The head of the Royal Air Force (RAF) has issued a stark warning about a “serious threat” to Britain’s warfighting capabilities due to the absence of radar planes. Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton stressed that the UK currently lacks an airborne early warning system, which he deemed “fundamental to our ability to protect our country.”
The RAF retired its fleet of seven E-3 Sentry planes in 2021 with plans to replace them with the more advanced E-7 Wedgetail manufactured by Boeing. However, delays in the delivery schedule mean the first of the new jets are now not expected until the second half of this year. Additionally, the government has reduced the order for Wedgetails from a planned five to just three, aiming to save £700 million.
Last Autumn, a report from the Commons defence committee highlighted concerns that the Air Force was now “too small to withstand the levels of attrition that would occur in a peer-on-peer war.” The committee urged ministers to urgently explore ways to increase combat air mass in the short term.
In response, the government stated that decisions regarding the size of the Armed Forces were “threat-led” and emphasized that “effectiveness” should not be judged purely on mass. The Commons Defence Committee, in a report published in September, drew attention to the prolonged “capability gap” between the retirement of the E-3 Sentry and the introduction of the E-7 Wedgetail, now stretching to at least three years.
The committee criticized the Ministry of Defence for accepting this gap, leaving the UK reliant on NATO for coverage, particularly during the Ukraine conflict. With only a limited number of comparatively vulnerable fixed and mobile land-based radars on UK soil, the committee warned that the capability gap posed a significant threat to the UK’s warfighting ability.
During a committee session in May, Knighton faced questions about the absence of radar planes. He underscored the fundamental importance of the ability to monitor and understand the airspace, stating that it is crucial for directing forces, protecting assets, and ensuring national security. He acknowledged the reliance on NATO for air defence but underscored the importance of having an independent airborne early warning capability.
In response, the government highlighted the E-7 Wedgetail’s potential as a “fifth-generation airborne surveillance, command and control” system, crucial for countering current and expected threats. However, it acknowledged an increased risk to the UK’s sovereign commitments and contributions to NATO due to the reduction in the number of Wedgetails ordered.
As the RAF grapples with challenges in maintaining a robust airborne early warning capability, concerns persist over the impact on the UK’s ability to respond effectively to evolving threats. The government’s decision to prioritize cost-saving measures raises questions about the balance between fiscal responsibility and national security. With the E-7 Wedgetail expected to enter service later this year, the nation awaits developments that could shape the trajectory of its warfighting capabilities in the years to come.