Libya and Aircraft Carriers


I stand accused of being an anti carrier zealot, looking at the RAF through rose-tinted flying goggles and seeing dark blues under the bed, so I thought instead of throwing water on the barby I might try a little petrol instead!

One of the objectives of Think Defence is to get people talking and in that I have to thank every single commenter, seriously fellas, we are getting very close to 15,000 comments which for a blog that has only been running a couple of years is great. Apart from the service-centric forums like ARRSE, PPRUNE, WARSHIPS1 etc I don’t think there is anything to match the numbers out there in the UK interwebnet.

However, the second objective of Think Defence is to try and counter the service-centric bias that understandably and inevitably creeps into any discussion; we are all products of our background after all. The difference between bias and honestly held opinion is often difficult to see, one man’s irreplaceable capability is another man’s white elephant and I make no secret of the fact that I think project CVF is not right for the UK. This does not, however, mean I think carrier aviation is not a great capability to have, it is entirely complementary to land-based air power and in an ideal world, we would have both, overlapping land and sea-based air power.

It is absolutely the sensible thing to do.

If we had an unlimited pot of cash then CVF with 36 F35C’s and 4 E2’s makes perfect sense but the problem with this nirvana is that we don’t have an unlimited pot of cash and no matter how much whaling and gnashing of our teeth we do, that fact isn’t going to change any time soon.

The argument, therefore, is not about CVF/F35, it is about CVF/F35 in the context of a decreasing defence vote, increasing defence costs and the strategic reality of SDR and SDSR, both of which always seem to be conveniently forgotten when bitching about carriers.

In short, it is one of prioritisation.

And here is the problem; prioritisation will inevitably create so-called winners and losers and it is into this maelstrom that bias and corrosive inter-service rivalry is pitched. I sometimes think that creative tension between the services is a good thing but then I wake up and realise that it is responsible for many of the problems that have beset UK defence in the modern era, perhaps even longer. If fighting one corner or defending one service means that UK defence as a whole gets a battering then we must all question if we need to step back and ask ourselves some searching questions.

The UK does not have a small defence budget, yet we get tremendously poor value for money and end up with the inevitable Ford Focus capability for Rolls Royce cost. We can have the major projects but they inevitably fall short of the promise and the really important capabilities like ISTAR, logistics, maintenance, personnel development, training and intelligence go short.

It is service-centric thinking that is responsible for much of this.

So when I rail against project CVF it is a reaction, a reaction to the MoD and Service Chiefs who see military capabilities through the prism of their service and the prestige they bring, not what is good for the UK.

As soon as Libya kicked off I could have put my mortgage on the fact that various blogs, notable ‘ex somethings’ and others would be spinning the importance of carriers, how much better/faster/cheaper it would have been with the Harrier and how they were right all along, the RAF being crap etc.

You might think I have too much sympathy with the RAF but this could not be further from the truth, as my previous post will show. That said, if since their birth they have been fending off calls for their disbandment then one can understand a certain flair for self-preservation.

So what about Libya and carriers?

Does the operation prove that carrier-based fast air is intrinsically better than land-based, of course, it bloody well doesn’t?

It proves nothing except that a series of complementary and overlapping capabilities, in a coalition, can deliver military effect.

Channel 4 News led the charge of the dark blue (rinse) brigade with a contribution from a certain well known Falklands aviator and measured viewer of all things light blue, the headline proudly proclaiming that Axed carriers Could Have Saved Lives

The lack of a sea-based strike option initially left the RAF with no choice but to fly sorties from bases in the UK, sending Tornado jets on 3,000-mile round trips at a cost of £200,000 per aircraft, according to estimates from analysts.

Commenting, Commander Ward said

The USMC Harrier is almost identical to the RAF Harrier in capability. Its flexibility is perfectly clear. They are they now on-site doing a job. Wherever there is a troublespot in the world, it’s so easy to put a carrier there and provide a deterrent. When Cumberland went in to rescue Britons from Benghazi, you could have had Ark Royal with harriers on board just sitting there, saying: ‘Okay, we’re watching you.’ It would have been a significant deterrent to Gaddafi escalating his actions, and then when the UN resolution came through, we would have been ready to move.

In terms of attacking tanks and army units the Harrier is just as capable as the Tornado, and the Harrier has indeed got a better capability for ensuring no casualties for civilians, because is system is more accurate for the delivery of precision guided bombs.

Quite clearly, it is a better aircraft. We’re getting a lot of spin to denigrate the capability of the Harrier to justify a bad decision, and that is an appalling record for this Government

The Tornado is very old. It is suffering from heavy fatigue problems. It’s being held together by a lot of engineering work. In terms of airworthiness, serviceability and maintainability, it’s awful.

That’s pretty strong stuff but does it hold true.

Cmdr Sharkey estimates that the fuel needed to fly one Tornado from RAF Marham to Libya and back would cost the taxpayer £200,000 – about 35 times what it would have cost to get a Harrier from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

He calculates that it will cost £22,500 per jet to fly from Italy rather than £5,750 from a carrier near the coast of Libya.

Other sources, including Commander Ward’s own log pile on the accusations, in two posts here and here.

In the interests of balance, let’s have a look at those claims.

The Cost

The first point being made is the cost of launching the strike package from Norfolk instead of from an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Of course, the cost of fuel to go a few hundred miles will be significantly less than the cost of fuel to go a few thousand miles, especially given the need for tankers but this assumption misses off a rather important element.

The cost of fuel and manning for say, HMS Ark Royal to steam from the UK to the Mediterranean and stay moving whilst on station would knock the cost of aviation fuel for the Tornado strike into a cocked hat. Plus of course, the cost of the Ark Royal’s escort force (Libya still has some naval anti-ship capability, however small, it would have to be defended against) and attending RFA vessel has to be considered.

