15th May 2018

This year’s RAF Air Power Conference, to be held in London on 11-12 July, is set to be the largest gathering of air force chiefs in 15 years. TIM ROBINSON previews the event.

Invitations to birthday parties are always popular – particularly when the person (or organisation) is celebrating their 100th birthday. So, it is perhaps no wonder that the 2018 Royal Air Force Air Power Conference, on 11-12 July at the IET, Savoy, London, will see over 50 heads of air arms in attendance – the biggest gathering in 15 years – with chiefs (or senior representatives) from air forces from A (Algeria) to Z (Zambia).

This year, the conference theme is ‘Building the Next Generation Air Force’ with the event divided into four themed subject areas – ‘Modernising For The Future’, ‘A 21st Century Air Force for 21st Century People’, ‘Novel Application of Non-Military Capabilities for Greater Air Power Effect’, and ‘Command, Leadership and Decision Superiority in the Next Generation Air Force’. Some of the confirmed speakers include Chief of the Air Force, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier, AVM Simon ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, COS Capability, Mark Lancaster MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Maj Gen Dawn Dunlop, Commander NATO AEW & Control Force as well as Met Police Chief, Commissioner Cressida Dick and Prof Hugh Durrant-Whyte, Chief Scientific Advisor to UK Government.

The 2018 conference, organised by the Air Power Association, is also particularly timely, given that this July is also a Farnborough year, on top of the traditional Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and the NATO summit on 11-12 July. This summer will also see the return of 617Sqn to UK shores as Britain’s first front-line F-35B stealth fighter squadron. With the RAF set to fly a giant centenary flypast over central London the day before on 10 July, air power will be at the front of everyone’s minds.

Beyond the chalets, champagne and birthday cake, though, the 2018 APC is set to be a milestone conference – given that it will also take place around the time of the publication of the much-anticipated UK Combat Air Strategy – with the MoD and RAF currently attempting to outline what they think is needed for combat aircraft(s) beyond the 2030-40s. Perhaps long overdue, the Combat Air Strategy may seek to answer a key question for Britain – ‘what comes after Eurofighter Typhoon?’

As the oldest independent air force, the RAF’s vision, and its thinking about future platforms, systems and how they mesh, are thus expected to be a rich source of discussion and debate at the conference for fellow air power professionals. Industry, too, is keenly awaiting any hints as to future requirements and directions.

The event follows on from a highly successful 2017 APC. (MoD)

This year’s conference is also seeking to engage and draw ideas from outside the military, traditional defence industry suppliers and air power wonks. How, for example, might emerging novel and disruptive technologies in AI, AR/VR, cyber, drones and space be incorporated into air power thinking or doctrine? This already appears to be bearing fruit, with anecdotal evidence from the 2017 conference of air forces picking up on innovative tech solutions presented at the event.

However, peer-nation threats, weaponised drones and contested space are not the only matters that are challenging today’s air forces. When even the USAF is short of around 2,000 pilots, building a ‘next generation air force’ also (at least in the West) involves leveraging human resources, dealing with skills gaps and focusing on ‘softer’ quality of life issues. How then do tomorrow’s air forces attract, recruit, train and retain future generations of airmen and women – building up their human resilience? And with fewer personnel and reduced bases, how do air arms connect with broader society?

Interestingly, the 2018 APC also takes place in the wake of a new openness at UK MoD, with the intention to engage, inform and explain with media and the public more than previously – despite potential risks. The way in which Russia, for example, has weaponised information, social media and ‘fake news’ means that today it is even more important for air power professionals to be able to articulate what it is they do, what air power can do, and its limits.

With the RAF’’s mission to recapture its lead in air power strategic thinking as well as expand into new and unexplored areas, this year’s APC is set to be far more than a birthday celebration for the world’s oldest independent air force.

AEROSPACE is proud to be a Media Partner of the RAF Air Power Conference 2018

The Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Conference 2018, Building the Next Generation Air Force will be held on 11-12 July at the IET, London.

For more details click here.

Tim Robinson
15 May 2018