Plane Speaking with Air Marshal Greg Bagwell CB CBE (RAF Retd)

27th June 2017

Ahead of the Royal International Air Tattoo and the RAF Air Power Conference in July, we speak to Air Power Association President Air Marshal GREG BAGWELL CB CBE (RAF Retd)

Air Marshal Greg Bagwell CB CBE (RAF Retd). (via author)

AEROSPACE: What is the role of the Air Power Association today? Since you became President, what is your vision for the organisation?

GB: The aim quite simply is to spread the air power debate. We don’t necessarily have a view of what the answers are but we certainly have access to the people who might.

My personal vision – which chimes with that of the association when I joined it – is to try and seek as many opportunities to make that debate as broad as possible and the RAF’s annual Air Power Conference here in the UK is an obvious vehicle for that. This also reaches beyond the UK, to look at having more of a worldwide presence with an Association that engages a global audience.

Thinking how air power is utilised has never been more important and perhaps our analysis does need a refresh. The way technology and things advance these days, you’ve got to keep up. To a degree, I think air power is still doing things the old way and the time is ripe to think differently.

RAF Reaper ops are deemed sensitive, but do they need to be? (MoD)

AEROSPACE: The upcoming RAF Air Power Conference is aiming to broaden the debate but does it actually matter if the general public don’t understand air power, as long as decision makers do?

GB: I think it does matter. People want to know about how, (a) their money is being spent and, more importantly (b) how their own armed forces are being employed? I think it helps enormously if there is a common baseline of understanding.

One of the frustrations I always felt while in the Service, is the degree to which you have to maintain secrecy or control the message, yet at the same time try and be open about what you do. A really good example is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the UK’s Reaper UAV. I’ve been involved in the ‘drone’ debate quite a lot recently, and I have been surprised and frustrated at the lack of basic understanding of how they operate – they are highly sophisticated and controlled tools of airpower, yet they are viewed by some akin to ‘killer robots’.

It is finding opportunities to tell the story in a way that people want to listen and, more importantly, that they believe. There are clearly things you must keep secret but we need to find better ways to help people understand the strengths (and limitations) of airpower. That, by the way, could be equally aimed at politicians and the other arms of the armed services.

Is the pace of technology change now too slow in defence? (Lockheed Martin)

AEROSPACE: You’ve now left the RAF but what would you say is the biggest frustration with the service at the moment from those still in?

GB: I think it is that inability to get people to understand the fundamentals of airpower generation and employment. It’s not for the want of trying, but for some reason, airpower appears to have a degree of mystery surrounding it. This coupled with its relative complexity and high cost make many quite skeptical over its value for money, or misunderstand the ways it needs to be managed. Yet, its flexibility and sustainment through many decades now of very different operations should have made a very compelling case, both to the Government and the general population.

If I was to be allowed a second frustration, it would be the increasingly slow pace of bringing in new capability and technology. 20 or 30 years ago, defence drove innovation but I don’t think you can say that anymore. Ideas are happening faster elsewhere in society and commerce and that should be a wake up call for defence and aerospace.

AEROSPACE: Do you think the RAF’s current appeal for ideas from grassroots levels and challenging debate will work? Or will it just end being a case of ‘shoot the messenger’?

GB: In my time on the Board, we introduced the concept of ‘Thinking to Win’, for which the big idea was encouraging debate up and down the organisation. Some military organisations can struggle with cross cutting hierarchies, open debate and the acceptance of failure, so we wanted to make it okay to question norms, try new ideas (without constantly seeking permission or approval) and even more importantly, to fail sometimes. None of these instincts or behaviours are naturally present in militaries, so this is quite a step. Indeed, if you can inculcate these behaviours, you can genuinely claim to have made a transformational change.

