Monday, 3 September 2012

Withdrawing the Harrier - Part Two - the SDSR debate

In the last part of this article, Humphrey looked at the history of the Harrier force from 1998 until the start of the 2010 SDSR. It left off with the Harrier GR9 force having been reduced to just 10 FE@R, and looking vulnerable ahead of a long awaited Defence Review.

The 2010 SDSR was a review that was always expected, although many political games were played between the three parties in the run up to the election. At different times, all three major parties committed to conducting a review, although the MOD couldn’t formally do any preparatory work until the then Labour Government had confirmed it too would hold one. Its always slightly embarrassing for the Civil Service to be planning ahead for the next Government agenda, while your current Government is yet to commit to that particular course of action.

Nonetheless, in the run up to the 2010 election, its fair to say a lot of preparatory ‘think tanking’ was done in various quarters, considering some of the likely exam questions that would crop up in a Defence Review. This author remembers discussing with senior officers the need to begin slowly preparing the groundwork for a Defence Review as early as 2008 – this wasn’t a political statement, more an acceptance that whoever won the election would want to review Defence. By the time Liam Fox arrived at the MOD in May 2010, a lot of work had gone into establishing the underpinning work that would later inform the SDSR.  

The SDSR provided the first chance in 12 years to review where the UK was heading, and to try to take stock of the massively overheated equipment programme. From the outset it was clear that cuts would be required to try and return the funding into a balanced position, and that everything was up for grabs.

 Humphrey was deployed on OP HERRICK at the time, so had no involvement in the SDSR at all. Talking to friends who were involved, it was clear that it was a challenging time, as the MOD had to try to put together a force structure which would meet the stated goals of the National Security Strategy, achieved military success in Afghanistan and met the various defence outputs that together formed the Military Tasks for the MOD.

This was not an easy task. On the one hand, planners were being required to sort out a budget which had to fund a disproportionately large fighting force until 2015, meaning manpower cuts, which was where real savings could be made, could not occur in  large numbers until this point. They then had to consider how to fund a military that would need at least four – five years to recover from OP HERRICK and associated tasks in the 2015 – 2020 period. In theory then, by 2020 the military would need to be operating a force capable of conducting a full range of contingency operations. In broad brush terms, the challenge the planners had looked something like this.

Time Frame
Sustain Operation HERRICK (10,000 ground troops) as Defence Main Effort, and recover to UK. Exceptionally limited other capability.
Cannot easily reduce size of Army and supporting forces without affecting HERRICK.
Reorganise from Op HERRICK, regenerate forces and deliver limited expeditionary capability.
Implement SDSR2015 findings.
Window to deliver major reduction in force levels without impacting on operational output.
Regenerated forces capable of delivering full range of Military Tasks.
Implement SDSR2020 findings.
Harder to put redundancies through as UK able to conduct discretionary ops again.
Having identified the three main time periods, each of which had very different requirements, planners had to consider how to build a force that could meet the likely military tasks. In broad brush terms this meant build a range of force packages which could produce a different series of outputs. If you look at the SDSR, then the outputs stated – such as maintaining a 30,000 strong three brigade force in the field for six months, through to long term sustainment of 10,000 troops on discretionary operations is a direct reflection of the force packages considered. In other words, all the equipment in use today is ascribed to be able to deliver to part of the force packages set out in the SDSR. Everything has a place, no matter how hard it may be to see where it is at times!

While the argument over what the force should look like was going on, another series of debates was occurring over what was affordable, both as in service equipment and as new equipment. It was very clear that there simply wasn’t the money in the system to fund the forward programme. Part of the challenge was the combination of an overcommitted defence budget, desperately trying to fund the cost of sustaining operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the previous decade, and significant cost growth in many major programmes. This, coupled with a political unwillingness to cancel major programmes meant that the budget was completely out of kilter.

As part of these budget cuts, it was clear that there was only sufficient funding in the system for two fleets of Fast Jet aircraft to run through until 2020. At the time the UK planned to operate the Typhoon, Tornado GR4 bomber and the Harrier GR9 until the 2019-2024 timeframe.

