Depth and New Capabilities: Delivering on the RAF’s Ambition for the Air Reserves

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This paper argues for the increased use of Air Reserves as one important and affordable response to the challenges and developments that now face the air service.

Control of the air, enjoyed by British and allied forces for many years, is vital in any operation, but cannot be taken for granted against peer adversaries. The war in Ukraine shows how critical air power is, but also how complicated the air dimension has become, including with the widespread use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) and civilian drones.

The RAF faces the combined challenges of a heightened and diverse strategic threat, difficulties in securing the right talent, and heavily constrained resources. In the case of aircrew, it is also wholly dependent on a slow and costly pipeline for producing pilots that can consume roughly half the average career the RAF gets from its pilots. Furthermore, there is evidence that post- Covid, shortages are emerging in the civil airline sector, threatening a new drain on both pilots and those with other key aviation skills, especially engineering. This paper examines two ways in which the UK Air Reserves offer an opportunity to address, at least in part, these shortages, and to build more mass in an affordable fashion.

First, the RAF can obtain a further return on the substantial training costs already expended in full-time service by extending current experiments from small numbers of part-time fast-jet pilots embedded in regular squadrons into flights and later squadrons of reservists. This could also be expanded to embrace ex-regular aviators with a range of other skills, including engineering. The practicality, and success, of such units is illustrated in the US by the Air Guard, although – at least initially – the UK units are envisaged as involving people alone, rather than including dedicated equipment, so the only substantial costs would be those incurred by keeping skills up to date. Technology, especially simulation, offers a way of sustaining skills among reserves in an affordable way that was previously unavailable when skill preservation needed more time in the air. This makes it worthwhile to consider mothballing, rather than scrapping, the older Typhoon aircraft: no matter how overstretched the peacetime force is, preparing for expansion in times of heightened tension and war should be a key consideration. Such reserve units already exist in the RAF in the area of ISR, with 616 Squadron, and in air mobility, with the older 622 Squadron. Drawing on Royal Navy experience, the RAF could also extend the use of reserves by using exregular part-time pilots to reinforce the training pipeline (as Royal Naval Reserve pilots do with the Navy’s helicopter force), giving greater resilience.

Second, civilians with valuable skills gained or sustained outside defence across a wide range of talent areas offer another opportunity for the RAF to acquire skilled aviators at much lower cost than training from scratch entails. Since aircraft such as Poseidon and Wedgetail are based on converted civilian aircraft models, 616 Squadron could be expanded by recruiting trained pilots and engineers from civilian life and giving them reserve officer training. This could involve using reserves to operate a portion of the RAF’s RPAS fleet, and indeed to work on counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) – because, as the war in Ukraine has shown, the opportunities of, and threats from, drones, including civilian models operated by citizen forces, is significant. The UK civilian drone sector is large and growing fast, so the case for establishing reserve RPAS units is strong. Drones present a threat to the home base, offering terrorists and hostile states a new dimension for asymmetric warfare. Cost and the local knowledge reserves bring point here, as elsewhere, to a reserve solution.

This approach, of recruiting more civilians to the reserves, might also be applied to other areas with expensively acquired skills, including new technologies, from cyber to AI to the exploitation of space, greatly reducing costs. However, increased demand for civilian-acquired skills means that there needs to be greater integration with the civilian world.

Many of the UK’s allies do far more, both to retain those with expensive skills on a part-time basis after their regular service, and to recruit civilians. The RAF must shift its mindset towards considering reserves when initially framing capability, rather than merely bolting on some reserve pockets to a fabric woven around regular personnel.

With homeland threats increasing, the RAF is rightly planning on dispersal of sites in time of war and tension. In peacetime, air assets are concentrated on a handful of stations. In time of tension, detachments would deploy to dispersed locations. This requires more support staff and – since such sites would rapidly become targets – more force protection. Yet support for and defence of even the current airfields is stretched. Growing the regular force for this task would be expensive and is unnecessary; Australia illustrates an affordable approach to this, using reservists for much of the defence of and support for its forward ‘bare bases’.

To realise the potential of part-time reserves, the UK needs to adjust some of its approaches. Evidence from other major Five Eyes countries, and the RAF’s own history, suggests that reserves are best organised (if not always deployed) in formed units with part-time volunteer reserve (PTVR) leadership. To deliver this structure, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force officer corps needs an overhaul. Instead of officers coming up through the ranks, a more credible reserve officer generalist course is needed at RAF College Cranwell, of the kind delivered at RMA Sandhurst and BRNC Dartmouth; for some students, University Air Squadrons could offer part of the course. More staff training would also allow key HQs and functional areas to be populated with PTVR staff officers, bringing new insights.

Reservists played a crucial role in the RAF in the Second World War, and reservist pilots were pivotal to victory in the Battle of Britain. Threats are rising, money is tight and useful skills abound in the civilian world: it is time for UK Air Reserves to play a much larger role in Britain’s defence, as their equivalents do abroad.


Sir Julian Brazier TD

Former MP and government minister

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Keith Mans

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