On the list of inexplicable decisions spewed forth from the SDSR is to withdraw Harrier and reduce Tornado.
So is this a sensible decision?
Of course not, it would have been much more sensible to stick with the plan, reducing Tornado and Harrier in line with the introduction of F35 and Typhoon. A two type fleet has long been the accepted strategy and it makes a lot of sense, maintaining the carrier strike capability, albeit at a modest level and using a combination of Typhoon and F35 to provide air defence, interdiction, CAS and ISR in the long term. Armed UAV’s would also be inserted into a future strategy, perhaps changing the numbers of system integration of both the two planned types, but essentially it was a sensible and coherent plan.
The problem with sensible plans though is they have to be funded, so in a decision reminiscent of asking which leg you would like chopping off, a decision had to made.
Neither option is in any way shape or forms desirable.
In the context of the SDSR, the first priority is Afghanistan and quite rightly so. Are those Admirals really suggesting that Afghanistan should not be first, second and last?
Brimstone, a valuable low collateral weapon, only the Tornado can currently carry it but the Harrier could be converted but this would add an additional cost even though some of the work has been done.
The CRV-7 rocket pod is only carried by Harrier, although the Apache can and does also carry CRV-7
The Tornado also brings Storm Shadow and a 27mm cannon to the party. The former isn’t much use in Afghanistan but the latter definitely is and Harrier has neither. If we are engaged in any offensive air operation in the next 5 years outside Afghanistan and beyond that Storm Shadow would be a serious capability loss although it could be integrated onto Typhoon.
The Harrier uses the Sniper targeting pod and the Digital Joint Recce Pod but the Tornado can carry the enormously valuable RAPTOR pod and the Litening III targeting pod. RAPTOR is on par with the capabilities offered by the U2 and has the advantage of being able to be data-linked to the ground for immediate image analysis and exploitation.
The tornado can also carry the ALARM anti-radar missile, unlike the Harrier and has a radar, again, unlike the Harrier.
The Harrier can also use more austere runways (as proven to be a decisive capability at Kandahar) and can of course operate from our Illustrious class ‘aircraft carriers’, what is left of them.
Training aircrew is twice as expensive for Harrier but Tornado needs two, flight costs per hour are similar but Harrier is actually the most expensive at £37k per hour compared to the Tornado at £35k
The Tornado was supporting operations in Iraq so it made sense to deploy the GR9 to Afghanistan, it not being very sensible to have two fast fleets in the same theatre for the same task. GR9’s have performed magnificently well in Afghanistan, absolutely no doubt, feedback seems to be that for the pure CAS role, it has many advantages over Tornado. But Tornado delivers military effect beyond CAS, especially in the ISR realm.
Tornado has significantly greater range and speed than the Harrier and the second crew member, whilst self evidently expensive, adds a great deal to current missions.
Both types have seen extensive action but Tornado can carry out a greater range of roles than Harrier although in some it could be reasonably argued that Harrier is ‘better’
One of the reasons that the GR9 was replaced with the GR4 in Afghanistan was in order to retain carrier operation skills and exercises in the MoD news feed confirm this. It must also be said that Joint Force Harrier had been flogged to the point of exhaustion in Afghanistan and, to put it bluntly, needed time to recuperate and recover, in all senses. Could we really have relied on the 2 squadrons JFH to cover the role of Tornado in Afghanistan for the next 5 years?
I am not sure.
And ultimately, it was this that was the deciding factor.
The Tornado has a larger fleet and more sustainable aircrew capacity for supporting Afghanistan, this trumps the loss of maritime strike and some of the other finer points of weapon carriage and CAS performance differences.
The Tornado fleet isn’t being maintained at a high level though, it looks like it is being reduced to the bare minimum (18 airframes at readiness) to solely support operations in Afghanistan to the 2015 time frame, with some small additional contingent, and likely rapidly retired after that. Hopefully, Typhoon will be available in sufficient numbers and with the appropriate system integrations. We may find ourselves in a position of only having a reduced Typhoon fleet until F35C comes into service post-2020/2024.
The decision is not about absolute savings, quite clearly getting rid of Tornado would have saved more but which saves us money whilst being able to maintain operations in Afghanistan and beyond.
To spice things up we have had a passionate defence and appeals from various quarters, supporting their favoured option. Also, as usual, the ‘ex somethings’ in the Royal Navy seem to be most vocal so it might be worthwhile looking at some of their claims.
The latest example is a post from Vice Admiral John McAnally at the Phoenix Think Tank. It is very rare that I reference another blog but some of the contradictions are not to be missed.
- Claiming that in using the Afghanistan issue we are institutionalising preparing for the last war, what, eh, it’s a war that we are busy actually fighting now and will be for the next 5 years. How is that the next war?
- Using the Falklands as a justification, please, this is getting silly now, surely that is preparing for the last war!
- The same site argues that STVOL is rubbish when it is the F35B doing it in order to talk up the F35C yet when it comes to the Harrier, it is an essential capability
- Claims that a Harrier can carry Storm Shadow with only a little extra investment, really?
- It then fills a whole basket of dubious claims like the Typhoon costing £200m each
- And finally, insists that we retain a capability that hasn’t been used in any serious way for in excess of 30 years in favour of an aircraft that has seen more or less constant use for 2 decades in multiple theatres across a range of CAS, interdiction, SEAD and other missions.
So in the context of no decision being actually very sensible, the decision to retain Tornado at the expense of Harrier is at least understandable, despite what a bunch of ex Navy officers might think. One might argue that the deletion of MRA4 would actually have a rather greater impact on maters nautical than Harrier but that’s just my humble opinion.