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Nov. 2, 2010—The Royal Air Force will focus going forward on air defense of the British Home Island and its overseas territories, according to Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, released in October.

The RAF will also make a "credible contribution" to conventional containment and deterrence and maintain an expeditionary capacity in support of allied operations, reads the document.

The review dictates a force size of 33,000 RAF personnel by 2015, a reduction of 5,000. It also streamlines the air fleets to two types per role. For example, the RAF’s future fighter force will comprise modernized multi-role Eurofighter Typhoons and F-35 Lightning IIs. Similarly, E-3D Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence platforms will constitute its future strategic surveillance and intelligence fleet.

Driven primarily by budgetary considerations, this rationalization of assets ostensibly opens notable gaps in Britain's air power structure, retiring assets well ahead of their planned replacement, or in some cases, eliminating critical capacities altogether.

The Harrier GR.7/GR.9 fleet is a case in point. Abruptly slated now for retirement in 2011, this will leave Britain's aircraft carrier force devoid of a fixed-wing strike aircraft for nearly a decade until the F-35’s arrival around 2020.

Not even intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, an RAF specialty throughout NATO operations in Afghanistan, is immune to rigid application of the two-type rule. Although the Sentinel R.1's airborne stand-off radar capability will stay in service long enough to complete operations in Afghanistan, it will completely disappear from the RAF. So will the role of long-range maritime patrol. Just as the completed Nimrod MR4 patrol aircraft were to enter the force, MOD is eliminating them, leaving guard of Britain's submarine-based nuclear deterrent an open question.

Among the additional decisions, the RAF will: withdraw legacy C-130 transports 10 years earlier than planned and transition to a projected fleet of 22 A400M airlifters, alongside its existing C-17s; withdraw VC-10 and TriStar tanker aircraft from 2013 and field a fleet of 14 new A330-based tankers; retain Tornado ground-attack aircraft; and maintain Chinook heavy- and Merlin medium-lift helicopters for battlefield mobility from land and sea.

One of the review's major revelations is that Britain's Lightning II force will be solely in the carrier-optimized F-35C configuration, as the Ministry of Defence is axing plans to acquire the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant altogether, in favor of the longer range F-35C model. RAF pilots will operate those F-35Cs, along with Royal Navy fliers, in an arrangement similar to the current joint-force Harrier.

Plus, the MOD is trimming it total F-35 buy by an unspecified amount. Prior to this, Britain was expected to acquire up to 138 F-35s.

Despite any potential ramifications to Anglo-US cooperation from those moves, the review emphasizes the importance of the bilateral relationship, stating: "We will reinforce our pre-eminent security and defence relationship with the US. It remains deeply-rooted, broadly-based, strategically important and mutually supportive." It also highlights the role of the NATO alliance and allied cooperation as increasingly vital to the defense of Britain itself.

Accordingly, Britain is altering the design of its two planned Queen Elisabeth-class carriers, giving them a catapult and arrested-landing system, specifically to provide interoperability with US and French naval aircraft as well as support Britain's own F-35Cs. Though both carriers will evidently be developed, only one will enter full service, with the other being held in "extended readiness," hedging against future threats, speculatively noting that British forces are unlikely to face "large-scale air combat" in the near future.