We looked at the problems of setting up a Scottish naval organization last week, and now Sir Humphrey turns his attention to the proposed air force for a post-independence Scotland. The proposed air force equipment from the white paper included “a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) squadron incorporating a minimum of 12 Typhoon jets based at Lossiemouth” and “a tactical air transport squadron, including around six Hercules C130J aircraft, and a helicopter squadron”:
The first challenge is the Typhoon fleet and how it can be operated to best effect. QRA is a very expensive thing to do properly — it’s not just about having pilots based in a cockpit ready to take off. Setting up QRA is about having a Recognised Air Picture, a means of sharing information and communicating it to the airbase. It is about having the C2 links in place so that in the event of a scramble, the means exist for the senior decision taking Minister to be able to authorise a shoot down decision and then for the pilot to carry it out in an appropriate manner. This ability needs to be available 24/7/365 and is an onerous task on aircrew and support teams.
In the SDF the reality is that with only 12 jets available, their entire effort will be taken up doing QRA — assuming two training aircraft come over, this gives a squadron of 10 aircraft to generate 2 airframes on a constant basis. Take two out of the equation for servicing, two on the flight line and two being prepared to take over, and this leaves you with a flex of four aircraft to conduct all training and flying for the fleet.
The MOD currently estimates that Typhoon costs £70k per hour to fly (full costs), so assuming that it flies for 30 hours per airframe per month over a year (an averaged figure as there will be peaks and troughs), you suddenly realise that it would cost £2.1 million per month, £25 million per year to keep each aircraft going, or a total of nearly £300 million per year to ensure that two jets were constantly available for QRA. This is well over 10% of the putative budget. Add to this the operating costs of RAF Lossiemouth currently exceed £100m per year, and you realise that nearly 20% of the SDF budget is going to be taken up just to run QRA.
As Sir Humphrey pointed out in an earlier post on the naval question, there’s no guarantee that lopping off a “fair share” of the UK’s existing equipment inventory makes any sense for the quite different needs of an independent Scotland. Again, the right approach is to ignore the equipment question at first and instead analyze the actual needs — what does Scotland need their air force to do — rather than building a wish list of impressive machinery that almost certainly won’t provide value for the money. An independent nation needs to protect their own airspace (or be involved in alliances to provide that protection communally), but that requires identification of actual or potential threats to Scottish interests.
Another problem with automatically adopting the same equipment as the UK is that the supporting organizations and infrastructure will also have to be created to utilize the equipment:
The other problem is who actually supports the aircraft — a lot of deep level RAF servicing has been contracted out now, and these contracts will be null and void for the SDF airframes. The SDF will either have to spend a lot of money to introduce servicing facilities (which are not cheap) or it will have to enter into all manner of very expensive commercial arrangements with UK companies to get them to support Typhoon in Scottish service. This sort of arrangement cannot be skimped either — if you don’t service your aircraft, then you quickly lose the ability to fly them. As such a newly independent Scotland may find itself hamstrung by a need to pay a great deal of money in support contracts and servicing contracts and not capital investment in new technology.
The proposal to acquire C130s seems similarly expensive. There is not, and has never been a C130 basing presence in Scotland. This means that the SDF would need to pay out from the start to set up a C130 support facility and hangar in Lossiemouth. They would also need to find sufficiently trained crews and groundstaff – a small point, but the C130 fleet has been based at Lyneham and Brize Norton for nearly 50 years. Finding a sufficient pool of operators and support staff to uproot from their home to go to a newly independent Scotland is going to be a major challenge in itself.