The head of RAF recruitment has resigned in protest at an "effective pause" on offering jobs to white male recruits in favour of women and ethnic minorities, defence sources have claimed.
The senior female officer apparently handed in her notice in recent days amid concerns that any such restrictions on hiring, however temporary and limited, could undermine the fighting strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the sources said.
They said the service was attempting to hit "impossible" diversity targets.
The defence sources accused Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the RAF, of appearing willing to compromise UK security at a time of growing threats from Russia and China in pursuit of albeit important goals such as improving diversity and inclusion.
One of the defence sources noted how General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of the army, has likened today's security challenges to those in the build-up to the Second World War, warning that the UK is facing its "1937 moment".
"Then you look at the head of the RAF and he's prepared to break the operational requirement of the air force just to meet diversity [targets]," the source said.
"I think he needs to be hauled up by the Ministry of Defence and told: This is the defence agenda, get on it."
The recruitment claims prompted a response from Rishi Sunak, one of the two contenders vying to be the UK's next prime minister.
A spokesperson for the Sunak leadership campaign said: "The only thing that should matter in recruitment is the content of your character, not your sex or the colour of your skin.
"That the Ministry of Defence would allow Britain's security to potentially be put at risk by a drive for so-called 'diversity' is not only disgraceful, it is dangerous."
An RAF spokesperson disputed the allegations.
"There is no pause in Royal Air Force recruitment and no new policy with regards to meeting in-year recruitment requirements," the spokesperson said.
"Royal Air Force commanders will not shy away from the challenges we face building a service that attracts and recruits talent from every part of the UK workforce.
"As with the Royal Navy and British Army, we are doing everything we can to encourage recruiting from under-represented groups and ensure we have a diverse workforce.
"The Royal Air Force has a well-earned reputation for operational excellence that is founded on the quality of all our people. We will always seek to recruit the best talent available to us".
But another of the defence sources insisted that there has been an "effective pause" on making an offer of employment to white male recruits.
Also responding to questions from Sky News on the issue, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: "Operational effectiveness is of paramount importance and no one is lowering the standards to join the Royal Air Force. The RAF recruits for many professions and, like the rest of the armed forces, is determined to be a force that reflects the society it serves to protect."
Neither spokesperson addressed the resignation of the head of RAF recruitment.
The RAF does not typically comment on individuals.
'Wokefulness' or 'Woefulness'
Successive governments have been challenging all three armed services - the RAF, the army and the Royal Navy - for years to improve their diversity statistics in what has traditionally been a predominantly white, male profession.
It is a goal championed by defence chiefs.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of the armed forces, used his first public speech in-post last December to stress the importance of striving for better diversity.
He said this was not "about wokefulness. It is about woefulness. The woefulness of too few women. The woefulness of not reflecting the ethnic, religious and cognitive diversity of our nation."
The MOD has announced it aims to increase the ratio of female recruits coming into the armed forces in general to 30% by 2030 from around 12%.
The RAF - which was the first of the services to open all roles to women and already has the highest ratio of females - is aiming to go further. It wants the ratio of female air force recruits to hit 40% by the end of the decade - more than double the current level.
The target for ethnic minorities is to reach 20% of all air force recruits within the same timeframe, up from around 10%.
Yet the RAF must also hire enough people in the right trades to meet its "operational inflow requirements" - the number of new personnel needed to ensure the service can carry out the full range of tasks it has been given to help keep the UK and its allies safe.
A challenge thought to be encountered by recruitment officers is that women and ethnic minorities do not typically seek to join certain areas of the service, such as the RAF's infantry force that protects airfields. Hiring white men who may apply ensures those vital roles are filled, but at the expense of diversity numbers.
'Levels of ambition for ethnic targets... are absolutely crazy'
Senior leaders appear to be prioritising diversity over operational needs, according to defence sources.
They said the RAF's recruitment arm has effectively been told to take a pause on offering jobs to white male recruits in the hope that more slots can be filled by women and ethnic minorities during this financial year.
"We are all really pro-diversity and we want to see better representation across the services but … levels of ambition for ethnic targets … are absolutely crazy," one of the sources said.
"There is no scientific or cultural background to these particular levels of ambition."
Another source called the diversity targets "impossible".
The push appears to have prompted the Head of Recruitment and Selection - a Group Captain - to hand in her notice, unwilling to carry out such a demand, the defence sources said.
More broadly, there seems to be a growing sense of frustration within the RAF at what some personnel privately - and on occasion publicly - allege is an overly "woke" agenda being pursued by the Chief of the Air Staff at the expense of other priorities.
The defence sources noted how under his tenure since 2019, the RAF has taken steps to be more inclusive, such as changing the term for a member of the service to "aviator" from "airman", embracing gender-specific or gender-neutral pronouns in signatures and allowing staff to grow beards.
Flying training in crisis
But at the same time the military's flying training system - a fundamental part of a functioning air force - is in crisis, as revealed by Sky News earlier this month.
Hundreds of junior pilots are either waiting for slots on courses to open up or taking refresher courses even though Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, gave Air Chief Marshal Wigston the task of fixing flying training as his "only priority" more than two and a half years ago.
The RAF itself triggered a rare public display of internal tension last weekend.
It posted its response to Sky News's reporting on the military flying training "shambles" on the air force's official Facebook page, defending the RAF's record.
"Our people are our greatest asset and we're committed to ensuring we attract and retain the best and brightest talent to meet current and future threats," the post said. It acknowledged challenges with the training pipeline but said work is underway to improve things.
The comment prompted a number of incredulous responses from readers.
"Is this post from a parallel universe or something?" one respondent asked.
Another said: "If you want retention then you need to drastically change things at all levels within the RAF. Your people are your greatest asset. Start treating them that way."
After a few more unfriendly jibes, the RAF quietly deleted its own post.