The Royal Air Force is to reinstate a Cold War training exercise amid the threat from Russian cruise missiles, the service’s chief has said.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said he wants the RAF to re-learn skills not practised for 30 years, and that a series of ‘no-notice’ scatter drills called Exercise Agile Stance will be carried out.
The drills will see fighter jets given the order to disperse, meaning they leave their bases to land at civilian airfields or even on motorways. If the jets are spread out, the target for enemies is "harder", said ACM Wigston.
Speaking to the Telegraph in Hawaii where he was visiting Pearl Harbor with the head of the US Pacific Fleet, ACM Wigston said fixed RAF bases would be as vulnerable to a surprise attack in any future conflict as US forces had been when the Japanese struck in December 1941.
“We’ll be re-learning how to disperse,” he said, adding if “the arsenal [of advanced cruise missiles] Putin has been bragging about” was moved to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad “we’d be in range”.
ACM Wigston said the “trajectory” of Russia over the last 15 years is forcing military leaders to be innovative in the face of an increasing threat.
“I’m not interested in paving over Lincolnshire again,” he said, “and there will be the challenge of having armed aircraft on civilian airfields.
“But instead of two bases, if all my Typhoons were on 12 bases, that’s a harder target.
“We should look at this as a national challenge and look at the wealth of airstrips we have in the UK.
“It sounds a bit Cold War-ey, but we have a pressing requirement to remember how to do it.”
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No civilian airfields have yet been identified, and larger airports such as Heathrow and Glasgow would be unlikely locations, but smaller sites such as Teesside, Southend and Liverpool could be viable.
The practice of landing jets on motorways, such as Jaguar fighters used to do in the Cold War, could also be an option, ACM said.
Upon receipt of the codeword, RAF jets will scramble to civilian airports in small detachments called ‘fighting fours’.
The RAF Regiment will be used to protect the dispersal sites, setting up refuelling and rearming points to service the jets.
New Russian missile and air defence systems, combined with a willingness to use force has prompted the move, ACM Wigston said.
“They’ve murdered people on the streets of Britain and annexed part of Europe. They’ve got the threat systems. We are concerned about them.
“In the worst-case scenario, things we hold dear - like national infrastructure - will be in range of Russian missiles.”
Moving modern equipment like the latest cruise missiles to Kaliningrad - the small piece of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania - would be a “step up the ladder of escalation”, the head of the Air Force said.
“Russia’s air defence systems are very sophisticated. They watched us in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and saw how air power was the decisive edge.
“We’ve not kept pace in terms of air defence systems. We’ve not required ground-based air defence because of our strategic circumstances and the fact we were operating under a US umbrella.
“We’ve not needed to invest,” he said. “That calculus is changing.”
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