The problem with running FJ fleets is that no matter how many airframes you reduce in front line service, there will always be costs that cannot easily be saved. You have to have support contracts, you need to have maintenance support, you need a training pipeline which provides fitters, engineers, pilots, and all the other personnel needed to make an aircraft fly. You need to run dozens of training courses across multiple ground schools in the various pieces of ordnance, technology, engines and kit and all this comes at a significant cost. You cannot turn this off while the aircraft remains in service, so reductions in FJ are only useful if they come with a wider reduction in billing.

For the MOD, it was clear that the only way to meet the very large sums required was to take an entire fleet of aircraft out of service, and enjoy the costs of fleet reduction, reduced training, manpower, real estate and so on. 

Tornado GR4 (Copyright Wikipedia)

The case for Tornado.
It seems to be clear that both Tornado and Harrier were considered for possible deletion. Ultimately, the decision was taken to retain the Tornado over the Harrier force. But why?

At its simplest the case for Tornado was far more credible than Harrier. The Tornado force of some 140 airframes had been in service for some 30 years by this point, although as with Harrier, the fleet had been significantly upgraded. It seems that about 60-70 aircraft (Humphrey can’t find the exact figures) were attributed as FE@R.  The aircraft were scheduled to remain in service until 2024 (or thereabouts) providing the UK with a longer term strike capability than Harrier, which was due to go in about 2016-2018.

The fleet was cleared to carry a much wider range of munitions than the Harrier force, including ALARM, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles, which provided the UK with a credible weapons package. The funding for the Harrier to carry such missiles had never been approved, meaning that it had a theoretical capability only.

By contrast the Harrier was leaving service sooner than the Tornado, and far less airframes were available. It would take time and money to bring the Harrier fleet back up to readiness for the various tasks already ascribed to the Tornado fleet. Any deletion of the aircraft fleet would probably need to be done by the end of the financial year, meaning if it were withdrawn, then the UK would at a stroke lose its ability to deploy ALARM, Brimstone and Storm Shadow.  Losing a highly capable cruise missile platform, and exceptionally useful 'wild weasel' and anti-tank platform would have been far more damaging to the long term defence argument than losing the Harrier.

The final problem was that for the Harrier force, the main rationale to remain in service was the need to sustain seedcorn capability for the carrier fleet. The decision to alter CVF to a CTOL platform removed this argument at a stroke. CTOL was so sufficiently different from STOVL that a whole new set of skills would need to be relearned – hence the deployment of pilots to train on the F18.

If CTOL was coming in to service in 2018, and the UK was committed to Afghan Operations until 2015, and then recovering from 2015-2020, then a reasonable assumption could be made that Harrier was a lower priority. After all, there would be limited likelihood of an operation requiring carriers to occur, and with the Harrier fleet committed to HERRICK, then there would be little chance of finding spare pilots to engage in sea deployments (Humphrey has heard friends claim that the RN was into single figures for fully qualified carrier pilots by the end of the Harriers life).

Tornado by contrast was committed to Op HERRICK (some 12 aircraft by that point were in Kandahar) and had no programmed successor entering service before 2020. The Harrier fleet would need to be assigned to replace Tornado, and given the paucity of pilots, and wider resource for Harrier, this would mean making it a single deployment.

In other words, had the decision been taken to delete Tornado, then Harrier would have had to have gone back to Afghanistan, to replace the air cover lost by removing Tornado. A fleet barely half the size of the GR4 fleet would have been probably broken trying to sustain 12 aircraft, particularly when deploying just six airframes caused problems during its previous deployment.

With the likelihood that all the Harrier force would have been assigned to Op HERRICK, or supporting maintaining a token contingent capability elsewhere, then the likelihood of seeing a carrier deployment would have been slimmer than ever. It is essential to understand that had Harrier been kept in the SDSR, then the Royal Navy would still not be doing any fixed wing carrier flying today.

Could the RN have funded the Harrier alone though? Its often suggested  that the RN should regain control of its fighter squadrons and use the money to fund its force directly. A great argument in theory, which ignores a salient fact. The RN over the last 14 years could have made sacrifices to find the funding – under older arrangements it could have put forward plans to sacrifice other capabilities directly to fund the Harrier. It chose not to do so, preferring instead to try to find savings through joint work.

