Astra Transformation Could Enable Nonpilots To Command RAF

Credit: UK defense ministry

LONDON—For decades, the top role as Chief of Air Staff in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has been the preserve of either pilots or aircrewmen. But that tradition could be turned on its head.

Senior officers are undertaking a transformation plan called Astra that aims to better harness the RAF’s personnel and prepare the air arm for new technologies and multidomain warfare. This includes those in space and cyberspace as the service strives to be ready for the 2040s.

And one of the most tangible changes could be a move away from pilots taking up the most senior command posts.

Since 1950, only one Chief of the Air Staff has not had a background flying either fighters or bombers, said Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, who served in the role from 2013 to 2016 with a background as a helicopter pilot. The current air chief, Air Marshal Michael Wigston, previously flew the Panavia Tornado. 

Before 1950, some of the most famous chiefs, including Sir Hugh Trenchard—often described as the father of the RAF—and Sir Arthur Tedder served in the infantry.

“In the old days, predominantly it was what the pilots said that mattered. That’s because we operated in a domain that was an exclusive preserve of pilots,” said Air Vice Marshall Ian Gale, assistant chief of the air staff for strategy. He spoke to journalists here on Feb. 24 as the air arm gears up for its annual Air and Space Power conference in July. “We have quite significant amounts of untapped cognitive diversity that we are trying to break into and give a voice to.”

Always selecting pilots for the top job is seen by those in other air force posts as a career-limiting glass ceiling. But Gale argues the role should in the future should go to the “best person for the job,” and that could be a “battlespace manager, a cyber specialist or a space specialist.” 

Selection of a nonpilot for the role of Chief of Air Staff would, Gale said, “send a zero-message outside the air force, but a huge message inside it … knowing that they may have a role in directing the future of the organization.”

Other benefits of Astra will be the introduction of greater automation into tasks, with Gale hinting at new approaches to air traffic control. This is an issue of particular relevance as the RAF is suffering personnel shortages in this area, which is impacting training operations at some bases. This may suggest the RAF is looking at remote tower operations for some of its quieter airfields.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.


Not a good idea. The RAF would be better served by choosing the right the pilot for the job.