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UK ‘dangerously exposed’ due to cuts to combat aircraft fleet, MPs warn

The military’s combat aircraft fleet is “alarmingly” low in number and would struggle to defend the UK in an all-out war, MPs have said.

Cuts set out in the 2021 Defence Command Paper will create a combat air capability gap that will persist into the 2030s and leaves Britain “dangerously exposed,” the Commons Defence Committee said in a report.

The panel criticised the retirement of the C-130J Hercules transport aircraft fleet seven years before its planned out-of-service date.

It said the move severely reduces the capacity of the RAF’s air mobility fleet to support defence operations and humanitarian missions, and could hamper the special forces in particular.

The decision to reduce the UK’s fleet of Wedgetail E-7 early warning aircraft from five to three “stands out as the most perverse” of all the Defence Command Paper’s cuts, the report said.

It also called delays in flying training programmes in recent years “completely unacceptable”, saying years-long waits for pilots to qualify damage morale and the effectiveness of the armed forces.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will spend more than £55 million sending pilots overseas for fast-jet training because of a lack of aircraft availability, MPs noted.

They also said the increasing reliance on using simulators for flying training is “sub-optimal” for pilots and ground crew and “no substitute” for live flying.

 Tobias Ellwood
Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said there are ‘turbulent times ahead’ if the Ministry of Defence does not invest more in air capabilities (PA)

Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said: “Air power capability can make or break a military. The ability to control the skies is critical in modern warfare and aircraft provide unparalleled reach, height and speed for our armed forces.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the RAF’s fleet has taken a nosedive in numbers, down to just a third of its previous size. Our report, published today, found that budget cuts – including those in the last Defence Command Paper – have led to gaps in air capability that will persist into the next decade.

“Our inquiry found that the RAF has prioritised quality at the expense of quantity, leaving us with a fleet of combat aircraft that are high-spec and expensive yet alarmingly low in number. Our current fleet fails to reach the mass necessary to survive the attrition of an all-out war with a peer adversary. Fixing this is a matter of urgency; allowing capability gaps to bed in will only widen them in the long term.”

He added: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signalled the beginning of a darker and more dangerous era for Europe. Despite this, the Ministry of Defence has failed to reverse any of its 2021 cuts to our aviation capabilities.

“If the Ministry of Defence refuses to see the writing on the wall and fails to make adequate investment, there are turbulent times ahead.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “The RAF remains a world leading defence force and has the necessary capabilities to fulfil NATO and UK commitments.

“Offering 24/7 defence of the UK and protecting our overseas territories and interests, the RAF’s capabilities and people play a vital role in addressing threats rapidly and wherever they emerge in the world.

“The RAF is also spearheading transformation by investing in cutting-edge technology and modern aircraft necessary to fly and fight effectively while also rapidly addressing known challenges, such as the flying training pipeline.

“The Committee’s report recognises that the updated Defence Command Paper seeks to tackle the threats we face, now and in the future.”