Latterly, as procurement budgets got tied into a very complicated mixed of ‘capability areas’ it could have found commensurate savings elsewhere in the budget to enable funding to be found to run on Harrier. This would have been complex – needing the RN to find sufficient funding to enable resources to run front line squadrons plus a training pipeline, plus all the various elements that supported keeping aircraft flying. This isn’t to say it couldn’t have been done, but it would have needed work to find funding cuts elsewhere which would generate sufficient savings to keep Harrier alive.

Again, it is telling that despite the many reviews of the last 14 years, the RN has chosen to put other capabilities ahead of funding the Fleet Air Arm. No matter how often people may cry foul about the RAF, the fact the RN was unwilling, or unable to find the money should not be forgotten either.

The great hope of the Fleet Air Arm. JSF and CVF
Look – No Carriers!
The other problem was that the Royal Navy would probably not have had any aircraft carriers to fly the Harriers off anyway. The original disposal plan for the Invincible class saw the first going in 2010, followed by ILLUSTRIOUS in 2012, and finally ARK ROYAL in 2015, while OCEAN ran on. At this point  CVF would have been working up and theoretically embarking harriers in lieu of JSF.

In reality the decision to delay CVF in an earlier planning round meant that conversion to CTOL became feasible. Had the original timelines been adhered to, then QUEEN ELIZABETH would have been entering final stages of construction as the SDSR came along, and could have borne Harriers. The RN decision to delay CVF in the 2008-2009 period meant CTOL conversion became feasible, and a carrier gap became reality.

The only difference between pre and post SDSR for the RN carrier fleet was losing HMS ARK ROYAL slightly early. The RN was always going to be a single carrier fleet by 2012. More importantly it is often forgotten that HMS OCEAN has always been due a two year refit in the period 2012-2014.

However you look at it, even if SDSR had kept Harrier, then the sole UK carrier in service, most likely ARK ROYAL would probably have been required to re-role into an LPH anyway to cover for HMS OCEAN. In other words, if SDSR had kept Harrier, the RN would still not have a fixed wing carrier capability right now. It would instead be focused on delivering an LPH capability, which if anything has been shown by recent operations to be of more value to the UK than a carrier.

The key message to take away is that SDSR was effectively irrelevant to the future of the RN fixed wing flying. The decisions taken in earlier spending rounds had sealed the fate of Harrier. The reduction in readiness, and the decision to delay CVF entry to service meant the RN would have struggled to send a carrier to sea.
So, by 2015 the RN would have reduced to a single carrier (HMS OCEAN), unable to operate Harrier aircraft. With HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH not due in till 2016 at the earliest, even then configured as an LPH, a Harrier OSD of 2018 and with the CVF conversion to CTOL predicted to take longer, it’s clear that even if Harrier had been run on to 2018, the UK would have had a capability gap. In realistic terms, it’s hard to see the UK having the capability, even under pre SDSR plans, to put a credible harrier force to sea beyond 2012. Beyond this point the focus shifts to providing LPH capability, to keep the amphibious task group skills alive, as a higher priority than running old jets on.

To this author, a convenient ‘rewrite of history’ has occurred over the Harrier. Its very easy to sit and make out that the RNs beloved fixed wing aviation capability was destroyed in SDSR, enabling sailors to sit in bars and lambast RAF deviousness. In this narrative the RN would right now be putting mighty warships to sea armed to the teeth with the GR9, and awaiting the arrival of CVF and its bright future.

Such a narrative is utter rubbish. At best the most the RN could have hoped for between 2012 and 2018 was the occasional deployment of a small contingent of RAF aircraft to try and keep fixed wing skills alive. This would have been fleeting and dependent on other tasking not needing the aircraft for shore based work. If Harrier had been kept on from SDSR, then it would have been deployed on HERRICK, and its likely that a ‘delete ARK ROYAL’ option may well have been considered anyway, as the reality of limited carrier operations became clear.

