Political Correspondent Francis Beaufort looks at the extraordinary behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that led to the decision to get rid of the UK’s carrier strike capability until the 2020s.

The strike carrier HMS Ark Royal, alongside at Portsmouth April 2010

A Harrier returns to HMS Illustrious. Photo: Dave Billinge.

What a strategically feeble-minded coalition of fools the current British government is, blithely discarding naval capabilities that have secured their nation - its trade, its people - underwritten its status in the world, providing the best means of insuring the United Kingdom against global irrelevance and attack. How else can you explain the strategically brain-dead decision to discard the entire Harrier force, along with the carriers that are their launch pad?

Prime Minister David Cameron’s explanation in his introduction to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was a paper-thin, delusional piece of spin, rolling out the same old arguments for why elements of the Navy are irrelevant without paying any attention to the fact that the world has indeed turned on its geo-strategic axis. Navies - with aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, amphibious ships and frigates - are what matter, not bloated armies or air forces. Yet there is David Cameron trotting out this rot in the Foreword to the SDSR white paper, which was also signed by somebody named Nick Clegg: “In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential. That is why we have, reluctantly, taken the decision to retire the Harrier aircraft, which has served our country so well. But over the longer term, we cannot assume that bases for land-based aircraft will always be available when and where we need them.”

So, the UK, alone among the leading powers, will get rid of its carriers and their jets with a fully functioning air wing potentially not available until 2020 and beyond? What’s the reality behind the scandalous situation, in which the country that invented the Harrier, which deployed the revolutionary aircraft and the ships they were meant to fly from to such deadly effect in the Falklands War, doesn’t need them anymore? The Italians, the Spanish and the Americans, as well as the Thais and the Indians will continue to fly them for quite some time. They must all be singing from a different hymn sheet to the UK and have no grasp of strategic reality at all?

The SDSR white paper states: ‘The Invincible Class carriers were designed principally to meet Cold War threats on the high seas, with short-range jets providing air-defence for a naval task group, without the ability to interoperate aircraft with our key allies and whose primary mission was anti-submarine warfare.’ In one feeble paragraph of spin, the SDSR overlooks the remarkable multi-role evolution of the Invincible Class ships from their original ASW role. Their Sea Harrier fighters defeated the Argentinean Air Force, the same jets rode shotgun overhead as the British Army pursued its forlorn peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

The Sea Harrier FA2 was the most lethal fighter jet in the UK’s inventory for many years and as such flew Combat Air Patrols over southern Iraq in the late 1990s. During the Iraq War of 2003, acting as a helicopter carrier, Ark Royal sent ashore Royal Marines, too, while Illustrious evacuated British citizens from war-torn Lebanon just a few years later. In countless missions since the Cold War the Invincible Class proved themselves in every role EXCEPT Anti-Submarine Warfare (a role which nonetheless they could still do)

As for lacking ‘the ability to interoperate aircraft with our key allies’, that is just plain nonsense. In recent years American, Italian and Spanish Harriers have flown from the Royal Navy’s Invincible Class ships, due to the fact that the UK’s own Harriers were committed to flying Combat Air Support (CAS) for NATO troops in Afghanistan. Isn’t it also amazing that the Italian Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the ITS Cavour, is a development of the Invincible Class, while the Spanish have just commissioned into service the Juan Carlos, another ship that owes a lot to the Invincibles?

How did this sorry story come about? There are some disturbing claims circulating about the skulduggery of the RAF, which has retained it distinctly useless Tornados and super-expensive Typhoon fighters while volunteering the Harrier for the chop. The ultra-capable Harrier GR9, two squadrons of which formed the Naval Strike Wing, has life in it until 2021. However, since the Navy gave up the Sea Harrier in 2006, to save money in order to invest in the new carriers, the RAF has physically owned all the aircraft, hence the ability of the RAF to deal a death blow to Fleet Air Arm fixed-wing squadrons. Yet the saving if the Tornados were cut would have been £7.5 billion, while the ditching of the Harrier saves only £1.1 billion. On top of that the RAF will have to spend £1.4 billion on new engines by 2014 for the Tornados to keep flying. The Tornado also needs other investment in its operational capabilities to remain relevant. Whereas all 79 Harriers have, thanks to £800 million spent since 2005 on upgrades, the capability to operate both from the sea and over Afghanistan, only 31 Tornado GR4s out of 135 are fit to handle the Afghan mission, and of course have no carrier capability at all, and never will have.

The Army is reportedly unhappy with the performance of the Tornado since it replaced the Harrier in Afghanistan. A Harrier can get up in the air from Kandahar in around ten minutes, while the Tornado needs half an hour. The mission in Afghanistan needs seven Tornado squadrons to run the deployment whereas just four squadrons of Harriers can achieve the same battlefield effect. Much of the sophisticated weaponry that the Tornado has allegedly been retained to carry into action, provided a friendly airfield can be found, diplomatic clearance obtained and the facility defended properly, would never be used in action in Afghanistan (such as the Storm Shadow missile). Aside from all that, the Tornado needs a near perfect runway to operate in Afghanistan, while the Harrier can fly from a field.