The point was also made about drop tanks being discarded, despite video and aircraft spotter evidence to the contrary and unsubstantiated claims about tanker numbers.

A detailed analysis of costs would have to take into account many many factors, much more than the one-dimensional claims floating around the media now.


As we all know, the claim that USMC Harriers are virtually the same as the recently retired GR9’s is somewhat wide of the mark.

Unlike the USMC Harriers, GR9 does not have any radar so air to air engagement would be reliant on AWAC’s, visual detection and hope. Whilst the GR9 could carry anti-aircraft missiles I am not sure if they were ever cleared for such and going against a supersonic aircraft, equipped with radar, with a subsonic aircraft, not equipped with radar would seem to me to be an unacceptable risk just to prove a point.

Because the GR9’s cannot carry Storm Shadows they would have had to penetrate the Libyan air space to drop their missiles and bombs directly over the target. Again, in a subsonic aircraft, this would seem rather risky. This is exactly the reason for Storm Shadow, to launch outside the air defence envelope.

We have heard many claims that not integrating Storm Shadow on Harrier was a blatant light blue plot to protect Tornado but look behind this nonsense and you see a host of very good reasons why Storm Shadow and Harrier was a marriage never meant to be.

Storm Shadow is very large and heavy. Because of asymmetric loading and release issues, dropping one of these from a wing pylon would be a serious issue to overcome, even for a Tornado, the Tornado carries them on the fuselage hardpoint for this reason. A Harrier does not have the ability to do this because of under fuselage clearance; wing pylon mounting would be the only option. This means those asymmetric release issues become more pronounced and because of the length of the missile and relative size of the Harriers wing, it is difficult to see how it would be carried on a wing pylon without some additional costly modification.

Because of the Harriers relatively poor ‘bring back’ performance and vertical landing restrictions, if there was a need to bring back a weapon then the pilot would be faced with a difficult decision. Ditch the weapon, ditch the aircraft or try and divert to a land-based airfield. This issue ties into the cost argument, at roughly £750k each, dropping a Storm Shadow into the sea would be a very expensive thing to do.

Given that the target information changed mid-flight in such a way that it resulted in the need to abort the launch of a recent Tornado/Storm Shadow mission, this would seem to be rather relevant to the cost argument as well.

Many commenters also make the assumption that the Harrier and CVS would be operating practically next door to Gadaffis’ compound but this is simply not the case. In order to provide some defence against anti-ship missiles, the carrier group would need to remain well offshore. Of course, the threat is relatively low but that does not alter the fundamental fact that it would need defending against which means distance, escorts or both.

These add fuel and operating costs when measured against land bases.

So the reality is, for these initial strikes against the Libyan air defence system, the Harrier GR9 would have been a poor choice, risky at best and downright ridiculous at worst.

Maybe instead of slagging the RAF off, accusing them of showboating, perhaps some kudos is due for a clear demonstration of power projection. We should also give the fishheads some credit as well, two services coming together to deliver complementary effects on the target.

If we are talking about subsequent operations, either enforcing a no-fly zone with airborne patrols or reactive alert type forces then the closeness of a CVS would provide advantages in aircraft fuel, reaction time (assuming a standing start), airframe hours and other factors but as I have covered above, the GR9 would be a very poor choice for this role so the conversation is somewhat moot. Similar distances were present in operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then we must look at ongoing strike/interdiction operations, attacking Libyan ground forces or remaining air defence system for example. A GR9 force aboard say, HMS Ark Royal, would be closer and arguably more reactive but its range of weapons load is less so this would need more aircraft, more refuelling, more aircrew etc.

Brimstone and dual-mode Brimstone is not cleared and as we know, the Harrier GR9 does not have a cannon or RAPTOR pod capability. The Harriers manoeuvrability does lend itself to close air support but that is not the role it would be being used for and to suggest that CAS is a valid mission for UK forces is a clear indication of mission creep.

Finally, not sure what the claim that a Harrier is more accurate than a Tornado and therefore more able to reduce civilian casualties means. In fact, I would say the opposite is true given the selective effects of the 27mm cannon and Dual mode Brimstone are not available to Harrier, despite the relative merits of the two targeting pods.

I think that is an example of clutching at straws to justify a weak argument.


This is always an interesting point; no doubt an aircraft carrier allows one to imperiously float above concerns about basing rights. With Malta refusing and even Italy making noises (for its own reasons it must be said) the fact is that host nation support cannot always be guaranteed, but equally, it is not always denied. The Med is probably not the best example of HNS denial, there are plenty of other options but please let’s not think that aircraft carriers are the only answer.

At a political level, one might argue that for legitimacy, the regional nations must offer such support or we have no business being there in the first place, another argument perhaps but something to consider.

Forces the world over will always take a land base over an aircraft carrier, every day and twice on a Sunday. They only use sea basing when they have to and evidence of operations over many decades should show this to be the case.

This is not some conspiracy but just cold hard economics.


As usual, its swings and roundabouts;

GR9 might be closer to the action but it needs lots of support at sea, this might be balanced by additional fuel costs operating GR4’s from land.

GR9 is great at CAS but is slower and can carry less than a GR4, plus it has a smaller range of weapons/recce systems and lower endurance.

GR9 is not a credible CAP aircraft, sorry, it just isn’t.

What would have been a better situation is a combination of land-based and sea-based air power, each using its strengths to complement the other.

Arguing that one is better than the other is woolly minded and demonstrative of the wasteful service rivalry that has so damaged UK defence.

That’s is why I get ranty.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments