Operating at the Speed of Relevance

RAF Typhoons deployed on Op Biloxi, the United Kingdom's contribution to NATO's Southern Air Policing, at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, May 2021.
RAF Typhoons deployed on Op Biloxi, the United Kingdom's contribution to NATO's Southern Air Policing, at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, May 2021.

Air Marshal Sir Gerry Mayhew, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Deputy Commander for Operations (DCOM Ops) talked to Armada International during a busy tour of the Middle East about the changing nature of the battlespace and how air power is adapting to meet new challenges.

Air Marshal (AM) Gerry Mayhew is a high-time fighter pilot, with almost 3,000 flying hours in his log book, including more than 200 operational sorties over the Balkans and Iraq. However, he realises only too well that the operating environment has changed hugely since he was in the cockpit, and that today’s young RAF fast jet pilots – and his service – face new and very different challenges. As DCOM Ops, is the senior RAF war fighter responsible for the conduct of air operations at home and overseas.

“The world is more uncertain,” Mayhew believes, “and we cannot choose between conventional defences against state-based threat and the need to counter threats that do not recognise national borders and international norms and practices; we must be able to do both. The domains in which we are operating are becoming ever more complex and state-based competition and confrontation are becoming the norm. Played out across a multi-layered and multi-speed battlespace, activities are occurring across physical, virtual, legal (and in some cases, illegal) realms. As we are now required to operate in an increasingly complex, and dynamic strategic environment, with this continuously blurred distinction between ‘peace’ and ‘war’, ‘home’ and ‘away’ and ‘state’ and ‘non-state’, this era of persistent competition and sub-threshold engagement means that our long-held assumptions and solutions are challenged every day. Our adversaries will engage in a continuous struggle that involves all the instruments of statecraft which aims to undermine our cohesion as partners and erode the resilience of our people and our stance.”

Air Marshal Sir Gerry Mayhew is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Deputy Commander for Operations (DCOM Ops). He has over 3,000 flying hours and 200 operational sorties.

Mayhew remains an enthusiastic advocate for air power, pointing out that the unique selling point of air power lies in the fact that air forces are ready, and able, to fight “across the continuum of competition from co-operation through confrontation, to conflict, and to do so at any time and sometimes across several theatres in each mission.

“That gives our commanders and governments the choice and ability to act and signal strategically on a global stage, at range, at speed, precisely, with limited political risk and maximum political choice,” he explained.

But while Mayhew acknowledges that HQ AIR is continuing to explore how synchronisation and coordination can help Navy and NATO allies to achieve maximum effect, he says that: “the first rationale for us is to support a resilient homebase,” and stresses the importance of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) fighters conducting air defence.

While Gerry Mayhew is at heart, still a fast jet pilot, with tours flying SEPECAT Jaguar, Lockheed Martin F-16, Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon, he takes a much wider view, and is a convinced ‘Joint Warrior’, keen to embrace multi-domain integration. “Commanders will still have to be able to transform strategic intent into tactical effect through the orchestration and integration of all land, air, maritime, cyber and space capabilities,” he insists.

Escorting uninvited intruders heading towards the UK’s airspace is still a vital role for the RAF’s Typhoon fighters on Quick Reaction Alert.
Escorting uninvited intruders heading towards the UK’s airspace is still a vital role for the RAF’s Typhoon fighters on Quick Reaction Alert.

“We must continue to push how we co-operate, co-exist and compete globally. The RAF has been fully engaged with the Royal Navy’s (RN) Carrier Strike Group, the Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade, Agile Combat Employment (ACE), NATO assurance across Europe and engaging throughout with Air ISR and projection missions around the world. All such activities require robust co-ordination – and the Command and Control (C2) architecture and command relationships need to be well founded and defined.”

Mayhew told Armada that the RAF’s ASTRA programme is transforming the service to meet future challenges. He says that the RAF is mobilising and modernising and will be a “next generation air force in a multi-polar world.”

Multi Domain Integration

As part of the ongoing transformation, the MOD and PJHQ (Permanent Joint Headquarters) are looking at the concept of having a UK Global Air Component Commander while No.11 Group is being restructured to allow it to enable the RAF to holistically deliver Multi Domain Integration (MDI) and operations that are intelligence informed and effects led.

Mayhew highlighted the work of the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), in continuing to innovate, exploit new technology, and pull through scientific research. The RCO is responsible for the MDI combat cloud that has been developed by the United Kingdom to network all of its future aircraft and other platforms, and this is now reportedly operationally ready. This is based on the use of the Nexus (data platform), Raven (a micro-virtualised server acting as a virtual communications node) and a cloud-based app called Deckard, and enables intelligence to be drawn from a variety of sources (space-based, ISR aircraft, ship- and land-based) and then processed in near real time to provide a combined intelligence picture of hitherto unrivalled detail.