So, how did the RAF - which is run by fighter pilots - manage to preserve its most glamorous jets while destroying not only the Harrier force but also earmarking the Nimrod maritime aircraft for the chop? The buzz is that at the last minute, with the SDSR white paper within hours of going to print, the Chief of the Defence Staff (a RAF officer, but meant to be tri-service and impartial) and the head of the RAF conducted a private briefing for somebody extremely influential in government, who was hoodwinked by their passionate lobbying into making the wrong choice.

The SDSR white paper claims that the Harrier cannot actually manage the carrier strike role and also fly air support missions in Afghanistan over the next few years. Clearly this is rubbish.

And then there is the Typhoon air superiority fighter, which was to have a ground-attack capability, grafted on at a cost of many millions, but reportedly will stick to dog fighting after all

And then there are the future carriers, which nobody in the current government seems to understand at all.The Con-Dem coalition has ring-fenced more than £10 billion in overseas aid, under the direction of a minister who voiced open opposition to the new aircraft carriers (and is by the way an ex-Army officer). He, and his confederates wanted to cancel construction of the carrier altogether. Many in the UK are asking what kind of idiots would even think of destroying the world class British warship building industry, throwing people across the UK on the dole, while giving taxpayers money to foreign governments to educate their children? What about the UK’s children? Do their mothers and fathers not deserve to have jobs

When the head of BAE Systems wrote to the Prime Minister explaining what the consequences would be if even one of the new aircraft carriers was cancelled, he was conveying in hard-headed business terms how utterly crucial the new ships are to the future of the United Kingdom economically, hoping that men as clever as the Prime Minister and George Osborne would understand. They might not get the strategic logic for the new carriers, but surely they would understand the business case? BAE Systems boss Ian King wrote: ‘The cancellation of Prince of Wales [the second carrier] would mean that production in all BAE Systems shipyards would cease at the end of 2012. This means that the business would be unsustainable, and all three yards would have to close by early 2013, with the loss of more than 5,000 jobs in BAE Systems and many more across the UK in hundreds of companies in the supply chain. In practice that means the end of the UK’s capability in complex warships’

Did David Cameron, or George Osborne, not pay attention to the fiasco that was the Labour government’s mishandling of the Type 45 destroyer programme, in which the original order for a dozen destroyers was cut by half, so doubling the cost of each ship? And let’s not forget a billion pounds was added to the cost of the aircraft carriers by the Labour government imposing delays in production. Has neither man heard of set-up costs, of the cost of investing in infrastructure, maintaining a skills base, buying in the parts, or manufacturing complex elements of the ships in time for them to be assembled to schedule? Do they not prize the critical part a healthy warship construction industry plays in the strategic defence of the UK? It has been a salient fact for centuries. Above all do neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor understand that it takes decades to create a navy, that discarding it can be achieved in moments, but that recreating it might be impossible?

That then is the scandal of the decision to cut the Harriers and their carriers - a priceless asset gone, sacrificed by a coalition that is pig ignorant about naval matters and has therefore put the nation at risk. Similarly Cameron and Osborne just do not get why two carriers are needed, because they are too insular to ask why other nations are building them.

Most ludicrous of all is the new Anglo-French ‘Carrier Pact’. The UK has been involved in defence pacts with the French before - none of them have turned out well. The first time saw a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) bogged down in the slaughter of the Western Front during WW1, while the second resulted in the UK’s army being evacuated from the Continent by the Royal Navy, which later had to go and destroy France’s fleet to stop it falling into the hands of the Nazis. Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Fox and Hague think that the Anglo-French defence agreement of 2010 is smart, that it offers a cheaper and practical solution for national defence. The French carrier Charles de Gaulle is a pig in a poke, hardly ever at sea, spending large parts of its life in dry-dock under repair. A French journalist writing on the new Anglo-French defence pact scoffed at the British for scrapping their current carriers and Harriers, while in return the French Navy can only offer ‘a lemon’, a national joke of a ship.

Yet there is George Osborne sneering at the decision to construct two carriers while giving evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee, while his own government gambles with the defence of the realm in numerous ways

So what if the aircraft carriers cost £5.2 billion? That’s around half the ANNUAL overseas aid budget that was ring-fenced in the UK government’s spending review, yet the Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth will protect the UK for 50 years. A very cheap insurance policy, even with several billion more to create the air wings that will fly from them. When it’s time for the Charles de Gaulle to be the ‘on-call’ carrier, but she’s broken down again, and the Queen Elizabeth is in refit, some crisis or other will require Prince of Wales - the ship so derided in today’s Britain - to fill the gap. Investing in navies takes foresight, something the UK’s sea blind coalition lacks when it comes to true strategic defence.

The assault carrier HMS Ocean

A Harrier lands on Illustrious. Photo: Dave Billinge.

  • For more commentaries and news analysis SUBSCRIBE to WARSHIPS IFR today!