Struggle at the top over decision to scrap UK Harriers

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In what is likely to be an emotional farewell, Harrier pilots will fly the ground-breaking fast jet from RAF Cottesmore, completing a fly-past of several other air stations, hurtling through the sullen winter skies before landing for the last time.

Then, the pilots will walk away from the aircraft in a "walk of honour" - without looking back.

However, many of the Harrier's defenders are still fighting back against the decision made in the government's strategic defence and security review (SDSR) to scrap the Joint Force Harrier jet while keeping the RAF's Tornados.

Defence sources suggest it was a decision that came after last-minute interventions during the final weekend before the review was published, unexpectedly reversing an earlier decision to keep the Harriers.

Critics point out that the decision to get rid of the Harriers and the flagship aircraft carrier Ark Royal leaves the Royal Navy without a carrier able to operate strike aircraft until the second of two new carriers enters service in 2020, and warn of the risk of being unable to respond flexibly to unexpected events or threats outside the UK during those 10 years.

'Dangerous' decision

On 10 November, two former First Sea Lords, including Admiral Lord West, and several other retired officers went public with their anger in a letter to The Times, arguing that the decision was "dangerous", "strategically and financially perverse" and insisting that reversing it was in the overriding national interest.

They also argued that it would have been cheaper to scrap the Tornado and not lose carrier strike capability, writing: "The existing Tornado force will cost, over 10 years, seven times as much to keep in service as Harrier. Was the recent exercise not supposed to save money?"

The letter expressed the private views of many serving officers both in the Royal Navy and the Army, and of some defence analysts.

However, in a counter-blast, the current defence chiefs responded with an open letter of their own in which they admitted that many of the decisions made were ones that they "would not otherwise have chosen to make".

But they insisted that the severe financial constraints faced by the MoD meant it would have been "irresponsible" not to make them.

Financial calculations

"As an example, the decision to withdraw Harrier from service and to retain a reduced Tornado force had to balance our current needs in Afghanistan with the intent to rationalise our fast jet fleets," they said.

"After very careful consideration our military advice was to retain the more capable Tornado. Harrier's contribution has been huge but the decision to withdraw it is the right thing to do in the circumstances and a decision that we collectively agreed."

Naval sources claim that scrapping the 130 Tornados in service would have saved £7.4bn, while scrapping the Harriers ahead of their planned out-of-service date of 2018 will save £1.4bn, although the MoD says getting rid of the Harriers will save £2.8bn, and is in line with the department's plan to streamline fighter jets down to two main types.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, said in November that the finances required the MoD to remove one type of fast jet, and the decision to reduce the Harrier fleet to 32 aircraft in 2009 made it impossible for the Harrier alone to work in Afghanistan and be available for other tasks.

Internal politics

Analysts say that in terms of range, size of payload, speed and its ability to hit moving targets, the Tornado does triumph, as well as in the reconnaissance abilities of its Raptor pod.

However, the Harrier's advantage is that it is more reliable, with a 95% technical serviceability rate, higher than the Tornado's 75%, and can operate from carriers, makeshift landing sites, and works better in the heat of a Helmand summer.

Image caption,
The Harrier has seen combat duty around the world including the Falklands in 1982

Ultimately, some in the Royal Navy believe the Harrier was the victim of inter-service politics, with the RAF outmanoeuvring the Navy on the issue.

Prime Minister David Cameron witnessed first-hand the anger felt by Harrier pilots over the decision to scrap the fleet when he addressed members of the armed forces at the Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood after the SDSR.

Lt Cdr Kris Ward, who flew more than a 100 sorties in Afghanistan and is the son of Cdr Nigel "Sharkey" Ward, who commanded the Harrier Squadron during the Falklands conflict, told him: "I am now potentially facing unemployment. How am I supposed to feel about that, sir?"

Combat missions

As the arguments continue both in public and behind closed doors, there is no doubt that from the Falklands to today's war in Afghanistan, the Harrier has played a crucial role in defending the nation.

It saw action in both Gulf Wars, and flew combat missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, with its reliability and ability to provide close air support to troops on the ground making it popular with the Army and Royal Marines, especially during combat operations against the Taliban.

Admiral Sir "Sandy" Woodward, who commanded the British Task Force in the Falklands War, has drawn up a petition to the prime minister, calling on him to save the Harrier.

"I thought the decision was totally contrary to common sense, and wondered how on earth they could have come to such a perverse decision, which costs money at a time when we are in severe financial stringency. I have to assume the prime minister was improperly or incorrectly briefed," he said.

His worry is that when the Harriers are taken out of service, the skills needed by the air crew, pilots and deck handlers will be hard to regenerate.

Defence strategy

"Handling fixed wing aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier is as complicated a business as it is to run the Bolshoi ballet, if not more so, and you do it for months on end as opposed to one evening at a time, and to get all that skill back will take you 10 to 15 years," he says.

"That is a major problem, because if you want to do anything in terms of expeditionary force in the world, you must have air cover, and we won't have it.

"We will have lost fixed-wing flying for the Navy and that's the ability to provide air cover for the Royal Marines, or the Army, or the Air Force when they need to operate overseas away from home bases.

"That means that our defence becomes strictly of an island and not of our interests further afield.

"And that's a very major change in national strategy, which should go to the electorate to decide, and not be done on the back of an envelope somewhere in Whitehall."

In his Christmas speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London on Tuesday, General Richards acknowledged that some decisions within the SDSR, such as scrapping HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier, had provoked an "understandable emotional response" and controversy.

But he insisted that the "package as a whole makes sense", though he warned that further "politically charged" choices still lie ahead as the MoD and the military decide exactly how the spending cuts set out in the SDSR will be implemented.

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