British Air Power Is Fading Away
722 aircraft—and falling
The U.K. Ministry of Defense has released an accounting of all the aircraft in Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and British Army service — and the overall tally is tiny … and getting tinier.
As of March this year, the air forces of the United Kingdom possess no more than 362 combat-ready warplanes and drones plus 249 helicopters — a mere 611 military aircraft.
Britain’s air force, navy and army together have another 93 planes and copters that are in deep maintenance or rework plus 18 that are in storage. None of these 111 aircraft are immediately available for combat.
It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth-biggest military spender — dropping no less than $50 billion a year on its armed forces. But that $50 billion doesn’t translate into a lot of war-ready hardware.
With a defense budget of $585 billion, the United States spends far more than the United Kingdom does, but that investment supports an aerial arsenal of 13,900 manned warplanes and helicopters along with hundreds of large drones. Not all of America’s 14,000-plus military aircraft are combat-ready at any given time — but most are.
Drilling into the data, which the blog Think Defence first brought to our attention, the weakness of U.K. air power is even more evident. The 362 ready warplanes include just 59 Tornado and 89 Typhoon jet fighters. Another 28 Tornados and 38 Typhoons are in maintenance.
Even if the RAF’s mechanics worked overtime and managed to get all of the fighters onto the flightline, the kingdom’s war fleet would number just 214 fast jets.
By comparison, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps combined possess 2,800 fighters. Russia and China each boast around 1,500 combat jets.
And as bad as the situation is now, the trends point to an even smaller U.K. air arsenal in the near future. In 2006, the RAF operated around 220 war-ready fighters, dropping to 160 in 2009 and 148 this year.
But the Tornados will retire in 2019 and the Defense Ministry has announced it will also dispose of the 55 oldest Typhoons around the same time, leaving the RAF with just 105 or so total fighters five years from now, not all of which will be available for combat.
To be fair, the U.K. plans to acquire at least 48 new F-35 stealth fighters — and these could boost the RAF’s frontline combat strength back to around 150 jets by the early 2020s.
Again, that’s 150 jets including those in maintenance. Probably slightly more than half will actually be mission-ready at any given time. That amounts to just 75 or 80 fighters to defend the U.K. and the Falklands and fight overseas.
But that’s assuming London doesn’t further cut the military budget — hardly a safe assumption. At least one analyst expects the U.K. to slash defense spending by up to 10 percent from 2016, continuing the island nation’s decade of unilateral disarmament.