Defending Wales V: In The Air

(Title Image: Royal Air Force)

In the previous part I looked at a possible make up of a Welsh army. Today I take to the skies to determine what sort of air support a Welsh Defence Forces could reasonably expect.



Again there’s no need to worry too much about the names and I’m basing this mainly on the structure of Ireland’s Air Corps.

Air forces aren’t made up of battalions or companies etc. but wings, squadrons and flights. While the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has both a support and offensive function, a Welsh Air Corps would primarily support ground forces; so they would – in practice – be an air wing of the army and follow the army’s lead instead of a completely independent branch.

As a result, the Air Corps would likely be the smallest branch of the Welsh Defence Forces with perhaps no more than 400-500 full-time personnel and maybe half that number of reservists.

Pilots (maybe as few in number as 10-15% of the Air Corps) would – like the RAF – be split into helicopter, multi-engine and jet pilots/UAV operators with some retained as approved instructors. Nevertheless, it may be practical for pilots to be familiar with flying more than one type of aircraft over the course of their career.

At the top, you would have a headquarters unit where all the technical, flight/ground training and administrative support would be provided. The wings would be divided by function.

Air Defence Wing – The offensive, patrol and combat wing of the Air Corps. It’ll be biased towards patrol, but it would have the means to defend Welsh air space or ground troops on operation by force if necessary. As Welsh air space is rather small, it’s more likely to be used against threats overseas than at home, though it should hopefully put to bed any fears that the Russians would use Wales as a back door to test England’s NATO defence. There’s a debate as to whether this should include air defence units on the ground as well (such as mobile surface-to-air missile units), but it’s unlikely Wales would need them.

Military Support Wing – Provide aerial support to ground and naval forces, primarily reconnaissance and transport but, in some circumstances, combat cover too. It would be made up predominantly of various class of helicopters and specialist transport aircraft.

Civil Support Wing – Based around Wales, they would – as hinted in the name – support civil authorities such as the police, fire and rescue services, government and NHS. They would have much greater flexibility in where and when they would operate. Wales Air Ambulance and EMRTS services , we well as the police helicopter service, could be folded into the military, which would provide guarantees on funding and mean staff would be given military ranks and privileges.

Air Corp Support Units – There would need to be staff on the ground who are trained to service aircraft and provide other support services, that includes: mechanical/aeronautical engineers, signals and intelligence officers (to study reconnaissance and provide early attack warnings) and people in charge of ordnance, fuel and securing loads.                                                   

Defence Estates

RAF Valley on Anglesey is, by far, best-equipped to be the headquarters and primary base for a Welsh Air Corps (in addition to army units as mentioned in Part IV). All current immovable RAF assets would stay, and there’s a prospect that flight training for the (English) Royal Air Force could remain too – there’s no real practical or logistical reason to move it, though that would likely happen over a period of time. RAF Mona is mainly used for flight training and is more an airstrip than an airport – though civilian air services could move there.

MoD St Athan is slowly being turned over to civilian use, but the military assets are still there and there’s no reason why it couldn’t accommodate aircraft as a secondary base. There are potential alternative sites that could be developed as a secondary base in southern Wales, particularly Haverfordwest Airport (which used to be an RAF base) or the facilities at Cawdor Barracks/the former RAF Brawdy.

Wales has a number of private and smaller airfields. The most active of these is Aberporth Airport, which is owned and operated by QinetiQ as a testing area for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) – it’s probably the prime candidate to be one of the main sub-bases. Llanbedr Airport in Gwynedd has the potential – due to its long runway – of being developed as an alternative to Valley in the longer-term or, as suggested by the UK Government, developed into a spaceport.


Patrol Aircraft & Trainers – The BAE Hawk is the main fast jet trainer for the RAF, while the Hawk 200 variant can be used as a fighter jet. The Tucano T1 is an introductory trainer for air cadets and used to provide basic pilot training before moving to helicopters and fast jets. Hawks could be used for domestic air patrols and interceptions.

Attack & Reconnaissance – The main attack helicopter is the Augusta Westland Apache AH.1, while the Westland Lynx are also used for both combat and other battlefield purposes. The Casa CN-235 is used by the Irish Air Corps as a maritime patrol and heavy transport aircraft.

Wales probably won’t need any advanced fighter jets, but a squadron of Eurofighters – or an adaption of the Hawk jet – could be retained for domestic patrols (as an alternative to Hawks) and/or the highly-unlikely event of being needed for combat abroad. If Wales has ambitions of being a middleweight military power (like Denmark) then we probably would need to build up a fast jet capability with more advanced (and expensive) aircraft.