The Nexus data platform will allow multiple applications simple access to a single river of information shared across the network and across the classification spectrum, including analytical and fusion engines, some of them based on Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Mayhew also mentioned the mesh network – a self-healing communications network designed to support the passing of data between air vehicles, especially as part of any swarming drone operations.

He is keen to stress that, as a service the RAF already operates globally. “We might not be persistent with the same platform in the same place all the while. But as a service, we’re used to operating globally,” he said, going on to explain that the service has sufficient agility to be able to “do lots of different things from a given location”, using different assets and different people to maintain the persistence, rather than necessarily having a single enduring deployment.

Mayhew believes that the key to success lies in getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle or OODA loop (observe–orient–decide–act), achieving a position where the UK possesses a greater degree of information about the battlespace than its adversary, and then exploiting that information more rapidly. At the same time, the UK must prevent the enemy from obtaining any information that might give them combat advantage. This requires the UK to dominate the electro-magnetic environment, Mayhew notes. “One of the first considerations of commanders should be how to dominate the electro-magnetic environment and the cyberspace domain as vital terrain so that information, weapons, sensors and platforms can be deployed and employed in an uninhibited and protected way.


One of the first considerations of commanders should be how to dominate the electro-magnetic environment and the cyberspace domain…”


“To do this we must recognise that our operational success depends less on exquisite individual capabilities, but more on the strength of our connected network of sensors, weapons systems, analytical tools and critically, the decision makers,” Mayhew said.

Air Marshal Sir Gerry Mayhew is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Deputy Commander for Operations (DCOM Ops). He has over 3,000 flying hours and 200 operational sorties.
Air Marshal Sir Gerry Mayhew is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Deputy Commander for Operations (DCOM Ops). He has over 3,000 flying hours and 200 operational sorties.

Shaping the Digital Environment

“As the DCOM Ops in the RAF, the ability to both command and control in warfare is critical and in these modern times the speed of technological transfer and the amount of data that we must process means that current systems, networks and, dare I say it, commanders’ ways of working, need to modernise!”

Mayhew believes that the battlespace that the RAF operates in must continue to evolve to meet new threats. “We must build and shape the digital environment of the modern battlefield into the shape we need,” he said.

Mayhew has said that there are four key changes that need to factor into the RAF’s approach to changing conditions: “Firstly, the battlespace is now measured across large distances, which requires the virtual domain to bridge.”

He has identified what he calls an “increased desire to command and control,” often including multiple arms of government and warns that this potentially reduces the usefulness and capability of the centralised control/decentralised execution and mission command model. Commanders at all levels will need access to constantly updated, real time situational awareness tools to support and enable timely decision making.

Formal relationships and ways of doing business may also need to be revised, refined and where necessary delegated to allow commanders at all levels to function effectively.

“We need to understand how we best harness current technologies to enable effective command and control at the ‘speed of relevance’. The opportunities offered through next generation platforms and sensors, multiple-intelligence sources and open-source material, alongside the rapid expansion in tools available to manage, fuse, analyse, visualise, and understand information will be key to achieving this,” he suggested.

Who Commands the Commanders?

In the past a single commander would usually exclusively direct the activities of a subordinate unit, but today, the same platforms and specialist personnel will sometimes have to concurrently support a number of joint commanders, possibly with a wide variety of operational requirements. This makes it essential that orders for the delivery of operational capability are properly prioritised. But who, Mayhew asks, commands the commanders and gives that prioritisation?

“Exercising effective C2 of such capability not only challenges traditional notions of C2 hierarchies, but also require agile, adaptable and, critically, assured networks to relay commands and receive data. As part of the process of directing tasks and increasing pace, clear delegations to the next level of command must be made to allow prioritisation decisions to be made at the lowest level possible, in line with the overall national priorities,” he said. “Our aviators will need to understand information warfighting as a core competency and alongside physical operations.”

Mayhew went on to identify the remaining ‘key changes’ that will factor into the RAF’s new approach: “We are working more with each other, as allies, often in coalitions and across the five domains (Maritime, Land, Air, Cyber and Space).”

As with the cyber and electro-magnetic domains, the space domain poses challenges to existing command and control concepts. Current C2 systems and processes were developed to exercise authority over physical fighting units and force elements which concentrate on delivering effect, whereas the space and cyber domains tend to be focused on the acquisition and transmission of data, to provide communications and intelligence. They therefore require a different approach.

Applying C2 in the space domain is further complicated by the principle of ‘dual use’, in that some space assets may be tasked with providing services for both civilian and military purposes. This could mean that other government departments may need to be involved in key decision making, further complicating the military commander’s prioritisation decisions and adversely effecting the speed of their actions.

