First Sea Lord’s Brave Statement of Fact Reaps ‘Spiteful’ Harrier Sell-off?

HMS Illustrious with Harriers embarked prior to her current, recently completed, refit. Photo: Dave Billinge.
HMS Illustrious with Harriers embarked prior to her current, recently completed, refit. Photo: Dave Billinge.

In our new occasional on-line commentary by Francis Beaufort we take a look at the foolishness of the current UK government in matters of defence, which can only be described as idiocy of the highest order. Other nations have looked on with a mixture of awe, amused disbelief and outrage at the behaviour of a nation that appears to have lost touch entirely with strategic reality. America has wondered if its leading ally has lost its marbles. The French have been disgusted at being left as the only European nation with a properly balanced navy. The Chinese, Indians, Russians and the Argentineans have sniggered up their sleeves at the UK’s adoption of ‘soft power’ at the expense of essential defence capabilities. This is nowhere more tragically exposed than the coalition government’s mishandling of the Royal Navy.

 

In the latest twist in the farce inflicted on the UK’s so-called ‘defence of the Realm’, the Cameron government stands accused of throwing a hissy fit by selling off the superb Harrier strike fighter that it needs so badly in the Libya campaign. This was claimed by the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin to be ‘an act of vengeance’ in response to First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope daring to suggest that actually things might have run smoother in the Libyan campaign if the Royal Navy had possessed a strike carrier and Harrier jets.

The USA is now allegedly buying the entire inventory of 40 Harrier GR9s, which the UK taxpayer recently upgraded for many millions of pounds, for somewhere between £34 million and £59 million, depending on which source you believe. The US Marine Corps flies Harriers from ships very similar to the decommissioned Ark Royal (currently the subject of an Internet auction).  The Americans are said to be proposing breaking up the GR9s for spare parts in order to keep their AV-8Bs going for several more years.

The Americans displayed the aircraft type’s utility in the Close Air Support (CAS) role over Libya this spring before pulling back from combat operations. The UK’s Harriers are actually worth several HUNDRED millions, but hey what else can a poor country do when it needs to spend up to ten billion pounds a year on overseas aid? It also has a crippling bill for maintaining the Army’s commitment to the unwinnable war in Afghanistan and needs cash to fund the RAF’s gold-plated involvement in the directionless quagmire that is the ever-shifting Libyan campaign.

Aside from the services of the Harrier/Carrier combo – in order to reduce the cost while raising operational effectiveness – you could say there is also a pressing need for an aircraft like the Nimrod MRA4. A world-beater, the UK taxpayer spent £2 billion on creating the MRA4 only for the Cameron government to throw it away for want of £200 million to bring the nine examples into service. At least the Harriers are going to a good home – the Nimrods were cut up with undue haste in an act of wanton vandalism, ironically to make sure there was no possibility of them being reprieved from the axe. In the Libyan scenario the Nimrod MRA4 would have offered an amazing, and very economic solution to many operational challenges, from airborne command and control, to surveillance over land and sea, plus its wide array of weapons could have achieved hitting power every bit as effective as the RAF’s very expensive Tornados and Typhoons. However, the fighter pilots who run the RAF were not attracted by the idea of losing their Typhoon sports cars for the utilitarian bus that was the Nimrod.

The insanity of the UK’s Libyan campaign as currently configured is nowhere better illustrated than in southern Italy, where several hundred RAF servicemen and women are staying in four star hotels – while the UK pays similarly sky high costs to rent space on Italian air bases.

Sky News Defence correspondent Niall Paterson has claimed that 10,822 sorties have been flown by NATO during the Libyan operation, with 4,102 of them strike missions. The UK’s air force has handled 1,200 of those sorties, some 3,500 flying hours. But, according to Paterson, they have ‘engaged only 350 targets.’ British Chancellor George Osborne – an inveterate hater of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers on grounds of cost – said at the end of March that he envisaged the Libyan campaign would cost tens of millions of pounds. In reality by the end of April it had cost £300 million and was racking up at £38 million a week. By the autumn it is reckoned the UK’s involvement will have cost a billion pounds. Not bad for a nation that sells off its Harriers at a huge loss.

