As countries around the world expand their military space efforts, one of the U.S.'s closest allies wants to develop deeper cooperation on the final frontier -- and hasn't ruled out creating a "Space Force" of its own someday.
"Never say never," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the Air Staff for the Royal Air Force, or RAF, for the United Kingdom.
"I don't think we're ... at the scale of the U.S. space enterprise yet, and I think that would be a distraction at this stage, but again, I would say never say never," Wigston said in an interview with Military.com last month.
"We recognize that we're going to have to be prepared to spend more time understanding what's going on in space, and particularly the malign activity, and then be ready to protect against it," he said. "I think the role of organizations like the Space Force or the U.K. Space Command is only going to grow as we make more use of space."
Last month, the U.K. established its own Space Command to oversee roles and operations in its space domain, similar to U.S. Space Command. It is a joint command under the RAF comprising members of the Royal Navy, British Army, RAF and civil service.
"As space continues to grow in importance and as our space operators -- the men and women in the Royal Air Force, the army and the navy -- as they develop their own identity, then in the future we might go down the same road," Wigston said of forming a British Space Force.
For now, the Royal Air Force has other priorities.
"The United States Air Force in particular is in exactly the same phase as the Royal Air Force as we begin to try and understand what that future force mix will look like," Wigston said.
Like the U.S. Air Force, the RAF is considering fighter jets and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side.
"I want to see [Project] Mosquito loyal wingman remotely piloted autonomous combat aircraft on the wings of Typhoon and on the wings of the [British] F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] this decade," Wigston said of the U.K. effort. The country chose Spirit AeroSystems of Northern Ireland to build a drone prototype earlier this year.
The U.K. will commit more than $2 billion to the Tempest fighter program over the next four years, he said. The optionally manned sixth-generation fighter is intended to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon and is a joint venture between BAE Systems, Leonardo, Rolls-Royce and MBDA. It is expected to fly by 2035.
The Tempest is still in the conceptual stage. In about four years, the U.K. must make decisions on the jet's final design and construction; which nations to partner with for support elements, training and integration; and potential export customers, Wigston said.
The RAF is outlining what its future tactical units, equivalent to combat-ready squadrons, will look like over the next 20 years.
"Today, a tactical unit is made up of, let's say, eight Typhoons. … By 2040, that unit of eight Typhoons might actually be replaced by a formation that's made up of 100 swarming drones, 10 loyal wingman drones and just two piloted aircraft," Wigston said.
In January, the U.K.'s military research arm flew 20 different drones in a swarm formation test, the largest in an ongoing experiment to operate dozens of aerial weapons in unison to achieve an effect such as an airstrike or communications jamming.
"The force mix work will certainly change, the skills required will certainly change, and we've got to do the hard work now and work out what we think those changes will lead to," he said.
Wigston spoke about a number of other topics, from the U.K.'s effort to buy more F-35 stealth jets, to manned-and-unmanned teaming concepts for its naval and air forces. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Military.com: The minister for defence procurement has said the U.K. will buy more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. In February, your counterpart, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown, made comments about bringing a new fighter into his service's inventory, which critics viewed as foreshadowing the stealth jet's demise. Are you concerned about the partnership you have with the U.S. on the F-35 program?
Wigston: I can't really speak for the United States debate, I'm afraid, but for the United Kingdom, we're absolutely committed to the F-35 program. We bought F-35 primarily to go onboard our two carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. And they're going to be in service to the late 2060s, early 2070s, so I'm buying a fleet of aircraft now that I need to be in service for almost 50 years. So right now, I'm entirely focused on continuing to build beyond the 48 that we've already ordered, and there will be discussions this year and next about the next order that we're going to make for our next batch of F-35s.
Military.com: The U.S. Navy wants to create a new mix of fighters and drones for its carriers -- nearly two-thirds of the aircraft could be unmanned, including the possibility of drone fighter jets, according to top aviation officials. Are you applying lessons from their studies to your carrier concepts?
Wigston: There's no question that we have to look at what technology allows us to do in all aspects of aviation. And one of the discussions we're having with the Navy is about where are the opportunities to start replacing piloted platforms now.
Military.com: Would the U.K. like to adopt any particular platform the U.S. has or is considering?
Wigston: I saw the Air Force flew the Valkyrie, and we're looking to fly a similar size, similar airframe, in two years' time; the Australians have already flown something similar as well. So we're all at a similar sort of stage ... for Mosquito, and I'm aiming to fly a demonstrator in 2023. It's along similar lines; it's an autonomous platform that has the performance of a combat aircraft that has the advantage of using every element of autonomous operation that we can introduce.
Military.com: There's been increased activity from Russia in Europe and the Arctic. How has that shaped studies on what your future forces will look like?
Wigston: That gets to the heart of what we've been working on over the last year. [To look at] the realistic view of the world we're going to face in the future -- recognizing that it is more unstable, it's more uncertain, complex, dynamic, and that we've facing threats from a more aggressive and more reckless Russia that is threatening its neighbors in Eastern Europe, our allies. We've got to be clear-eyed about Chinese expansion around the world, [and] that violent extremism is still a factor and could affect our lives. Then in all of that ... the threat systems, the technological advances, advances in … ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hypersonics mean that we're going to be challenged in the future in a way that we perhaps haven't been for the last three decades. … We're going to have to be ready to compete. That's the thing that's driving our thinking about all elements of our [and our allies'] force structures going forward.
Military.com: Would you say you have enough pilots and support members today to achieve these goals?
Wigston: Right now, we're in as good a place as I can hope to be, but that's as a consequence of the downturn in the civil aviation sector [because of the pandemic]. I'm acutely conscious that when life begins to return to how it was before, the civil aviation sector will pick up again, and I will have that challenge once again. [So] if you know about an air chief around the world who's got too many pilots, can you give me his or her phone number, please? It's a challenge we all face. And it's not just pilots. It's attracting the talent and the quality that we need.