2010 Articles

FEB 02 2010
Airshows - a Military Retrospective

As we embark on a new decade, it’s worth looking back over the past ten or so years. Doing so enables us to appreciate the significant impact that wider contexts have on the organisation of airshows – and more especially, on organisers’ attempts to bring international military aircraft to their events. It allows us to understand why military participation is the way it is today.

If we go back ten years, and just beyond into the late 90s, participation by the international military at British airshows was impressive. RIAT was at its zenith. The bursting-at-the-seams 1999 event, for example, impressively taking place at RAF Fairford just six weeks after the USAF had been mounting operations from there over Kosovo, attracted a record number of air arms and aircraft and could boast an almost punishingly-long nine-and-half-hour flying display.

But there was more than RIAT. Mildenhall’s tremendous Air Fete was still going strong. The other big military shows at Waddington, Leuchars, Cosford, St Mawgan, Yeovilton and Culdrose all regularly attracted overseas participants in significant numbers. And civilian-organised events like Biggin Hill and Woodford had a distinctive overseas flavour too. Woodford became renowned for creating particularly international displays. In 1998, for instance, its flying display included Anatoly Kvochur’s Su-27 Flanker; Belgian F-16 and Fouga Magister; Italian AF AMX G-222; Royal Netherlands AF F-16 airfield attack; German Navy Tornado IDS; Royal Jordanian Falcons; French AF Alpha Jet solo and Mirage F1 pair, backed up on the ground by Danish F-16s; Italian Piaggio P166; USAF KC-135R and a rare C-20A in blue and white Presidential colours. When a USAF F-117 Nighthawk flew by at the last event in 2000, it wasn’t viewed as particularly surprising.

Enthusiasts naturally lapped all this up. These were good times: days of Avtur-blurred horizons, jet noise, a melting pot of air arms and aircraft, something rare or exotic or unusual every year. And it was all possible because of the particular contexts operating at that time. Wider political, military and economic factors worked together which allowed organisers across Europe to deliver these types of airshows.

One reason why there was such impressive overseas participation during the 90s was simply the variety and number of aircraft. The Cold War may have ended in 1991, but there is always a time lag between world events and military resourcing. Air arms’ orders of battles during this period were still adjusting to the new, uncertain world. For airshow organisers, the large forces that remained extant in the 90s and into the early 2000s ensured a ready supply of aircraft. The end of the Warsaw Pact and the willingness of former Eastern Bloc nations to show off their wares to Western audiences added more diversity. In hindsight, it wasn’t surprising that there was such a variety of aircraft at airshows in this period.

Aircraft were simply available. Given that air arms were of a certain size, and had a number of squadrons operating the same aircraft, the impact of any operational commitments (and the 90s was a busy time for European and US forces with the Balkan conflicts) could be mitigated. Put another way, although an air arm may have been committed to training or operational deployments, aircraft were still available for airshow organisers simply because of the number of operating units, assets and personnel.

But as the last decade progressed, these contexts began to change – and, with them, so did the character of military participation at our airshows.

Changing strategic thinking led to organisational changes. Closer integration between forces, both within nations and internationally, combined with the emergence of new threats led to new operating doctrines focused on lean, efficient and rapidly deployable forces. Squadrons, and aircraft, were cut. Time also simply caught up with some aircraft. Lansen, Viggen, Draken, Crusader, Starfighter, Tomcat, Mirage III, IV and V, Jaguar and Sea Harrier were all retired. At the same time, former Eastern Bloc nations wanting to become integrated into the European mainstream elected to invest in new, modern equipment to replace their Soviet-era aircraft that enthusiasts so enjoyed seeing.

The result of all this was increased homogenisation between air arms’ inventories. Gripens, once sole preserve of the Swedes, were taken by the Hungarians and Czechs to replace superannuated Sukhois. Hornets were adopted by the Swiss and Finns replacing Mirages and MiG-21s respectively. Typhoon became the bedrock of five nations – replacing Tornado F3 and Jaguar in the UK, Phantom in Germany, Mirage in Spain, Starfighter in Italy and Draken in Austria. And this is not counting the various training, transport and helicopter types that have were progressively retired.

These wider military contexts progressively decreased the variety of aircraft on offer. And at the same time, availability reduced. The two factors were partly linked. In the 90s air arms were comfortable releasing aircraft to airshows, often to multiple events over the same weekend, simply because it was possible for them to do it. For example, in 1997 the Woodford show coincided with a major French Air Force Meeting de L’air at Colmar AB. This did not stop the French AF sending no fewer than five Tucanos to the Cheshire airfield.

But as forces became smaller, so this flexibility disappeared – and therefore the availability of assets was gradually eroded. The reduced numbers of Royal Netherlands Air Force and Luftwaffe assets at RIAT in recent years provide a pertinent example of this trend. Time was when these two air arms would send up to a dozen assets to the show every year. The Luftwaffe, for example, sent no fewer than 11 Tornado IDS/ECR variants to RIAT in 1999 – ten years later, it sent just five aircraft in total.

Availability also reduced because of the march towards leaner forces. With air arms being increasingly resourced to be as efficient as possible in performing their primary role, the ability of air arms to participate in airshows has been eroded. If you are operating a lean force, everything is directed to providing the effect. There simply isn’t the inherent flexibility to appear at airshows in the way was in the past. The global recession has added another layer of difficulty. With budgets shrinking, every penny spent matters. One air arm that wanted to attend RIAT last year couldn’t in the end because of a 25% reduction in its defence budget. In times like these, it’s inevitable that airshows are losing out.

These, then, are the conditions under which airshow organisers across the world are faced with at the moment. And there is no way of knowing how things will develop as we move forward. The only truth that matters is that military participation at airshows can only ever be as good as the ability of air arms to participate in them.

Looking ahead, the trick is to constantly be aware of what’s happening in the wider world. Continually examine the surrounding political, military and economic contexts. It is by looking at those that you can assess what will happen. It was those factors that shaped the character of military participation at airshows in the past. Those same factors are shaping the character of participation today and they will continue to do so in the future, for better or for worse. As with everything in life, context explains everything.

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