Now I’m going to suggest something controversial – drones. Drones/UAVs would be more cost-effective as long-distance attack aircraft than jet fighters (if it was determined Wales needs them) and can be piloted remotely. Wales would be more likely to use them for reconnaissance than combat and there’s plenty of choice.

Transport – The current standard helicopter used for heavy lift transport in the RAF is the Boeing Chinook HC2. These are supported by medium-lift helicopters such as the Aérospatiale Puma SA330. For more substantial airlifts and longer-distance transport, the Irish Air Corps use the Casa CN-235, while the RAF use the Airbus A400M as a replacement for the Hercules.

Civil Helicopters – These would be used for search and rescue and police duties. Search and rescue services are currently operated by Bristow Helicopters and make use of Sikorsky S-92 and  the Augusta Westland AW189. Police helicopters are usually the Eurocopter EC135 or EC145. The Irish Air Corps use Augusta Westland AW139 – so there are plenty of options.

Wales Air Ambulance – The Wales Air Ambulance and EMRTS service currently use three Eurocopter EC135. They appear to be quite popular with most of the air ambulance services in the UK, though some military helicopters listed earlier (particularly civil helicopters) could be utilised as extra air ambulances in an emergency.

Official Transport – Another controversial suggestion, underlined by some of the outcry following Carwyn Jones’ recent flight to France for Euro 2016: should the government have a private jet or helicopter? It would be used on official functions by ministers when representing Wales (when it’s more cost-effective than a commercial flight). Its use would presumably be restricted to the head of state, head of government, senior Assembly officials (like the Presiding Officer) or government delegations. The Irish use a Learjet 45; other options could include the BAE 125 (used by the UK Government) or Hawker 400. You would assume VIPs would use a military helicopter for internal flights (where needed).

Role, Strategy & Operations

The primary role of the Air Corps would be to protect Welsh airspace whilst providing aerial support to ground forces, naval forces and civil authorities. In specific terms this means:

Intercept hostile and unidentified aircraft in or near Welsh airspace – The likelihood of this happening is slim, but there may be occasions where an unidentified aircraft needs to be escorted; for example a belligerent power “buzzing” air defences, or in response to a possible hijack.

Aerial reconnaissance & target acquisition (where applicable) – Surveying, from the air, areas where ground forces could be tactically deployed; identifying buildings, landmarks and hostile deployments as part of routine intelligence-gathering; carrying out geographical and topological surveys; tracking fugitives.

Logistical support by air – Long-range and short-range transport of troops, materiel, ammunition; providing emergency medical or tactical evacuation (i.e. evacuating Welsh citizens from war zones or disaster areas).

Provide air-to-air and air-to-ground offensive capabilities (where needed) – Self-explanatory; although unlikely to be utilised, the air corps would have to maintain this capability, whether that’s by drones, bombs or short to medium-range missiles.

Assist the Naval Service in maritime patrols – Self-explanatory; particularly useful for heavy lifting from the sea, reconnaissance, salvage operations and urgent evacuation to land from the sea (i.e. someone falling seriously ill on a cruise liner near Wales).

Support civil authorities – As explained earlier this would include : search and rescue, the air ambulance, police air support and possible other civil uses like providing emergency reconnaissance or logistical support during a national or local emergency (i.e. serious flooding, rioting, heavy snow).

How can the Air Corps protect Wales?

Any aggressor with a moderately advanced air force should be able to achieve air superiority over Wales relatively easily – whether that’s by bombing air bases or destroying aircraft before they can be used. A superpower like the United States – actually scrub that, the US Navy – could probably do it within hours.

We’re fortunate that such a scenario is unlikely, but the main thing the Air Corps can offer – no matter how small – is speed and flexibility. They would be able to respond to any emergency in Wales within a matter of minutes and having such a capability would be invaluable to civil authorities.

In fact, the Air Corps’ role at home – as outlined – would be as a glorified emergency service and they would likely be the branch of the Defence Forces that members of the public would see, or come into contact with, most often.

Although the balance between offensive and defensive capabilities would be weighted heavily in favour of defensive/logistical roles, that in itself is vital and potentially life-saving – whether it’s evacuating Welsh citizens, monitoring an angry crowd of rioters during a peacekeeping mission or deploying special forces. Having that capability in our own right and under our own control would be a real boost to the defence and security of Wales.

Part VI looks at the role of the Welsh Defence forces at sea, both inshore and offshore.