Page last updated at 03:53 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 04:53 UK

Head of the RAF looks to future

By Rob Corp
BBC News

Red Arrows
RAF personnel celebrated the service's birthday on Tuesday

As the RAF marks its 90th anniversary, BBC News asked the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, to consider the service's future - at a time when the UK's armed forces are engaged in two major conflicts.

While reflecting on the RAF's involvement in the Battle of Britain, the Berlin Airlift, the Falklands War and the Cold War, Sir Glenn points to the "decisive use" of air power in the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo.

And he adds that in recent times the UK has had governments who "have been willing to use the military".

"We need to make sure we maintain balance in our armed forces across all three services so we can conduct operations from top-end war fighting - as we've had to do in Iraq and Afghanistan - through to what we're doing today in both those theatres which is top-end counter-insurgency warfare, right down to humanitarian operations," Sir Glenn says.

Operational tempo

Tight budgets, though, remain an issue for the RAF, as for the other two services, and it too may be forced to bear its share of the cuts expected if the MoD is to attempt to balance its books.

The expense of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with several major programmes for new equipment, have left the MoD with an estimated shortfall of at least 2bn over the next three years.

Sir Glenn Torpy
We're here to stay after 90 years, and we will be here for 90 years to come
Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy

But the crash of a Nimrod surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan in September 2006 - which was probably caused by a fuel leak and killed 14 people - has led to questions about whether the RAF is receiving enough cash to maintain the military requirements of the government.

"We never put the safety of one of our aircraft in jeopardy," says Sir Glenn.

"Older aeroplanes need more work to maintain the same standards we require - that's inevitable.

"We never undermine the safety of our aircraft. I'm not going to fly in an unsafe aeroplane and I'm not going to let my people do that either."

Even when the RAF does get the money for new equipment - such as with the new Eurofighter Typhoon - cynics argue that a machine designed for the Cold War is not required for the "asymmetric warfare" witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pilots obsolete?

With a price-tag of 60m apiece, Typhoon "is a fantastic aircraft" according to the Chief of the Air Staff.

"We now have 50 of them in service. And on 1 July this year, we will deliver a multi-role capability, so it's a hugely capable aeroplane.

Key moments in the RAF's 90-year history

"We can't afford today to have aircraft which only does a particular niche capability.

"We need to have adaptable aircraft which have utility across a number of roles," the Air Chief Marshal says.

But with the RAF now developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is the combination of Typhoon and pilot going to become obsolete?

"There will always be a place for a man in the loop because the complexity and the ambiguity of the environment we work in sometimes needs something which technology has not delivered," he says.

'Massively impressive'

With recent headlines over RAF personnel being abused for wearing their uniforms in public - there is a feeling that serving soldiers, sailors and airmen are being blamed for fighting what some people consider illegal or immoral wars.

"There are fewer people around in the community who have had experience of being in the miliary - we don't have that generation from the Second World War.

"There is inevitably a general lack of awareness of what we do - so it's up to us be more proactive in going out, being seen by the public, but also explaining what we're doing on behalf of the government."

Sir Glenn says what the current RAF is doing is "massively impressive" and he is "impressed by what they continue to deliver".

"We're here to stay after 90 years, and we will be here for 90 years to come," the Chief of the Air Staff adds.

Flypast marks RAF's anniversary
01 Apr 08 |  London
Airmen told 'no uniforms in city'
07 Mar 08 |  Cambridgeshire

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