsters its hopes in air forces, so too do the enemy recognise its importance: just as in the Balkans or either of the wars in Iraq, the enemy in Afghanistan have deployed sophisticated attacks against the air forces.

An evaluation of RAF activity over the past twenty years demonstrates the variety and unpredictability of the challenges that face the air forces.  Oscillating between low-key air policing roles and high-intensity counter-insurgency operations, Dalton argues that the air forces must maintain as ‘balanced a force capability as possible’ as the frequency of state-on-state warfare is surpassed by the participation of non-state actors.

The need to maintain a readiness to adapt is made more difficult in light of the economic downturn.  With defence budgets set to fall around ten per cent in real terms, the RAF must remain aware of the financial challenges posed in the coming ‘age of austerity’.  The coming Green Paper will open up the debate about RAF expenditure and modes of evolution within these fiscal constraints.  RUSI’s ongoing research on the Future Defence Review proves vital in this.   

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