I recently read a book about ‘Originals’, who are the people that come up with ideas that no one else saw. What’s interesting is they’re not child prodigies but are actually often quite reluctant or risk-averse people. However, they tend to be a little different from the norm and I think that’s the key. In a military organisation and particularly a Department of State, there can be a tendency to seek safety and conformity in our people (or at least train it into them), yet these are not the qualities that bring original thought and certainly wasn’t how airpower come to be. So, if airpower is to continue to evolve, we have to be prepared to step out to the edge of that envelope once more. We will need to recruit, encourage and advance the type of individuals who are most likely to make this happen. That’s how air power came into being and I think it’s how air power has to move forward.

AEROSPACE: What are the difficult questions about airpower that are being missed and should be asked?

GB: I think the difficult questions do get asked. Whether they get answered is another matter; indeed, I sometimes feel that airpower is often subject to far greater visibility and scrutiny as compared to maritime or land power. There are understandable things that we do to maintain levels of secrecy, that sometimes hinder our ability explain ourselves. Now I think there is more desire to be open, at least up to a point. It’s making sure that people understand the difference between air power as a military instrument, as opposed to the application of force through the rule of law or policy. The unmanned vehicle debate is a good example where the ambiguity of the latter has clouded the discretion of the former.

AEROSPACE: Given Brexit, a new US President and a changed geopolitical situation, do you expect a new SDSR after the General Election?

GB: The simple answer is no. Unless resources or strategy need to take a dramatically different direction, then we should continue to seek to deliver against the current plan. The MoD and HMG are still yet to settle into the regular SDSR cycle but, hopefully, the individual Service plans can continue to evolve and adapt without the need for constant redirection or adjustment. However, the problem is that the previous SDSRs have struggled to balance or reconcile the strategy with the resources available and resource constraints have dominated. SDSR 10 was a brutal cost cutting exercise and, although SDSR 15 sought to halt the decline, it has done so largely on the back of some very challenging and currently unidentified efficiencies. So we have never been able to settle into the sort of long term plan that is necessary to deliver the long equipment programmes on which we have embarked.

Now that UK defence is smaller, less resilient and constantly engaged, the ability to adjust becomes very difficult and fraught with unintended consequences which can create strong internal pressures, especially on our people.

Of course, the Labour manifesto was suggesting some potentially dramatic changes to both the shape and employment of UK Armed Forces. Had Labour won, I think a Defence Review would have been inevitable but, even then, it would have had to have accepted the broad direction of travel. However, if we have learned anything in the past few years of political drama, we have to acknowledge that change can come quickly and unexpectedly. Different political parties will have different views on what they think defence is for but that’s what democracies do. That’s what politicians are there to do and, whether militaries like it or not, they have to roll with the punches. If we ensure that politicians better understand airpower, hopefully they will resource, manage and direct it correctly.

How vital is it that the general public understands air power? (MoD)

AEROSPACE: We now see a drone vs drone war in Iraq with both sides using consumer UAVs to drop small munitions. Given the pace of technology change, are we in danger of falling behind? Is the defence industry agile enough to keep up?

GB: That is a good question covering a number of factors. The first is a chicken and egg argument. Do militaries buy what defence industries build, or is it militaries that drive industries to design the things they need? I think we’ve got slightly trapped now into ‘we buy what they sell’ and industry merely design and sell a slightly better version of what they sold before. The questions we need to ask ourselves now, is to what extent is that old way of operating still valid?

For example, do you detect submarines by flying a converted airliner up and down the sea lanes, dropping sonar buoys out the back? We’ve been doing that for a while now. However, is that still the way we do it in five, ten, 20 years’ time? Those sorts of questions and the potential answers about the technologies that may allow you to do that differently will drive you into different solutions that could well come from non-traditional sources.

Weaponised consumer drones are an opportune use of a relatively cheap, off-the-shelf capability that, quite honestly, right now, is still more of a nuisance than a revolution. We must balance the need to ensure that we are watching trends but not to over react to something that isn’t too great a risk to our own operation. The key is to stay on the front foot and not be rocked back into reacting. EW and cyber threats are another area where we have to ensure that we get that balance right in the future.

