November 20, 2009:
Facing large budget cuts, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) is reducing its personnel strength by 25 percent (10,000 airmen) and closing five of 19 air bases. It will retire most of its Cold War era Harrier and Tornado aircraft early, and reduce flying hours. This is all brought about by growing problems with the national budget, which result in sharp cuts to defense spending. It's not a sudden problem. Budgets have been shrinking since the Cold War ended in 1991. But they keep getting smaller, and many air forces have not adapted to the post Cold War conditions. This has caused other problems.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Royal Air Force was suffering from shortages of more than just helicopters, spare parts, and pilots. The entire force was facing a massive shortage of manpower in all its branches. This was rapidly reaching a crisis point and caused some of the Air Forces rules to be bent, if not broken, in order to sustain operational capabilities. Perfectly good aircraft are cannibalized for parts, because budget cuts eliminated emergency supplies ("war reserves) of spare parts.
The extent of the manpower problem can be emphasized by the fact that Royal Air Force regulations require that deployed personnel be sent overseas for no more than 140 days per deployment. This applies specifically to pilots, air traffic controllers and weapons officers. Reports vary, but, in contravention of the RAFs own rules, support personnel, doctors, and nurses have seen deployment periods that range from a few days over the maximum limit, 140, to extremes of 160 days in theatre at a time.
Other specialists such as mechanics and intelligence analysts, are in pathetically short supply. The situation has gotten so bad the RAF is lacking 13 percent of the specialists that it needs in those occupations in order to operate at maximum efficiency. Another element of the service that has been hard-hit is the medical branch.
The ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are, unsurprisingly, the primary culprits of this shortage. It's been known for years that the RAF and many air forces around the world were consistently facing shortages, sometimes severe, of pilots, but the wars have caused the manpower crisis to infect other areas that are just as important. Things like keeping the planes flying and gathering the intelligence needed to determine which targets to hit on the ground, as well as treating casualties.
In addition to the ongoing wars Britain is trying to wage at the same time, two other factors are emerging that have got the governments attention. The first, obviously is money, namely the current Labor government's consistent slashing of the Air Forces budget, and the defense budget in general, which leaves little money left over for salaries and benefits. Secondly, because of either the stress of the job or the aforementioned low pay, hundreds of RAF personnel from all specialties have been resigning their posts recently in order to look for less hectic, and higher paying, jobs. Without more money, more people, and shorter deployment periods, the RAFs contribution to operations in Afghanistan are increasingly at risk.