Transforming the Royal Air Force

Air Marshal Andrew Turner, deputy commander, Capability provides an insight into the intellectually driven ASTRA – the plan to transform the Royal Air Force by 2040.

How do you transform an institution like the Royal Air Force (RAF), steeped in history and awash with legends – both in terms of aircraft and those who flew them?

Honouring the past is an important responsibility for any organisation, especially one that is actually credited with saving the nation from invasion during 1940. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The danger however, is remaining anchored in tradition at the expense of transformation. Air Marshal Andrew Turner, Deputy Commander, Capability, leads on energizing and delivering the Next Generation Royal Air Force through ‘ASTRA’ – not a project, but more a journey than anything else. “ASTRA envisages the world around 2040 – beyond current financial planning and policy time frames – where our thinking can be unconstrained, we can be genuinely creative and we can design from origin the likely nature of the environment and types of operation we might be asked to act in. When seen through a series of five year stepping stones back to today, and the realities of the world and warfare we face every day, we can chart a clear path to follow” he explains.

F-35B Lightning II
ASTRA will transition the Royal Air Force into an organisation as modern and as adaptable as its F-35B Lightning IIs.

As commander of capability, Air Mshl Turner has a strategic vision that breaks away from how the development of the RAF has traditionally been managed, and instead will modernise it along civil corporate lines. What this means is bringing its philosophy into the 21st Century.

To date, he says, the RAF has generally followed a path of “strategic planning by replication, primarily orientated around equipment. Essentially we have adapted whilst in contact, often with the enemy. For much of my career this has largely led to the replacement of old stuff with slightly newer and invariably more expensive and therefore slightly less stuff than before.”


Air Marshal Andrew Turner
Air Marshal Andrew Turner is Deputy Commander (Capability) in the Royal Air Force and fully behind the delivery of the Next Generation of his service.

“Astra is not focused on equipment, but the world and the challenges we will face,” explains Air Mshl Turner. He comments that the increasingly complex environment that the RAF must operate in could lead to “satellite dogfights” (as an increasing number of nations can launch their own satellites), biological threats (now made more real by the current experience with coronavirus – but also including deliberate acts such as that in Salisbury), and the rapid march of technological development.

He identifies five different impetuses for change:

  • Warfare is changing the future of which will be increasingly less kinetic: “traditional norms –laws, are being circumvented for advantage by our adversaries. We are facing a very threatening re-orientation of the world and it is important for us to move as it changes.
  • As ever, government wants more capability from the Defence budget – a persistent requirement to get more capability – more from our equipment, not more equipment.
  • The public will want more from us – more presence in more places.
  • Our Service people naturally and reasonably want more, not only modern equipment, but also different terms of service, modernized support arrangements and a focus on the NetZero agenda.
  • And we must harness the fast-moving technological advances for our benefit.

The Global Strategic Trends, a document that describes a strategic context for the UK government to allow it to develop long term plans, strategies, policies and capabilities, is one example of rapid change. “This is its 17th year and it is already on Edition 6,” says Air Mshl Turner. “We have been unable to predict the rate of technology change in the world.” He adds that traditional budget horizons (and mechanisms such as the Strategic Defence and Security Review) have been set in five year timeframes, but such is the pace of emerging technology that it emerges and is accessible well within these timelines.

ASTRA will get after all of this, not through doing the impossible and predicting the future, but through a persistent journey of looking well ahead, drawing on widely developed insights and plotting a pathway of concepts, people needs, equipment modernisation, as well as support and infrastructure over time. The challenge is considerable says Air Mshl Turner, with around 233 different projects already identified, aggregated into 30 programmes of work. “The real challenge is what do you do first,” he notes.


“The conceptual journey is about rebuilding the Air Force ‘brain’. We need to confront questions to inform choice before the answers are needed,” says Air Mshl Turner. The plan is to ensure all of the places where that deep intellectual reflection and thought is conducted are joined together and that we draw on the mass to develop more, which is where the sum will be greater than the parts. He sees the RAF reaching out not only to its own academic base in staff colleges, but also to Fellows in Oxford and other universities, as well as Defence institutes and think tanks such as the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and International Institute for Defence Studies (IISS).

An understanding needs to be formulated and frequently revised on matters such as the future way that warfare will be fought, the development of new command structures, and the change in what modern deterrent measures will work. “How do we defeat an enemy without shooting; how agile is the force to new threats, particularly to the home base; how do we view our approach to warfare through the information advantage lens; how do we defeat and win in space without effecting the UK’s infrastructure and way of life.” Around 70 big, hard questions have been identified so far, he says.

But ASTRA is intended to turn reaction into preparation: to plan where the RAF needs to go rather than reacting to what is demanded. To this end, Air Mshl Turner says that an academic board has been formed, will meet several times each year and, with a prioritised list of subjects, will drive the academic analytical development of the RAF into the future. This work will feed the four main focus areas that will drive ASTRA forward: people, equipment, training and support.

The whole way in which service personnel are treated and developed needs a new construct, states Air Mshl Turner. It is multi-directional: “We want to reset our offer, getting out of the 1930s environment where we have 68 branches and trades, and move those into something like 10 professions. There needs to be more opportunity for people to move around the organisation without leaving.”

