Odin’s Eye – Our monthly editorial takes another penetrating look at bids by the RAF and British Army to destroy the Royal Navy.
The RAF is a master of using smoke and mirrors to mask the limitations of its achievements in combat operations since WW2. Its entire reputation as a fighting force is almost entirely based upon myths. First, we have ‘The Few’ who allegedly prevented Britain from being invaded nearly 70 years ago. Their bravery was real, but the scale of their achievement was exaggerated as a necessary propaganda myth. The reality of the situation was that while the extraordinary courage of the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain - among them Fleet Air Arm aviators - did indeed blunt the Nazis bid to march on London, the real saviour of Britain back in 1940, and in fact in every major war, was the Royal Navy. The Germans realised that their small navy was no match for the maritime might of the Senior Service, which would have utterly destroyed any invasion fleet in the English Channel. Yes, the Luftwaffe would have sunk a few British ships, but we presume the RAF might have done its bit to shoot down some enemy aircraft. During the rest of the Second World War, the RAF concentrated much of its resources on the questionable strategic bombing of Germany, which starved the Army and RN of resources, and is to this day regarded by some as a war crime. The RAF claimed that a war could be won by bombing industrial areas (and cities) into rubble, a flawed pursuit that killed many thousands of civilians. In the meantime the Fleet Air Arm, with new carriers and proper modern naval aircraft denied it during the interwar period (when the RAF controlled naval aviation), was carrying the war to the enemy in the Mediterranean and also in waters off Japan. The air combat in those two theatres was every bit as intense as the Battle of Britain but that achievement is, in comparison, ignored by the broader British public. The next major conflict in which Britain fought was Korea, where the honours in air combat went almost entirely to the fighter pilots of the Fleet Air Arm, flying from carriers that were first on the scene after communist forces from the North invaded the South. So dismayed was the RAF - and so jealous of the extraordinary skill of the Fleet Air Arm - that when the Royal Navy came to planning a new generation of big carriers in the 1960s, it wove a web of deceit to ensure the unwise politicians of the day bought into the big lie that land-based aircraft could fully protect the UK and its global interests. In WW2 many hundreds of British sailors and marines had died in sunken warships due to the inability, and unwillingness, of the RAF to provide air cover. That hard truth - that naval forces need carriers with their own inbuilt air power, all run by the same Service to ensure complete understanding of the battle space - remains true to this day. The flaws in trusting solely in land-based air power to win an expeditionary campaign was proved again in the Falklands War of 1982 when Argentinean air forces failed to bring about a decisive result. The Fleet Air Arm proved the lethality of the Sea Harrier in air-to-air combat and the vital need for proper, big aircraft carriers in future conflicts, with capable Airborne Early Warning planes. The RAF’s contribution to the Falklands campaign was minimal, except for trying to grab the glory with useless Vulcan bomber raids that served only to prove why full-blown carrier strike capability is essential. To this day, the post-WW2 RAF has still not been able to shoot down an enemy aircraft in air combat, yet it has wasted billions of taxpayer pounds in a Cold War relic called the Typhoon and persists in manning squadrons of Tornado jets that should have been scrapped long ago. Nobody can deny the heroism of the RAF’s helicopter pilots and the amazing endurance of its transport fleet. Instead of its senior officers playing politics and tomfoolery with the strategic defence of the UK, the RAF should look to put its house in order and recognise the truth of the matter: The RAF must be broken up, with the transport elements split between the Navy and the Army, while the maritime patrol aircraft need to go to the fleet’s air arm, which is where they are in every other major military nation. Strike Command could then concentrate on using its supersonic toys-for-the-boys to defend the UK in the unlikely event it ever comes under direct threat from an enemy air force. The new Royal Navy carriers and their tightly integrated Fleet Air Arm strike wings can handle the task of defending the UK and its interests at long distance, so avoiding the expense of land bases and making very valuable aircraft vulnerable to enemy ground attacks. Despite this obvious necessity - which we make no apology for having highlighted before - last month the head of the RAF had the effrontery to suggest that his dinosaur of a service should control ALL fixed-wing aviation including the aircraft that will fly from the new carriers. No other leading nation would make this cardinal error. Naval strike jets need to be part of the Navy, for serving at sea deserves a naval aviator’s adaptability, willingness (and experience) in flying in the worst weather and at any time of day or night. Combat effectiveness also demands a naval ethos and esprit de corps. How would the RAF’s fighter jockeys like it if a bunch of matelots or pongos took over their air bases and ran them along naval or army lines, placing naval or Army Air Corps pilots in the Typhoons and allowing the RAF to only ferry a few people around in helicopters? Not much. It wouldn’t work, just like the current composition of the arrogant, myth-making RAF doesn’t provide the best means of defending the UK. Meanwhile, in another sign, of the concerted and utterly stupid campaign to kill off the future RN carriers, it would appear that the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, an astute political player who knows when to break cover, has decided enraging the current First Sea Lord is a worthwhile gambit.
Speaking just a few weeks before his Challenger 2 tanks returned from Iraq, the Chief of the General Staff suggested that the new carriers are ‘Cold War’ relics. This seemed a bit odd in that the majority of the Army’s equipment is designed for the Cold War but the Army shows no sign of scrapping any of it. The Challenger Main Battle Tanks have seen limited use in Iraq and have not been deployed to Afghanistan, while the Warriors, while useful in Iraq, still remain mainly needed for defending Germany against the long defunct Warsaw Pact. Presumably Sir Richard wants to hold on to them just in case the UK ever needs to fend off some form of Blitzkrieg attack on the West? I guess that’s why the Army is also hoarding Cold War relics called heavy artillery? Sir Richard is using the same arguments (basically) as the RAF in hanging on to its largely irrelevant Typhoon and Tornados. You have to admire the general’s cheek, for attack is often the best means of defence and too often the Royal Navy - which has done more than the other two services put together to shape itself for the dangerous era we live in - continues to keep its own counsel as the Silent Service.
In this case the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathan Band, answered Sir Richard’s ludicrous claims, but obviously not directly. The First Sea Lord said: “There is a school of thought that sees the carriers as, some would say, Cold War relics…as spare airfields that would only be deployed in specific operations where air-basing ashore is not available.” Explaining that this was a “minimalist view” the First Sea Lord chose an interesting way to explain the high utility of the future carriers, indeed of existing ships of the type, as operational platforms for all three armed forces. Admiral Band stated: “We will always need some high value, high capability clubs in our golf bag unless our ambition is only to play pitch and putt.” And if any nation wants to be a major player on the global golf course it needs carriers, which is why American carrier air power is decisive in Afghanistan today and why Italy, Russia, China, Australia, Spain, South Korea, India and Japan are building, or intend building, such ships. Clearly the current heads of the Army and the RAF think differently. The British people will know who to call to account when future crises and wars demand aircraft carriers with Naval Strike Wings to safeguard the UK, its interests and citizens and there is nothing to offer.