That Navy has contributed to the bill of course, with Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) fired by its Trafalgar Class attack submarines costing around a million pounds a pop, while the RAF’s E3 Sentry AWACS aircraft cost £33,000 an hour to fly. However, nothing is more jaw dropping than the costs incurred by the boy (and girl) racers of the RAF’s Tornado and Typhoon squadrons. The high maintenance Tornado costs £35,000 an hour to fly, while the Diva-like Typhoon needs £77,000 an hour of hard earned (and easily thrown away) UK taxpayer pounds to keep in the air. Then there is the £40,000 a NIGHT hotel bill for the RAF personnel in southern Italy. Still, at least the RAF’s boys and girls get nice en suite rooms rather than having to share cabins in an aircraft carriers whose only semblance of a swimming pool would the be the coastal waters off Libya, just 20 minutes from target.

Of course in the kingdom of the maritime defence blind, the one-eyed man is king and so we must spare some sympathy for Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, who warned that the Navy should not be cut so severely in last October’s defence review, but lost that battle. He is now forced to toe the government line that the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was a good piece of work, when the reality is that it was neither strategic nor did it make the UK secure. Following the First Sea Lord’s claim that things could have been done better with Ark Royal and her Harriers, and that months more of Libya operations would force the diversion of naval units from home defence to overseas ops, Dr Fox said:  ‘We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking and have spare capacity with the Royal Navy Cougar Taskforce which is currently on exercise in the Gulf.’ What he did not say was that the Navy had to fight tooth and nail to deploy the amphibious ships of the Cougar Task Force, as certain elements of the government saw it as a waste of time and money (unlike the RAF!), or that HMS Albion (which was the flagship for British maritime operations off Libya but has now reportedly moved to a new crisis zone, off Yemen) is to be brought home soon and mothballed. Dr Fox also failed to note that HMS Ocean (the assault carrier that Apache gunships are flying from on strike missions against Gaddafi force) is in severe need of an urgent refit and will soon have to come off station. Dr Fox also did not point out that Britain still has an aircraft carrier that could easily be deployed, and with Harriers, if the political will was there (rather than spiteful vengeance against the Navy). She is called HMS Illustrious and she has just emerged from refit at Rosyth, but clearly hopes in the Navy that a Naval Strike Wing (NSW) could be stood up have now been dashed. This coalition of idiots put political priorities first and not the defence of the realm. When it comes to Admiral Stanhope’s talk of home defence units having to be diverted to overseas missions, this writer has to wonder if he means the Type 23 frigate and Merlin helicopters that are meant now to be retained in the UK for covering the Trident missile submarines as they depart and return from their nuclear deterrent patrols? Sanitising corridors of ocean so they could do that in safety, without interference from Russian submarines etc, used to lie primarily with the RAF’s Nimrod squadrons. However, of course, due to the SDSR the UK is now one of the few nations in the world that has no Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capability at all, just as it is one of the few so-called global players to lack an aircraft carrier and naval strike jets. In the face of widespread criticism from the public, the Cameron administration can backtrack on privatising the running of forests, or abandon plans to give prisoners time off their sentences for pleading guilty. It can even scrap its plans to reform the NHS. But, as Con Coughlin also points out, the one thing it absolutely should reverse are the deeply flawed decisions of a catastrophically inept defence review, which has been exposed as a failure by the Libyan operation. However, defence of the nation – the one responsibility of government that should rise above politics and requires the courage to admit mistakes and implement urgent change – is being driven by matters of Con-Dem ideology. In a hard power world, the coalition of idiots ruling the UK has sold it down the soft power river (and wasted billions of pounds worth of taxpayers money in the process).

Harrier GR9s of the recently disbanded Naval Strike Wing take off at RNAS Yeovilton after a farewell visit to their old home base. Photo: Nick Newns.
Harrier GR9s of the recently disbanded Naval Strike Wing take off at RNAS Yeovilton after a farewell visit to their old home base. Photo: Nick Newns.

Links:

Sky News on the cost of Libya

First Sea Lord speaks out

Con Couglin’s commentaries:

Harrier jump jets sold for peanuts

Reversing the defence cuts is one U turn Cameron should take

Seafarers UK

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