Visiting Yorkshire recently, the RAF’s most senior officer had a few things to say on the Air Force’s role nationally and locally. Philip Sedgwick reports.

CHIEF of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston is the professional head of the Royal Air Force, presently standing at 30,000 regulars and 1,000 reservists.

Speculating on the RAF’s future, he says: “In ten years’ time the RAF will be continuing the growth and regeneration we started in 2015. When the government acknowledged that the world had become a more dangerous and unstable place, it invested in defence and it has continued to.

“ For me as Chief, the challenge is growing an Air Force which we haven’t done for decades. It’s about training pilots and more engineers.

“I’ll have an Air Force with a fleet of modern combat aircraft, we will have returned to maritime patrols with Poseidon and have a world-class training system.”

Of the three military services, the Air Force has no problems attracting sufficient recruits, ACM Wigston is optimistic this will continue. “Recruiting is outstanding,” he says. “By the end of the financial year I will have recruited everybody I need.

“It’s a remarkably positive recruiting environment because we have a great story to tell, we change people’s lives, and we give them technology skills and qualifications. People see us as a good place to work.”

With RAF Linton closing next year, Leeming near Bedale will be the only airbase in Yorkshire. “RAF Leeming is so important to our future plans,” he says. “I’m up there in a couple of weeks with the Commander who is doing some amazing things with innovation and thinking through what a future base must look like. I’m using them as my intellectual power house.

“As the Chief of Air Staff in 2019, the future of RAF Leeming is absolutely secure.”

With Leeming shortlisted to be the new home of the Red Arrows without giving away any updates, he says: “The issues or challenges with the Red Arrows is not about the base but the airspace they practice in.

“Because of environmental concerns, it is noisy and repetitive and it takes a really careful bit of analysis to work out a piece of ground that we can practice over.

“It’s going to be really difficult to identify the right place to move that space to and that’s what’s taking the time.”

With a fresh view on recruiting, ACM Wigston alludes to people with disabilities being able to join up one day. He explains: “We do think we now have the flexibility to take a different view about medical standards.

“These are the things we are working though now and I am wholly in favour, but no decision has been made yet. The first step could be with RAF reservists.

“I’m open-minded about in the future, I want to recruit people for their brains and conviction and perhaps keyboard skills. I might not need them to run one and a half miles in nine minutes.”

During and post-Second World War, the RAF had many servicemen with acute disabilities serving across all branches and trades, notably flying ace Douglas Bader.

Increasingly into the future the RAF will do more in space and consequently more in the cyber, information and data world. The head of the Force suggested pilots may not always have a place in a traditional cockpit.

He says: “Technology is moving step-by-step towards greater automation. The first step we will see is automated robot wingmen formatting on a piloted aircraft, so you have a formation.

“The step beyond is everything remotely piloted so pilots are in cabins on the ground and the final step, fully-automated.”

The RAF takes cyber warfare seriously, in the same way aircraft in the past were tested for metal fatigue or mechanical defects, now a new kind of engineer does the same for its software.

After 30 years in the RAF, ACM Wigston’s passion for flying has translated into a passion for serving his country. He confesses to still glancing up when any aircraft passes over. This is demonstrated as we speak when the RAF’s newest and highly-secret stealth aircraft, the F35 Lightning passes overhead.

He says: “One day I will be able to talk about everything that it does in a way we can’t do now – it is phenomenal.”

The best bit about being head of the RAF? He concludes: “Just being so proud of an organisation with it’s brilliant, motivated people – 32,000 regulars and 3000 reservists, civil servants and industry partners.

“Being responsible for an organisation where the people get out of bed in the morning to serve their country and they do it so well.

“When you look at what we’re doing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa and defending the skies of the UK; that’s what makes me so proud.”