Given the unique nature of space, the UK has already established an embryonic space domain C2 architecture, which will continue to be evolved as the UK Space Command grows towards Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in April 2022.

Mayhew also suggested that “we need to understand that the acceleration of technological innovations will continue to transform modern military operations. This not only allows for a new generation of weapons systems but also enables an entirely new way of warfare. These technologies, especially in communications, data and information capabilities, have disrupted the economics and the very character of warfare. They offer persistence and a pervasive presence, enable the rapid collection and rapid distribution of vast amounts of relevant information at low cost. Finally, we need to understand how the technology that supports us has also become a threat.” Mayhew believes that it is the proliferation of these technological innovations that is making the modern battlespace more congested, contested, cluttered, and constrained.

The new ‘Space Operator’ badges. The design is based on the Airborne Specialist badge and features a single silver angled wing and a blue laurel surrounding a delta, an orbit ellipse and a constellation of stars representative of Aries, as UK Space Command was formed on 1 April which is during the period of Aries in the celestial calendar.

Disruptive Technology

“We need to be continuously considering how we exploit both disruptive technologies and innovation, including technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and quantum technologies. We need to ensure our individual platforms, capabilities and, our decision makers are integrated within this digital environment from a joint and pan-government perspective but also with the ability to be interoperable with allies and partners. This could be bilateral, multi-lateral or within a wider coalition,” he explained.

Mayhew acknowledges that achieving the required level of integration will come with a need to navigate the sensitivities of increased interoperability with multiple allies, and that scalable, multi-classification architecture will be needed to deliver this interoperability. This will obviously require that the digital environment is protected and proactively defended, not least through robust national cyber security systems.

Mayhew is an enthusiastic evangelist for greater interoperability, which he has described as being the key to countering adversaries who seek to exploit the UK’s legal, moral and ethical thresholds.

“The strategic utility of airpower reaffirms the necessity of the RAF remaining a credible global force operating internationally alongside our global partners. Our international commitments make these partnerships especially important. We can’t maintain that global posture on our own. And neither can our partners. Therefore we need to work with each other, especially where we’ve got the same kinds of aircraft platforms, norms, and behaviours, because the sum of the parts will be greater.

Mayhew stresses that: “This is not just about the Brits, and the Royal Air Force, leading here. It’s about working with so many partners and friends – coming together to share, to understand and learn from each other. We’re learning things day to day and the flow is in both directions. This is a shared set of experiences, of opportunities that allow us to work together against common threats.”

And this, Mayhew maintains, is vital. “The strategic utility of airpower reaffirms the necessity of the RAF remaining a credible global force operating internationally alongside our global partners,” he insists. “Our international commitments make these partnerships especially important.”

Operation Shader – the RAF’s participation in the global coalition against Daesh – highlights the importance of these partnerships. “Operation Shader continues to be a really successful operation for the Royal Air Force and for the wider coalition. The coalition has stayed close together and that is the measure of success,” Mayhew affirms. “These forces continue to go after the beating heart of Daesh even if it is splintered. They continue to put themselves in danger’s way every day. From a government perspective and from an air force perspective I’m incredibly proud of what they’re doing because it is preventing danger coming onto our shores, or the shores of others that we work with.”

“The decision making that is going on in cockpits, and indeed in cabins that are running the Reaper crews, for instance, or the air mobility and the Chinook teams that are out in the region, remains astonishing, and I’m incredibly proud of the teams that are doing it. And I watch it every day.”

The Eurofighter Typhoon now provides the backbone of Shader, and Mayhew is enthusiastic about the new capabilities now being integrated on the aircraft – both for the RAF in the Centurion upgrade, but also for export customers. “The great thing about this is as a partner brings something new onto the aircraft, so the rest of the Typhoon community gains advantage from that in terms of capability, and understanding. Typhoon is going to be the backbone of the RAF for another two decades plus for combat air mass. So we will continue to invest as you saw in the integrated review. To not invest in it, would be nonsensical!

But improvements to Typhoon represent just one of the recapitalisations that the RAF is enjoying, alongside the expansion of the Lockheed Martin F-35B force, the replacement of General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper by Protector and the progress being made with the Airbus A400M Atlas. “So the journey continues with the recapitalisation to ensure that we’re fit for a 21st century scenario. And that’s good for the Royal Air Force and it’s good for our partners, and it’s good for the nation because there is a huge industrial base here that we must consider alongside the military output. I think there’s always been a really good label globally around the Royal Air Force. So if we can work with industry colleagues to ensure that we act as a shop window for them to say, “Hey, look, we use this, we operate this, this is how we’re going to operate and develop in the future,” then that brings a real boon to industry, because they can use the RAF as a ‘kitemark’ for them.”

by Jon Lake