Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Joint Force Harrier

Okay, in another break from the series of entries I have up till now been following, this piece is going to focus on the Royal Navy’s/Royal Air Force’s Joint Force Harrier. This force is under threat in the forthcoming budgetary battle, an annual event which has been made worse by the current economic climate. So here are some reasons this force is under threat, and the reasons why in my mind it should not only be saved, but if at all possible expanded by at least one if not two active squadrons.
Why it is under attack;
  1. Whilst this probably has not gone through the minds of the officers involved, a bonus of removing the aircraft which provide the strike element of our carrier air groups would, although removing only two squadrons from the RAF would remove the RN’s only fixed wing squadrons from service. This would critically undermine the RN’s ability to involve itself in the JSFs and perhaps even the whole Queen Elizabeth Class carrier project – something which would perhaps free up money to provide the RAF with all the Eurofighter’s it loves so much.
  2. To Quote Mr Mark Lancaster MP “What does that actually mean? I am not going to draw the Minister into debates on Treasury cuts and the fact that the RAF is having to find ways to save money next year. A lot of money seems to be splashing around, but if the MOD needs more money, that is a point for him to argue with the Treasury. It is pretty clear that if the Harrier stays in Afghanistan, it will not be subjected to the programme review. If, however, the Tornado is pulled out of Iraq—it soon will be, hopefully—what exactly is it going to do? It will not be on operations, and it will not have an operational role. I am assured that the RAF is concerned that, all of a sudden, the Tornado fleet is beginning to look exposed. It believes that by ensuring that it has a role in Afghanistan, we can give the Tornado fleet and its future a degree of protection.” Now I have copied the whole paragraph, not just the salient point, for reasons which I will explain later; but it does raise a very important point to be considered – are operational requirements being put second to doctrinal belief? The Tornadoes are fast aircraft, the most successful ground support aircraft are (in order) the A-10 Warthog, Apache Gunship and the Harrier – all these aircraft are significantly slower, and more manoeuvrable at low altitudes were all the tactical ground support required by the troops takes place.

Why it should be saved;

