Page last updated at 19:16 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

RAF's Sir Stephen Dalton defends service as cuts loom

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

Flying display by RAF squadrons
The Air Chief Marshal emphasised the versatility of the RAF's aircraft

The role of the RAF in current and future warfare has been vigorously defended by the head of the service.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton said air and space power were not an optional luxury but the foundation for any "military endeavour".

The speech was part of a debate over Britain's future defence needs, ahead of a post-election spending review.

There have been questions over whether the UK will still have three separate services in the decades to come.

In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, Sir Stephen said air capability must not be squandered by those who failed to understand it.

Even if we are faced with conflicts that are similar in character to Afghanistan in the future... we cannot assume that there will be the political or popular appetite to fight them in the same way again
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton

He cautioned against taking the current conflict in Afghanistan as Britain's only or main template for the forces it needs for the future.

"Even if we are faced with conflicts that are similar in character to Afghanistan in the future... we cannot assume that there will be the political or popular appetite to fight them in the same way again.

"We need to think very carefully whether our Afghanistan era force structure is a model for the future. Do we want or need to put all our eggs in that particular basket?"


Sir Stephen's comments followed speeches from his Army and Royal Navy counterparts.

He described his views on the future nature of warfare as "complementing and not contradicting" those of his fellow service chiefs.

His emphasis was on the uniqueness of air power, its ability to shape campaigns and the huge advantage it gives Britain's forces, not least in the current campaign in Afghanistan.

He made clear his view that the RAF's role was a much broader one than many realise - whether in a support role, intelligence-gathering, reconnaissance or close air support.

'Exchequer bare'

The Air Chief Marshal also said the RAF was keen to enhance its current role - building on its ability to use and interpret information networks.

RAF planes already gather intelligence and target information, but he suggested the air force would be well-placed to develop those further in areas such as cyber-warfare.

He acknowledged that the "exchequer was bare".

But he said Britain must think very carefully about its future capabilities and maximise the advantages it already had in air and space power, which he described as "an essential defining capability".

The questions a new government and those at the top in the Ministry of Defence will have to answer during a strategic defence review is what kind of warfare will dominate, how extensive the reforms will be, and what Britain can actually afford.

These larger questions are the same ones the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope and the Chief of the General Staff, the head of the Army, General Sir David Richards have been addressing - with rather differing visions - over the past week.

General Richards believes Britain needs to invest in fewer big-ticket weapons systems and must continue to prepare for wars "amongst the peoples", while ensuring it has more and better-trained 'boots on the ground'.

Meanwhile his Navy counterpart believes Britain must retain its naval clout in order to secure its key commercial and security interests.

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