“The side that adapts fastest prevails” Sir Richard Knighton, the UK’s next Air Chief


In an exclusive interview, AeroTime Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, Richard Stephenson, met Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton, who has been named as the United Kingdom’s next Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) – he will become the first engineer to ever hold the post. In the first interview to be published since the announcement of his new appointment, Air Marshal Knighton discussed topics such as projecting power globally, the role of airpower, the importance of a modern Royal Air Force, the strong relationship it maintains with allies, the importance of the next generation of personnel and key technological areas that will enhance operations and capabilities.


Who is Sir Richard Knighton?

Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1988 as a University Cadet and studied at Clare College Cambridge. He then went on to work on several iconic RAF aircraft, including the Panavia Tornado combat aircraft, the British Aerospace Harrier jump jet, and the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft.

The Air Marshal’s experience and knowledge spans many areas of the RAF, including logistics, finance, strategy, and planning. He has held a range of senior positions throughout his career.

In 2014, Sir Rich (as he is known to most people) set up and led the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, a joint project between Britain’s BAE Systems and France’s Dassault Aviation to develop a fighter drone. The program was to rely on two demonstrators previously developed by each manufacturer, the Dassault nEUROn and the BAE Systems Taranis.

He was appointed as Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in 2015, and in 2017 he became Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Capability and Force Design). In 2019 he was promoted to Air Marshal and appointed Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Capability). In 2022, he became Deputy Commander for Capability and People and on Friday 31 March 2023, he was announced as the next Chief of the Air Staff, a role he will officially commence in June 2023.

As a young boy, Rich Knighton remembers that what really captured his imagination was space. The Space Shuttle Program, which was gathering pace as he became a teenager, only reinforced his fascination for the physics and engineering of aerospace.

“At some point in my early teens, I knew I was going to join the Air Force as an engineer, partly because my eyesight started to deteriorate when I was 12, so I knew I was never going to be a pilot.

“I have a pilot’s license, which I obtained through a scholarship when I was at university, and I still fly regularly.”

He added: “Sometimes, when I go flying at an airfield or when I have to walk out onto the apron to board a 737, I can smell the aviation fuel, and it takes me back to my first tour at RAF Kinloss, seeing a jet take off to hunt Russian submarines in the early hours of the morning.”

As Sir Rich prepares to assume his new role later this year, as the first engineer to ever serve in the top role at the Royal Air Force, he has been spurred to contemplate the complex challenges confronting the RAF at present, particularly how to get the most out of recent investments.

“The Air Force we have today is the most modern in terms of kit and capability throughout my career. We are currently operating F-35, Typhoon, Voyager, A400, and other aircraft that are at the leading edge of capability and technology,” he said. “However, this investment is coming to an end, and the Air Force we have today is the Air Force we will have for the next 5-10 years.

“On the horizon is the Future Combat Air System or the Global Combat Air Program with Italy and Japan, which is an exciting prospect for the future of aerospace and the Air Force. Our challenge now is to continue to evolve and develop this capability because technology has rapidly progressed over the last 20 years. We must find a way to extract the benefits from private sector inventions, such as artificial intelligence, digital tools, and miniaturization, and integrate them rapidly into our capability, to keep up with our adversaries.”

“The quality of people and training we have remains world-class.”

Another specific challenge ahead is the capability of the RAF to continue to recruit and retain the people needed to deliver that capability in the future.

“Despite recruitment headwinds, we are still able to recruit high-quality people into the Air Force, and we keep hold of them through good infrastructure and terms and conditions of service. The quality of people and training we have remains world-class.”

“We are still going to need people to fix our aircraft, to prepare our logistics and supply and to do all the things that are necessary to get our aircraft in the air and deliver that air power, ” he continued. “But increasingly, we’re going to need to operate in a more agile fashion. We’ve become very heavily focused around a small number of bases. What we know is, in the future, we’re going to have to be able to move around, and that’s going to be essential for survival. So, we need people with those skills. We’re going to have to relearn some of the things that we knew about the Air Force in the ’80s and the ’90s.”

In 2021, the current CAS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, announced he wanted to revive Cold War strategies with the AGILE STANCE Campaign Plan, a series of exercises to prepare the RAF to conduct dispersed operations.