  1. This point is perhaps a continuation of the end of point 2 of ‘why it under attack’, but as it is to do with why it should be saved it is here. The RAF does not have the A-10 Warthog, neither does it have Apaches although the British Army does; the only ground attack aircraft it has is the Harrier. The Tornado was originally designed as an air superiority aircraft designed at the height of the cold war that was adapted to the role; and has always had difficulty fulfilling this role.
  2. Then there is the problem of combat capability and reliability, a point which Mr Lancaster MP has also raised;
    a) “For example, from a weapons point of view—I will not go into detail, as it would not be helpful in a public debate—of the six weapons systems that are carried on the Harrier, four cannot currently be carried on a Tornado. Indeed, one of the biggest impacts that we will see is on the degree of proportionality. The Tornado, which is due to replace the Harrier, seems very much to be an all or nothing option. Also, the Harrier has a series of close air support options fitted to it. In fact, of the eight specialist items on a Harrier for close air support, four will not be available for the Tornado.”
    b) “I will not go into the details of ground abort rates, but suffice to say that at the moment the Harrier is operating at a 0.34 per cent. ground abort rate. That means that only about four in every 1,000 times that we call on a Harrier to go on a mission in Afghanistan it cannot take off, because of some technical problem. By comparison, the Tornado GR4 is operating at a ground abort rate of 11.6 per cent. That means that more than one in 10 times that a Tornado is scrambled on operations, it simply fails to get off the ground. If that is the case, why are we replacing eight Harriers with eight Tornadoes? Why are we accepting that one in 10 times a Tornado will not get off the ground and therefore one in 10 times it will not get to serve our soldiers on the ground on the front line? Is the Minister really happy to take that risk? In fact, the ground abort rate for Tornadoes peaked last month at 12.7 per cent., so this problem is getting worse, not better. I would also like to pass this summary to the Minister so that he can confirm or deny this information, which apparently is not held centrally.”
    c) This sub-point is not raised by Mr Lancaster MP, I would like to think because of parliamentary nicety rather than not realising. Why in the name of all things logical and common sensical would any sane person withdraw an aircraft which is so capable and provides so much of a life line to those brave men and women risking their lives every day and night they serve this country in Afghanistan and then replace it with an aircraft which is not as good? In an echo of a point I made to a friend recently such actions seem almost criminal if considered in the light of modern health and safety laws relating to the employers duty of care to their employees.
  3. If they do retire the Harriers, what will we fly from the carriers – the Invincible class can certainly not carry Eurofighters, or the Harriers projected replacement in Afghanistan the Tornado; incidentally neither can the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers – they will carry the JSF, the Harriers projected replacement, which will not begin to enter service till 2012. So, if the Harriers were withdrawn from service now, with even the most optimistic projection of full service work up time, would mean a 4.5 year or 54 month gap of capability in close support fixed wing aircraft organically available to British Forces on operation; more likely it would be 6 years or 72 months capability gap, i.e. 2015.
  4. This whole situation is strikingly similar to something described by Chalmers Johnson in his text ‘America Is Completely Broke, And Here We Are Funding Fantasy Wars at the Pentagon’ – a text which I disagree with much of, but does raise many salient points;
    a) “Instead, in military terms, the most unexpectedly successful post-Vietnam aircraft has been the Fairchild A-10, unflatteringly nicknamed the "Warthog." It is the only close-support aircraft ever developed by the U.S. Air Force. Its task is to loiter over battlefields and assist ground forces in disposing of obstinate or formidable targets, which is not something that fits comfortably with the Air Force's hot-shot self-image.”
    b) “Some 715 A-10s were produced and they served with great effectiveness in the first Persian Gulf War. All 715 cumulatively cost less than three B-2 bombers. The A-10 is now out of production because the Air Force establishment favours extremely fast aircraft that fly in straight lines at high altitudes rather than aircraft that are useful in battle. In the Afghan war, the Air Force has regularly inflicted heavy casualties on innocent civilians at least in part because it tries to attack ground targets from the air with inappropriately high-performance equipment.”
    c) So here is another case where the very capable ground support aircraft is being sidelined in favour of an aircraft which has been designed in the cold war mould of high speed air superiority mission primacy; ground support mission somewhere below the visible horizon. I have a solution for this, for some reason – Unknown and still unexplained to me a Brigadier of the Army was put in charge of ordering and building the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, so why can’t a brigadier be put in charge of order the new ground support aircraft – this makes far more sense than the carriers, as they have the knowledge of what they need as well experience gained through Apache operations of what an aircraft can do. > I wrote this (on the night of the 4th Feb 2009) having not read the Telegraph on the 4th of Feb 2009, and it seems that this has already been done with a Major General being put in charge, who suprisingly and much to RAFs chargrin agrees that the Harriers should be kept on....I wonder why?

I will admit that this is not the most balanced piece I have ever written, that is because this is such an important topic in my point of view that I feel I have to drop the academic niceties of life, and be, well, more forthright than those conventions would traditionally allow. The Harrier is a combat necessity in the modern era, especially when it’s only visibly capable replacement in the role of close combat support is so far away. 6 years might not seem so much to a civil servant sitting behind a comfortable desk in the Treasury, but trust me; my friends regularly reiterate the point that 6 seconds seems like lifetime when waiting for air support to arrive in close quarters action in the heart of Helmand province – just imagine when they get told, sorry the aircraft cannot take off due to mechanical failure, or it can’t carry the right weapons to assist you, or even worst it can’t help you because it cannot go slow enough to operate at low level in valley – a not unknown occurrence with the not do dissimilar to Tornado F-15s currently deployed by the USAF in Afghanistan.
So here is my plea, please before anyone decides to withdraw these aircraft, consider those personal we have on operations, not the ones in future operations, not the ones Cold War battle which thankfully have so far never come true; but those deployed in Afghanistan, on carriers deployed to support far flung obligations signed up to so easily by the current government, carrying out tasks in areas where there are no big airfields – where a Harrier is literally the only aircraft which can be operated from the facilities available. The final point I have to make is this, why is Britain considering withdrawing an aircraft from service 6 years before its replaced is probably going to be operational, when the Americans who will operate the same types of aircraft, but will not withdraw the Harrier for 10 years – in other words 2019 in order to avoid losing those capabilities which would be so glibly dispensed with in the Harriers own nation of birth.

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