One (Long and Eventful) Year on: Reflecting on Chief of the Air Staff’s Keynote Speech at DSEI 2021
It is 16 months [or 525 days on 22nd February 2023] since Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), stepped up to the lectern at DSEI 2021 for his keynote speech (Watch below). No doubt if you had asked him then, he would have reflected on the tumultuous times of his tenure to date. Not only on the hurried withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan, which he referenced in his speech, as did the Integrated Review published earlier that year, but on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In September 2021, the UK government was hoping it had turned a corner with vaccinations offering a path from future lockdowns and looked to calmer seas ahead.
Ten weeks later the Omicron variant reached the UK and Partygate hit the Prime Minister and No 10. Three months after that Russia invaded Ukraine. The year of 2022 saw four Chancellors, three Prime Ministers, two Monarchs and a disastrous mini-budget. Sir Mike’s confident assertion that a promised £21.4 bn increase in defence spending meant ‘for the Royal Air Force this offers a once in a generation opportunity to build an air force fit for the future’ now sounds rather optimistic in the light of the highest inflation and worst cost of living crisis in generations.
Relistening to his speech after such a tumultuous 2022, one must allow for this destabilising turn of events for the UK and Europe. What is particularly interesting is the purely national focus of his speech. CAS referred to the Battle of Britain as ‘a collective national effort across the population’ without mention of the many countries who provided their resources and their people to join the Battle. This perhaps was intended to reflect the narrative of Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’, with Britain’s ‘going it alone’ untethered from the European Union. How our world has changed.
With the invasion of Ukraine, we have seen how our most important alliance, NATO – probably the most significant military alliance of the modern era – has been revitalised in its purpose and bonds as a result of full-scale war in Europe. Along with the rest of the MOD, Sir Mike has embraced increased energisation of the Alliance and cooperation with fellow air and space leaders, encouraging them to collaborate to innovate to improve collective security.
In terms of the details of his speech, his positivity around the Mosquito demonstrator (‘This is a game-changing project, in every sense, and it is going really well’) was perhaps overly optimistic, since by the summer the programme was closed. However, the RAF has embraced, in my opinion rightly, the concept of ‘failing fast’ to move from a position so risk averse that it stifles innovation to one that embraces opportunities accepting they might fail, and the programme closure fits with this narrative. It would, of course, be interesting to explore whether the programme failed really quite fast between September 2021 and July 2022 or whether this public optimism veiled some questions over the programme at that stage.
Sir Mike’s commitment to sustainability and his determination, as he put it ‘to tackle this head on’, has been demonstrated in the advances made in the last 16 months, some trailed at DSEI 2021. In particular, the RAF’s commitment to proving its air platforms could operate on 100% sustainable aviation fuel was borne out in the November 2022 Voyager flight from RAF Brize Norton.
The key message of this keynote speech was repeated several times throughout and that was: ‘technology alone is not enough; it’s what the culture of your organisation allows you to do with it that really makes the difference’. CAS referenced the pioneering days of the Royal Air Force when the emergence of independent air power under pressure of war turned to constant battles for its survival in the aftermath of the 1918 Armistice. As he put it:
Sir Mike talked about the innovative and disruptive gene in the RAF DNA that these fighters and rebels embodied to win their arguments. He talked about how that gene remains important in an innovative RAF of the future. Later in 2022, he referenced the same concept acknowledging that he believed this gene was ever present but ‘we occasionally have to wake it up’. Cultural change is hard, especially for large long-established institutions and the RAF, post-centenary, is certainly one of those.
What the Ukraine war has perhaps taught the UK armed forces, including the RAF, more than anything else is that innovation is often borne of wartime exigencies. Ukrainian innovation and ingenuity is partly underpinned by its own roots – as Julia Muravska has argued, in the study of STEM subjects, for example, and in the growing sense of national identity fostered by Russian aggression – but primarily by war with Russia.
Now the organisational culture of the RAF is being challenged to channel the threat that is no longer theoretical but present on our continent. The next Chief of the Air Staff will take on an air force that has weathered the last few years as well as can be expected given the multiple challenges it has faced, but still has more to do. Following in Sir Mike’s footsteps, the next CAS will need to continue his call to wake up the genes of innovation that were necessary in the formation of the Royal Air Force all those long and eventful years ago.
Dr. Sophy Antrobus, Research Fellow, Freemain Air and Space Institute, King's College London
Watch Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS)'s DSEI 2021 Keynote Speech