Dispersed operations allow an air force in wartime to complicate enemy targeting by multiplying operating locations, using civilian airfields or improvised road bases. With the looming return of high intensity warfare, the concept found renewed interest in the doctrines of western armed forces.

“We’ve got to offer people exciting opportunities that they can’t get working for Google or for Microsoft”

Sir Rich also highlighted the need to bring in “new skills” to the Air Force. “People who can program, people who understand some of that digital technology, understand cyberspace, and are able to understand space and are able to make sure that we are extracting the maximum value out of the investment we’ve already made and exploiting that technology that’s emerging.

“We’ve got to offer people exciting opportunities that they can’t get working for Google or for Microsoft or for a local garage. And I think we still offer those things. We offer the opportunity to do things you can’t do elsewhere. And we offer a wider set of opportunities around the camaraderie, the spirit, and the community that we join. And, as you say, some of the adverts we see today really focus on that and demonstrate that these people from all backgrounds, like mine, are fundamental to delivering power of the future and protecting the country.”

In 2021, the UK Integrated Review emphasized the importance of the armed forces in projecting power and maintaining stability globally. The RAF’s unique ability to move rapidly and project force around the world to bring stability was highlighted.

“Air power and air superiority are fundamental to success, and the ability to adapt quickly is vital. The side that can adapt fastest will prevail,” Air Marshal Knighton explained. “To achieve this, we need an agile mindset, creativity, and education in our people. We need to focus on adapting what we have to stay ahead of potential enemies in the next few years.

“Airpower is crucial in protecting the country’s interests and was highlighted in the situation in Ukraine. We need to be ready to fight and win and control the air to deliver effective operations, integrated with land and maritime forces.”

“The fact that like-minded nations are able to lock shields […] is something that our allies value most and which our foes fear”

Another core value for the RAF is the strong relationship with its allies, including NATO, and the joint operations it conducts across the globe.

Sir Rich explained, “The fact that like-minded nations are able to link arms and lock shields, if you like, and be prepared to face down aggression in the world is something that our allies value most and which our foes fear. Particularly in terms of NATO, the alliance has really demonstrated its strength and unity through the last year and a bit since Russia invaded Ukraine. It really demonstrated the importance of alliances and the value that it adds in terms of bringing stability and really facing down an existential threat to NATO and to our allies inside NATO. The health of that relationship is really strong.”

“Right now, we’ve got British and German Typhoons operating out of Estonia as part of NATO Baltic Air Policing, demonstrating to allies in the east that we are all part of this alliance and that we are prepared to put our armed forces in harm’s way to protect them. I think that’s a really good indicator of the strength of that relationship and the commitment that the UK and our allies have to stability in Europe.”

Air Marshal Knighton believes there are three main technological areas that will significantly impact the RAF’s operational outlook and enhance capability as a result of investing in these platforms.

“First of those is around uncrewed systems or robotic and automated systems. And I expect to see in the next 10 to 15 years the Air Force operating crewed aircraft alongside uncrewed aircraft. And that’s how we’ll improve survivability and lethality.

“We’ll see increasing use of simulators and synthetic devices. There are some things we just can’t do with some of our aircraft today, like the F-35, outside of war and outside of the simulator, because it would tell our adversaries too much about those techniques and processes and the capability.

“The third technology is digital. It’s about how we exploit the amazing development of artificial intelligence to help us make sense of vast amounts of data on the battlefield, and to help us make faster and better decisions and being able to outthink and outmaneuver our adversary. So, in terms of capability, it is going to be how do we make what we have even better by the exploitation of technology, use of automated systems, use of simulators and digital.”

As the new Air Chief Marshall and Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Rich Knighton will inherit an Air Force that has not been short on challenges in recent years. However, anyone who knows him, and especially those who have worked with him in the past, will undoubtedly welcome his appointment.

A senior figure in the UK aviation industry told AeroTime, “Rich is razor sharp, one of the biggest intellects I have ever worked with and the one of the nicest, most supportive colleagues you could ever wish for. His ability to get to grips with the most technical and complex issues is extraordinary and he is the kind of colleague you want around the table when you have a crisis to manage. His leadership skills were identified early on in his RAF career and the Air Force could not be in better hands in the future. I am delighted that Rich has broken the barrier to non-pilots become CAS, but if anyone was ever going to break that, it was Rich Knighton.”

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