Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.



Filed under Army, debate, defence, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Fast Jet flying club?

  1. Pingback: Eisensmith Receives Purple Heart |

  2. Ian Smith Watson

    I’ve read some of the comments on this subject and noticed a common trend in selctive observations and comparisons.

    To criticize the R.A.F. because Poles, Czechs and Royal Navy pilots flew in the Battle of Britain “as well” is being disingenuous in the extreme. Should we question the Army’s exisence because R.A.F. Forward Controllers had to be attached to Army units in Normandy? Because R.A.F. Harriers flew off the Carrier Decks in the Falklands should that cast doubt on the Royal Navy’s existence?

    Regarding the background of the professional head of the R.A.F. compared with the other service chiefs, the common trend is not that they are mostly Fast Jet pilots, but that they have invariably served in the Air Force’s core operational environment. They are all combat pilots, that’s the common trend. Just as the Chiefs of the General Staff and 1st Sea Lords are all former Infantry and Armoured officers (for the most part) and the Navy heads, all former Submarine and Frigate commanders. At one time they would have commanded Dreadnoughts. There were no Chiefs of the Air Staff prior to 1982 who flew Fast Jets operationally. But they had all flown operational combat sorties. So to clarify, a Fast Jet is not necessarily a Fighter. Sir Stephen Dalton flew Jaguars, these aren’t fighters and he flew them in the Tactical Reconnaissance role. Sir Michael Graydon flew Lightnings, these were Fighters.

    One last point, fast jets weren’t invented exclusively to fight the “cold war” anymore than Tanks or Submarines were. They are the inveitable result of the development of aerial warfare, which again, wasn’t invented to fight the cold war!

  3. James Daly

    I don’t think theres anything selective about it, the details speak for themselves. You’re right of course about the Jaguar being a tactical aircraft, thats a distinction I should have made.

    Are fast-jets the RAF’s core purpose NOW? Or are they likely to be in the future? Or are they what the RAF wants its purpose to be? Just because it was 20 years ago, it doesn’t mean that it is now. Prior to 1939 – and during WW2 – the RAF, spurred on by Trenchard, set its stall by strategic air power, and most historians argue that this was due to it being the most certain way of maintaining the RAF’s independence.

    I think I would stress also that although the fighter/attack aircraft could be seen as the core combat role, that would be akin to saying that the infantryman is more important than the the logistician, or that the Destroyer is more important than the RFA that keeps the Destroyer running. The tip of the sword is just that, and nothing without the support – this is something that Marlborough, Wellington and Montgomery knew well enough. OK so its a while since a Sapper, for example, has been CGS, and to my knowledge no First Sea Lord has had direct experience of serving in the RFA, but on the other hand they do seem to have more of an understanding and empathy for the less glamorous but important functions.

    The point I’m trying to make is that somebody who had spent the formative part of their career flying a Chinook or Hercules working with the Army is probably going to be more in tune with joint operations and ‘joined-up’ defence. But as its never happened, we just don’t know.

    You might be interested to note my most recent post, comparing the situation in the US Air Force, where the trend for commanders is even more limited – the US Defence Secretary deliberately appointed a former Airlift pilot as the current Chief of Staff in order to ring the changes.

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