Royal Air Force Lays Out Road Map For Greener, Sustainable Defense

RAF aircraft
Aviation represents two-thirds of the UK military’s fuel consumption and 42% of emissions. Commanders want a greener future.
Credit: Tony Osborne/AW&ST

The UK’s Royal Air Force is facing up to a new adversary: climate change. As a result, the service has begun a series of targeted measures to curb its carbon emissions. 

Commanders insist that a rush to meet so-called net zero by 2040, which calls for balancing out the amount of greenhouse gases produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere, will not affect capability. In fact, it could actually help build resilience by making bases less vulnerable, and maybe even enhance the reliability and performance of aircraft with cleaner burning fuels. 

  • Air Force targeting electric training aircraft debut in 2027 
  • Rapid Capabilities Office working on sustainable fuels

Sustainability logo"The way we power our aircraft, the way we power our bases, the way we talk to our supply chain, our industrial suppliers, about their carbon and sustainable practices, are all going to be things that we are going to have to tackle,” Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) chief of staff, told the service’s Global Air Chiefs Conference on July 14.  

“It will take decades, and we need to start now,” he said.  

The UK Defense Ministry is one of the biggest government contributors to carbon output, with the RAF representing 42% of defense emissions. But the RAF does not want to take all these steps alone. Consequently, Wigston is calling for common standards on sustainable fuels for military use and also appealing to his fellow international air chiefs for greater collaboration to deal with the climate change threat.

Commanders have set the service’s initial targets to begin to reduce emissions, which include making two of its air bases net-zero by 2025, introducing and widening the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), transferring more training into the synthetic world, and procuring a fleet of electric-powered aircraft for basic flight-training tasks. 

Making the RAF’s airfields net-zero, or even a positive contributor to energy networks, could be done through the use of solar panels, wind power and anaerobic digestion processes, Air Marshal Andrew Turner, the RAF’s deputy commander for strategy, told the conference. Consideration is even being given to sowing moss rather than grass on airfields due to moss’ better carbon sequestration capabilities. 

The RAF is targeting a 100% SAF flight by year-end, and the service plans to transition at least one aircraft fleet to using SAF exclusively within two years. The goal is to ensure that all RAF aircraft are able to operate on 100% SAF, beyond the 50% blend currently approved.  

Leading the charge on the SAF projects is the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which is working with a number of startups on waste-to-fuel and so-called power-to-liquid synthetic fuels, or e-fuels, which are produced using electricity from renewable sources such as solar or wind. The RAF is even expected to make an investment in at least one SAF startup, with Wigston noting the fuels that have been developed with startups are “chemically purer” than existing aviation fuel. Additionally, the use of such SAFs could lead to “cleaner engines that require less maintenance, have a longer service life, and lower noise, heat and visual signatures such as contrails.” 

Perhaps the most significant change will be the planned introduction around 2027 of an electric-powered aircraft to be used for preservice flying training, grading and assessment, as well as supporting the RAF’s University Air Squadrons and Air Cadet Air Experience Flights. 

Senior officers have already issued a challenge to industry for an electric-powered fixed-wing aircraft—with a 90-min. endurance, a speed range of 90-130 kt., turnaround times including a recharge of 20 min. and the ability to perform aerobatic maneuvers—that could replace the Grob G 115 Tutor piston engine trainer currently provided by Babcock International for use by the armed forces. The UK had originally planned to replace the Tutor aircraft through Project Telum, but recent rapid developments of electric aircraft technology led to the scope of Telum widening to include zero-emission aircraft. 

Other European air forces have also taken steps toward electric aircraft, with the Royal Danish Air Force announcing in early June that it would lease a pair of Pipistrel Velis Electro twin-seat training aircraft starting this fall for flight training and development work. 

Commanders are also eyeing the potential to move toward an 80/20 split in terms of synthetic vs. live flying training, from a 50/50 ratio now. This would help the service take advantage of developments in artificial reality and networking, and allow for “preserving our real-world activity for live operations or strategic signaling,” Wigston said. 

While part of the move to synthetic training is aimed at reducing operating costs and moving the training of sensitive tactics and advanced sensors into the virtual world, commanders say the advent of it will lower the service’s carbon footprint overall. 

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.