However, I do question whether the defence industry has got a bit lazy, especially the larger primes? It feels like we are merely getting small, slow developmental changes which are well within the capacity of the industry. Does defence have some different paradigm that we need to just accept that we’ll just keep building something that goes slightly faster, flies slightly higher than the thing we built before? Or should we continue to test our assumptions and theory, so that we can find those disruptive technologies before our potential enemies do?

We talk about this with cyber; are cyber threats the type of shift in capability that genuinely make our traditional capability defunct? I think we’ve convinced ourselves that we will be able to protect ourselves or defeat them but recent events have shown that vulnerabilities sometimes exist in places you did not expect or protect.

The same is true in our intelligence gathering. We now recognise that you might get as much information about a target set through open source methods just by finding ways to search for that sort of information, rather than by creating expensive things that do your searching in more traditional ways.

When I started my military career 37 years ago, I felt that all the high tech was at work, now it’s all in my home and that transition happened some years ago. That simple test should be worrying us.

AEROSPACE: Looking from the outside, what else do you think needs to be done to secure the RAF’s legacy as it reaches its 100th anniversary next year?

GB: The RAF has got such a great story to tell. The history is there to see, whether it be the RAF Museum or other museums or shows around the country. The fact that kids today perhaps don’t know as much about 1914 or 1940 as we might have done when we were younger, is worrying. So our challenge is to pass that legacy down the generations, so that they not only know what has gone before but also to inspire them to take us to greater achievements in the future.

The key is how do you maintain that storyboard into the future? Interestingly, when the RAF turned 50, its big idea was to build the RAF Museum. It’s such a great museum. Kids love it. What young kid doesn’t want to see and talk about aeroplanes that fly above the speed of sound and on the edge of space?

What will the next 100 years of air power look like? (BAE Systems)

AEROSPACE: For its next 100 years , how do you think the RAF will evolve? Will it have tattooed hackers or retired corporate executives remotely flying UAVs as reservists or a small satellite launch capability?

GB: Yes, all of the above. If you had sat here in 1914 talking to the British Army about the benefits of airpower, they’d be telling you that you are nuts; yet the visionaries of that era were able to convince them (albeit slowly). Today, I believe air power has to be just as ready to accept anything. If those are the types of people best placed and with the right skillsets, then that’s who has to be in.

AEROSPACE: Contractors and support personnel are a growing part of today’s RAF footprint. Do you think one day a CAS will wake up and find that they are the only full-time RAF officer left?

GB: No, I don’t think CAS might be the last person in uniform – they could be the first to go – major companies’ Chairmen are non executives, why not the RAF? The Whole Force concept is trying to harness, accept and embrace the fact that air power comes from all branches, whether it’s the industrial partners or the individual who might be providing information through whatever means. All you need to ensure is the appropriate balance between experienced commanders and competent managers and leaders. We just have to decide which of these roles CAS fulfils ….

Although people always refer to the size of the uniformed Army, Air Force or Navy, what it doesn’t take into account is all the people who are part of providing part of that output. I’ve often asked the question of how many contractors or civil servants that you could actually tag to an Air Force output but never got a definitive answer. However, I can guarantee that it’s more than double the uniformed number by some margin, and also has huge benefits and side effects within the wider UK economy.

I used to spend a fair amount of time going out to those industries and talking to the workforce so that they could connect what they were doing to our outputs. So, when they did an extra weekend’s work to meet an unplanned operational demand, they knew why that was so important. I always detected a sense of pride from them in being part of the team delivering airpower – a bit like the NASA janitor who described his job as putting a man on the moon.

AEROSPACE magazine is a media partner of the RAF Air Power Conference on 12-13 July. For more details see here.

News Team
27 June 2017

Reprinted with kind permission of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Aerospace magazine