The RAF has had a bad week or two in the UK press with the usually cherished Red Arrows display team facing uncomfortable questions over toxic and misogynistic behaviour and questions being asked about diversity targets in recruitment.
The UK might be in a state of flux, but when everything else is looking distinctly rickety at least we’ll always have the Red Arrows.
Nine immaculate British Hawk jets, gleaming red white and blue, in impeccable formation, never late and demonstrating astonishing high-speed precision… they symbolise an aesthetic of perfection, discipline and dedication that most of us can only stand back and admire.
The Reds, as they are known, are probably one of the few entities that can compete with the NHS, James Bond and Her Majesty when it comes to garnering near-universal admiration within the country and outside it.
Well, James Bond is dead, the NHS is back to the 3,000-year waiting lists last seen in the embers of the John Major administration, and the Queen is rather old.
And now it seems the much-admired workplace culture of the Red Arrows is not exactly a bed of roses either. If reports are true it is as afflicted by poor behaviour and toxicity as other failing workplace cultures, but unlike with, say Brewdog, the shock is made all the greater by the myth of RAF invincibility. How the mighty have fallen.
The Reds are operating this year with seven aircraft, not because of maintenance issues but because two pilots have somewhat mysteriously left the roster. One was sacked, the other resigned. But the problems go deeper than the misbehaviour or otherwise of two pilots. The team is made up of about 130 personnel and includes many young female recruits.
Allegations of bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment in the Red Arrows are “very concerning”, the armed forces minister James Heappey has told the press, referring to chief of air staff Sir Mike Wigston’s defence of the lengthy RAF investigation into the claims.
Sex discrimination and diversity
The investigation has seen more than 40 personnel, several of them young female recruits, providing 250 hours of evidence to an inquiry into “toxic pockets” of the RAF. One of the women who gave evidence to the inquiry came forward to say that women who signed up to the Red Arrows were considered “fresh meat” and were “at risk” because there had been no urgency to act on the allegations.
Misogyny and bullying
It was reported in The Times that the non-statutory inquiry has documented at least 13 instances of alleged misconduct so far, including misogyny, harassment, sexual harassment, assault, sexual assault, “misunderstanding of consent”, victimisation, bullying, intimidation, isolation and indecent exposure. None have met the threshold for criminal charges, according to service police.
Furthermore, there have been unsubstantiated allegations of excessive drinking, although anyone who has read historical biographies of RAF heroes will not be unprepared for the fact that enjoying a tipple is not exactly unknown among the boys and girls in sky blue. The suggestions that pilots have flown high performance jets while under the influence and that foreign jet display teams have witnessed a drink culture in Red Arrows circles have been rejected by the service.
Sir Mike said it was right for the RAF to take “swift action” to address concerns but asked service men and women to raise future issues with their chain of command rather than through the media. He said “unacceptable behaviours have no place in our service.” Nonetheless, women such as Army veteran Diane Allen, who campaigns for better treatment for servicewomen, said that the RAF leadership had been urged for six months to “deal fairly and swiftly with these allegations”, but had failed to do so. She added that women who made the allegations had been put “on trial and forced to tell their story repeatedly” as those accused had been “supported, promoted”.
A wider cultural change is taking place within the RAF, however, one not entirely unrelated to the Red Arrows turbulence. Diversity targets have been set to increase the number of female entrants and those from ethnic minorities.
Chief of air staff Wigston has insisted the goal of having 40% women recruits and 20% from ethnic minorities will strengthen the service and would have no impact on standards or operations, but the head of recruitment, air vice-marshall Maria Byford, has said she has had to slow the recruitment process for all candidates after figures showed the diversity targets were not being reached.
Her comments followed the resignation of an unnamed female group captain, who ran the recruitment department at the main elementary training base, RAF Cranwell, apparently over concerns the fighting strength of the RAF could be undermined by “impossible” targets.
This news led to former RAF pilots, MPs and journalists on one or two national newspapers to decry the service’s “ban on recruiting white men“ and that “positive discrimination” should be made illegal, seemingly unaware that it was already illegal. Some commentators called for the repeal of the Equality Act, without realising that it was the Equality Act that made positive discrimination illegal. However, the fine line between positive discrimination and positive action perhaps is not easy discern for those outside HR and recruitment circles.
The pain associated with culture change is unpleasant but absolutely necessary as Wigston implies. Just consider this comment from an RAF source, quoted in The Times, describing the Red Arrows: “The girls who join the squadron are basically considered fresh meat. All of them are married and they just don’t leave them alone. It’s a toxic environment – It’s all men in senior positions. It is run by misogynistic white male blokes.”
As with any organisation, improvements in culture and behaviour bring about a greater, unified, sense of purpose and a better performance overall. But the Red Arrows and RAF perhaps historically have not seen themselves as just “any” organisation. This reminder that they face the same challenges as all other sectors will hopefully mean they will be able to return nine gleaming jets to the skies soon enough and close this window opening on a previously unseen and unsuspected toxicity. The myth of greatness will the doubtless be restored; per ardua ad astra (through adversity to the stars) as the RAF motto goes.
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