Paul Beaver: Yes, we need air power – but must it be provided by the RAF?

Today, the Army Air Corps flies the Apache, arguably the world's best attack helicopter

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No right-minded person should be calling for the abolition of the Royal Air Force. Britain's three armed forces have unique and important capabilities to bring to the defence of the United Kingdom's national interests.

But the RAF will have to change.

In the Battle of Britain's 70th anniversary year, it's worth remembering that the Second World War produced other air triumphs, too, including a scarcely less vital operation in the Mediterranean. In the Battle of Taranto, in November 1940, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm delivered a knock-out blow to the Italian fleet with 21 antique biplane Swordfish launched from an aircraft carrier. This operation, on one night, prevented the Axis Powers from dominating that sea. It also proved that air power isn't just the preserve of the Royal Air Force.

Today, the Army Air Corps flies the Apache, arguably the world's best attack helicopter providing close combat attack to within a handful of metres from International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan: closer than fixed-wing aircraft can.

So nobody can seriously believe the mantra that "everything that flies" should be RAF. A quick look around at the most powerful nations in the world shows that three services need to be supported by organic air and aviation.

But that's not to say there has been change. A decade ago, the three services' battlefield helicopters were under Army control and for a very good reason.

The Land Commander needs his prime movers and close attack assets to be under direct command. That need hasn't stopped all three services providing commanders for this Joint Helicopter Command. Joint doesn't always work of course – the notorious Joint Force Harrier proved to be the wrong way to go about bringing the fast jets of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force together. The dynamics and culture-clash made it worse than a hostile take-over.

But whither the Royal Air Force? The numbers of fast jets in service and planned is unrealistic. The need for the Joint Strike Fighter is nebulous. And against whom will Britain use a Stealth Bomber?

After all, the nation has spent billions on the Typhoon, so let's invest a little more and make it work properly. By 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, it will still exist. But its capabilities will, with luck, be better-tuned and directed. It will be smaller and more cost-effective. It will then proudly see out its centenary.

Paul Beaver is a defence analyst and pilot

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