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Delivering the Air Power ambitions of SDSR 2015: Time for a new focus on RAF innovation

By Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, PA special advisor in defence

The UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR 2015) set out a strategic ambition for UK security and defence capabilities. The UK military and security services can now plan on increased investment in capabilities and personnel. In particular, the increased investment in airborne capabilities recognises the growing expectations being placed on the RAF in the Air Campaign against Daesh.

The challenges that Sir Stephen Hillier will face, as the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), are increasingly apparent. In the air domain, the RAF needs to meet the commitments of SDSR 2015 while absorbing its new operational platforms and maintaining or even increasing its contribution to operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

To optimise its delivery of UK Air Power and meet the many challenges of SDSR 2015, the RAF must be willing to enhance its innovative capability and embrace new ways of thinking. In so doing, it has a clear opportunity to refresh its culture, organisation and methods of training for the post-SDSR 2015 era.

Building on recent momentum to create a culture of innovation

The key finding of PA’s recent research, ‘Innovation as unusual’, was that innovation must be encouraged and imbued in the culture of the organisation. If the RAF is to achieve lasting and beneficial change, it therefore needs to embrace innovation from ‘top to bottom’.

In the research, however, half of all public sector defence organisations said that innovation was not currently an explicit part of their mission or culture. Furthermore, in an interview with Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton, Assistant CAS, he explained that there is a cultural tendency within the RAF to hold back innovation. “We build in checks and balances and do not always empower individuals,” he said.

An immediate priority for the RAF is to therefore increase innovativeness without compromising retention or operational output. Yet no organisation can embed a culture of innovation overnight.

The difficulty for the RAF stems from the fact that, over the last 20 years, its manpower has been reduced by nearly two-thirds. To reduce personnel whilst meeting increasingly diverse operational commitments, the RAF has focused on delivering world class tactical thinking and creating an experienced talent pool to support operations. One effect of this has been limited investment in wider innovation activity within the organisation.

In their recognition of this underinvestment, the current CAS, Sir Andrew Pulford, and the senior leadership of the RAF have been ahead of SDSR 2015. In 2014, Sir Andrew initiated an independent external review which led to the ‘Thinking to Win’ programme. This was designed to embed the conceptual component of fighting power at the heart of the RAF and help it unlock the full potential of its intellectual capital. The programme is already improving the RAF’s ability to innovate at all levels. To meet the demands of SDSR 2015, the RAF can build on this positive momentum.

Adopting an innovative approach to training and development

The RAF’s ability to recruit, train, motivate and retain talented servicemen and women, whilst continuing to meet its operational commitments, will be key to meeting the demands of SDSR 2015. Yet balancing training and operations is an acute challenge in the contemporary threat environment, where nations require agility and adaptability to stay ahead of threats that can quickly develop into significant and sometimes global security challenges. Achieving this balance will, undoubtedly, be firmly at the top of the new Chief of the Air Staff’s mind.

To meet the projected increased requirement in front-end capability, the RAF will need to double its pilot training throughput, reconstitute rear-crew training and ramp up initial officer and airmen training over the next two years. Yet talented service personnel are a finite resource that need to be better nurtured, which requires continual investment in the RAF’s talent and training. In turn, this risks placing additional strain on meeting operational outputs. Achieving greater results with the resources available will therefore mean openness to more innovative approaches to training and nurturing personnel.

To become more innovative, the RAF may also need to introduce a wider mix of skills and talents into its ranks, which will likely require additional training. While the majority (55%) of public sector defence organisations in PA’s research said they were strong in science, technology and engineering skills, for example, only 38% said they were strong in creativity and the creative execution of ideas.

Using innovation to maximise productivity without draining the front line

The Whole Force Approach (WFA) seeks to increase productivity across the board through the combined use of civilian, military and industrial manpower. Despite notable success in recruiting reserves, the RAF will face significant manpower challenges as it seeks to improve productivity and grow its operational capacity to meet SDSR 2015.

One challenge in getting front-line squadrons up to their optimum operational capability is finding the required number of experienced instructors. It means draining front-line operational roles of personnel in order to feed the training machine, leading to a potential drop in productivity and effectiveness.

However, the WFA also represents an opportunity for the RAF to use its limited but highly specialised assets – such as in its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities – to achieve strategic outcomes without relying as heavily on front-line personnel. By further adopting innovative ways of fulfilling operational requirements, the RAF can maximise its potential and reach without putting unnecessary strain on front-line requirements. As the majority (60%) of public sector defence organisations are already delivering industry-leading digital capabilities, according to the innovation research, progress is clearly being made in this area.

Collaborating across the RAF and the defence and security community

Collaboration can be difficult to achieve in an entrenched and traditional organisation like the military, where service lines and individual ‘tribes’ are perceived to dominate. However, if the ambitions of SDSR 2015 are to be realised, pan-security and defence collaboration – to enable the sharing of new ideas and innovative approaches – is required across the whole UK security and defence arena.

The RAF already makes a significant contribution to joint capability delivery, not only through the use of its platforms, but also in the skilled, experienced personnel that are pivotal to success. The strategic ambition of SDSR 2015 will, however, result in an increase in demand for greater collaboration.

To do so, the RAF will need to adopt new collaborative working practices, within a comprehensive cross-Government and multi-agency structure where partnering will be key to achieving the maximum impact of Air Power. There may be an opportunity to look beyond the traditional Defence Sector community and also pursue collaboration with external providers and networks to drive innovation. This could result in some impressive and ultimately more effective results, connecting with partners whom sub-disciplines within the RAF could productively collaborate.

The opportunity is there and must be taken

The RAF has delivered highly respected and effective Air Power for the UK for nearly 100 years. It has done so by remaining agile and adaptive to the required operational environment. As it responds to the complex challenges ahead, a new focus on innovation – as well as a greater openness to the developing approaches to innovation found in the private sector – will be critical to success.

SDSR 2015: Security and prosperity

PA's Defence and Security experts have analysed SDSR 2015, distilled its key themes and present a set of insights. These insights will help public and private sector bodies across the UK Defence and Security sector put the Strategy into Action.

download our analysis

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