Gareth Stringer's 2011 blogGAR Entries

FEB 16 2011
Defence Cuts, Now It's Getting Personnel

Whatever your political persuasion, whoever you blame for the UK’s ongoing financial strife and regardless of your thoughts on the role and responsibilities of the modern day Royal Air Force – yesterday was a very sad day.

In recent months GAR has covered a number of aircraft retirements and I’ve been fortunate enough, and also unfortunate enough, to cover some of them in person. I was at Coventry Airport for the delivery of a Nimrod MR.2 to Air Atlantique’s museum AIRBASE, I witnessed the last flights of the Harrier in UK service, only last Friday I was at Cosford for a Dominie’s arrival at the RAF Museum and we are already preparing for the end of the Tornado F.3 and Nimrod R.1.

We tried to emphasise the human impact of those retirements, we really did. But, at the end of the day, it is perhaps only natural that the aircraft took centre stage as the final curtain came down on long and distinguished careers. People move on don’t they? They get re-trained, they go and fly something else, they pursue a non-flying job and aim for promotion; but at least they have memories of a flying tour, or more, in the Royal Air Force, the realisation of a dream for so many. Not any more.

The announcement that something like 175 trainee pilots, some 43% of the total number, will be chopped (it’s such a harsh word yet so appropriate) from the RAF’s flying training system is one that has shocked onlookers, with many believing that this is the Light Blue’s darkest time for many years.

It has been an honour, and I really mean that, to visit and write about various elements of that same training system for features on GAR. We've been to 1 EFTS at RAF Cranwell, met future pilots and weapons systems officers at Linton-on-Ouse and examined advanced flying training with 208 Squadron at RAF Valley. Everywhere we’ve been we’ve met young men and women striving to achieve lifelong goals, working incredibly hard towards that day when those famous wings would be proudly attached to a uniform and flying suit. Great people each and every one of them – motivated and devoted to their training.

For many of those we have met along the way, that dream will soon be effectively over. For some, notably a number of WSO students, it already is.

I suppose, at its heart, it is still about the aircraft really and of course money. We know the types that have gone and we know that the Tornado GR.4 force faces reductions, that the new Chinooks may not even be ordered, the increase of roles being filled by UAVs, that JSF still seems like a distant dream, or even a nightmare in the eyes of many. But this announcement won’t see more aircraft being placed in storage, offered for sale or piled up on a scrapheap; but it will see a huge amount of talent, some of which was getting very close to earning those coveted wings, left high and dry.

It costs £4 million to train a fast jet pilot according to news reports, £2 million for a rotary pilot, and that money has been spent on what exactly? Apparently many will be offered different branches of the service but it seems certain that offer won’t extend to each and every one of them, how can it be? Not if the numbers game is the only one in town. Like the recent scrapping of the Nimrod MRA.4, we have invested money, let me rephrase that, thrown the money away; and we have nothing whatsoever to show for it, other than a pile of scrap and a trail of shattered dreams.

I’m not qualified to say that it shouldn’t be happening or that there must be another way. The defence budget and our procurement system have been in a terrible state for decades so perhaps this, along with the certainty of additional redundancies across all three Services, is the natural end game? We all know the arguments for and against but my point is that it is desperately, desperately sad to see the Royal Air Force (and of course the Army and Royal Navy), which I hold in such high regard, being forced to shed people like this.

The old cliché rings true, an organisation is only as good as the people who represent it, and our Armed Forces have always been blessed that so many young men and women have had the desire to sign on the dotted the line and put themselves forward to serve Queen and country. But will they in the future?

I read today that recruitment is now on hold for 2011/2012 fiscal year and it seems clear that the RAF faces a very difficult few years in more ways than one. I mean, who would want to join up at the moment anyway, no longer certain of a secure future in return for a commitment to serve? Any youngsters keen on a career as an RAF pilot, or indeed any role as this will eventually effect so many branches, must be wondering what on earth is going on as they see this news breaking. Having taken it all in, you wouldn’t really blame anyone for reassessing their options. And what of those who are fortunate enough to avoid the chop? How will they feel about staying in bearing in mind the turbulent times the Air Force is going through? The sad fact is that it isn’t just about those who find themselves surplus to requirement now, but potentially the very future of the RAF as a viable employer.

I hope this isn’t the end of the Royal Air Force as I know it, not in human terms at least. I have never served, but my Father did and I have made many good friends who do over the past couple of years, some of whom sadly have been directly affected by what has gone on in recent days and months. Let’s all hope that very soon the cuts will come to an end and that the service can take time to consolidate (it has little choice it seems!) and become used to its new look and new feel.

In that time there will of course be many men and women on operations in Afghanistan and beyond, there will be those who work to defend the UK 24 hours a day / 365 days a year, those who come to the rescue of civilians in desperate need of help at sea or in the mountains, those who deliver vital humanitarian aid. They won’t be feeling sorry for themselves; they will go out and do the job they were trained to do, to the best of their ability. They will also need to inspire, if they can, those who will form the basis of the future Royal Air Force.

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2011-03-08 - Chris
Beautifully written Gareth. A very sad time for everyone, especially the loss of the Harriers. It's heartbreaking.

2011-02-18 - Bob Jenkins
Excellent observations, Gareth. Our politicians little realize just what a national treasure our armed forces are because so few of them have any personal experience of earning the Queen's shilling. Sadly, the forces are gagged from expressing themselves and thus, it's vital that people such as yourself speak up for them. Well done - and to all those in uniform, we salute you.

2011-02-16 - Phil
Well written Gareth. Maybe the cuts would have been more acceptable had they been identified in a full Defence Strategy review, however SDSR was rushed through and lacked any longer term vision - apart from desperate measures to cut the budget deficit. Sadly I think the country will live to regret these decisions...!

2011-02-16 - Neil McCarthy
Here Here!

2011-02-16 - Thin(light)BlueLine
A heartfelt personal report at a very poignant time for the trainees highlighted.
However, we mustn't forget the 4000 'other' ranks and personnel who are facing the 'chop'. Unlike the younger trainees, many of these won't have the opportunity to start over and have got families and mortgages to worry about. A sad time for all of those involved.

2011-02-16 - Dunk
A very emotional blog from the heart there Gareth. Nice to see a piece written with little political prejudice, but written with the thoughts of those that have served their country, and those who wanted to serve and protect their country in mind.

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