He notes that the flexibility and remuneration offered by industry needs to be matched if people are to be attracted to the service and retained over the long term. He adds that there also needs to be “a more flexible relationship with industry to allow personnel to move in and out of the organisation, as they will be civil qualified which will make transitions easier. We have called this developing the ‘zig-zag’ career.”


“For a long time our people have not been ‘tradesmen’ with all of the historical connotations of that word, and nor do we need a separate term for officers from the other ranks. Instead, we want to refer to all of our people through the lexicon of a profession; it’s what they deserve” he states. “Basically this means grouping previous trades and branches together under one profession, adjusting training to allow people to re-skill more quickly and then adjust their terms of service to generate the real fluidity/liquidity in workforce that we need to confront adversaries long into the future”. In this way he describes a specialist computer operator who could be controlling a satellite, running battlespace, driving the sensors on a drone, analysing intelligence images or running air traffic control, all of whom would come under one ‘umbrella’ profession. According to Air Mshl Turner, “there are currently around 14 branches/trades that currently cover those activities and it is really difficult to move between each one.”

computer based systems operators
Old RAF trades/branches will become professions, such as computer based systems operators from air traffic controllers to UAV sensor operators.

There is also scope to significantly change the working structure for RAF employees, with similarities to the civil employment contract, which would include more flexible working conditions. “People may want a career break or time off for paternity; I am very interested in allowing people to be more flexibly employed and move towards a more Full Time Equivalent approach,” says Air Mshl Turner. “We want to aim at having two categories of people – regular and reserve (which would replace the eight titles that describe those two functions at present.”

“We also want to treat people more as individuals, as in the civilian world, not as cohorts. We are not a huge organization – around 30,000 people – so this should not be difficult”. Air Mshl Turner cites the considerable benefits of serving in the forces: in addition to the basic salary (which may initially seem lower than in the civil world), there is accommodation, pension, access to medical services, food, and a wide variety of activities, all of which would carry their own costs in civvy street. However certain areas are in need of improvement, especially basics such as regular hot water and heating, and wifi.

He admits that some of our personnel systems are in need of significant improvement: “We need to move into personnel applications on phones to manage our personal business, we have 90 different allowances  where we should have 3, and many more things besides”.


New technology, as ever, is on the way. But this is not the type of replacement churn mentioned earlier. Unmanned continues to expand into new areas with the advent of loyal wingman and cloaking UAVs; cognitive warfare and the control of information and further expansion into space based systems. The challenge now is not to have volume, but to have data and intelligence led strategies.

As Air Mshl Turner recalls: “When I joined the AF we had 38 fleets of aircraft – Vulcan, Victor, Domini, Bulldog, etc – each fleet of which had roughly 100 aircraft, today we have 48 fleets on average around 10 aircraft or so. By way of example – we have 18 different helicopter types, 14 different ISR platforms and eight different airlift platforms. The capital invested in synthetics, training, logistics, management, airworthiness as so on across each fleet is significant, but when aggregated is enormous. So we need to rationalise our fleets, become more multi-roled in those that we retain and drive up the availability of each. Through this approach, we will be able to deliver more from the equipment we have got. This is essential if we are to meet the challenges I set out at the beginning”. He is calling for a reduction in the number of fleets, but with an emphasis on those that remain will have greater utility and versatility. “If we go from 48 to let’s say 20 fleets and we double front line availability, from the current 40-50 per cent to 80-90 percent, we will increase our capacity and capability in every area”. If we connect this to more and better synthetics for training, better through-life support (like Chinook TLCS or TyTAN), we will be in a completely new place and fit and ready for the rigours and challenges of contemporary operations”.


“This needs an absolute revolution,” states Air Mshl Turner. With over 5,500 people in some form of school, college or academy, we need to move away from rote learning towards more learning at the front line and more skills taught on-the-job. “We need to move from our current 17.4 percent of our people in some type of training institution to around seven percent.”

Air Marshal Andrew Turner
“We need to move away from rote learning towards more learning at the front line and more skills taught on-the-job,” states Air Marshal Turner.

In terms of the RAF’s main base facilities, Air Mshl Turner considers that there is much to recapitalise and change. More secure employment would allow more people to own their own homes, with spouses being able to hold down employment without the worry of continual displacement.

Finally, Air Mshl Turner is thinking about Net Zero, and the RAF’s contribution towards global warming. While some may doubt how a fighting force can achieve this, he points to daily achievements that could be made outside of conflict.  The use of anaerobic digesters, solar panels on hangers, wind generation (obviously away from runways), and an examination of offsetting JetA1 aviation fuel, or even working towards an alternative eco-friendly fuel. There is a clear path towards a NetZero RAF, but we just need the right academic underpinning, partnerships and investment and we can play our part in this important national and Global endeavour.

As Air Mshl Turner embarks on the Astra journey it appears that the all-encompassing scope of the challenge is daunting. But it one that needs to be done. Norms in all walks of life are changing. We have only to recall how the coronavirus has changed the world in a few short months. The world is revolving around data and technology – and the management of both which requires smart, informed and well-motivated people. Per ardua ad astra never had a better literal meaning.

by Andrew Drwiega