This authors personal view is that in the eyes of the RN, securing the future capability was a more important battleground than retaining a hugely limited present capability. Hence the realisation that if CVF was secure, actually retention of Harrier was less important to fund as long as a successor was confirmed. In the case of CVF, the CTOL option gave the RN a good opportunity to build a force package which enabled for deletions of high profile capabilities which actually offered little in the way of deployability, such as ARK ROYAL and the supporting AORs, and instead focus resources on two areas – sustaining the escort fleet and the amphibious assault capability. Humphrey believes that if push came to shove, and it had been decided to save the Harrier, then the corresponding savings would probably have come from even greater reductions to the surface fleet, or the complete removal of the amphibious capability – on the grounds that there was little else left to take.

The RN made a compelling case in SDR for a power projection focused navy, which as will be seen when ELLAMY is discussed, made an incredible contribution to maritime operations in Libya. Had the RN sacrificed more ships, marines and amphibious ability to pay to keep a small number of Harriers at sea, then this would have been far more damaging to the long term national interest of the UK.

Instead, accepting a small risk in terms of deployability but continuing to build up the training pipeline and working on skills retention, has left the RN in the best situation in a bleak world.

Be in no doubt, the best case scenario would have seen the RN remain in the carrier business and also kept other assets too, but to play that game required more funding than was available. Instead the RN has managed to keep itself reasonably balanced, accepting short term limited risk versus long term capability.

That concludes part two of this series. The next part will look at the ELLAMY environment, and also move onto look at the wider post SDSR environment, and also address the myth that the RAF ‘won’ the SDSR. It will also look at what was really lost in terms of capability delivery and try to look at wider lessons for the Armed Forces.



  1. Really enjoyed reading both parts 1 and 2 Sir H, keep up the good work!

    I'm on the same page as you in recognising that whilst the Harrier was a remarkable aircraft it was the logical (albeit painful) choice to remove them instead of Tornado.

    The fleet had been steadily run down to the point of absolute minimal effectiveness. It didn't have the numbers or weapon integration to be a realistic and practical alternative.

    It was a good point you made as well on the reality of CVF delays and the ageing of the Invincible's removing the plausibility of carrier aviation no matter what happened to the aircraft themselves.

    I really think that the root cause of it's demise was the late 90s decision to go for 'Joint Force Harrier'. I think it was retrospectively incorrect to not pursue an engine upgrade for the Sea Harrier. It was equally naive of the RN to think that putting it's fixed wing aviation future in the hands of the RAF wouldn't have far reaching and arguably destructive consequences.

  2. As I understand it, the engine upgrade would have been trickier for the F/A, which is a first-generation Harrier then the 2nd-gen GR7. But the bigger crime is to not transfer the Blue Vixen to the GR7. I understand the would-be cost was supposed to be over 600 million pounds. Which with 40ish F/A2 (and thus radars for transfer) would come to around 15 million pounds a plane. In these days of fighters closing to 100 million pounds, it seems like a crime not to divert some funds to make the upgrade.

    As for whether keeping the RN Harrier force "isolated" from the RAF Harrier force would have saved it, now that's a bit tricky. Ultimately, money doesn't grow on trees and without JFH well maybe the RAF would decide to trash its Harrier force and then room may be found in the overall budget for the RN Harrier's survival. Otherwise, the RN would be forced into decisions similar to what Humphrey proposed - massive loss of escorts or amphib ability to save the Harriers

    1. A very good point arkhangelsk.

      With Sea Harrier retiring it should have been a priority to get Blue Vixen on-to the GR7/9. It wouldn't of cost the earth and could have provided a simultaneous fleet defence and close air support airframe.

      A truly dual capable fleet was a wasted opportunity which could have significant;y contributed to it's future survival and real world utility, such a shame!

  3. Seems to beg the question: will the required funding for the RN future fixed-wing capabiltiy actually materialize in meaningful form>

  4. Excellent article. The decision to axe the Harrier/Ark Royal was, as you say, inevitable. Had this decision not been taken, I think the alternatives on the table were a further reduction in the destroyer/frigate force to 12-15 ships or abandoning the amphibious capability completely. It is also likely that the 7th Astute boat would have been cancelled, although this would have made it difficult to delay the decision on Trident replacement until 2015 unless Astute production was slowed to plug the gap.

  5. "No matter how often people may cry foul about the RAF, the fact the RN was unwilling, or unable to find the money should not be forgotten either."


    Many seem to like ignorantly bashing/blaming others, but the at the root is the fact that there's no money, and what money there is, is currently targeted at what the RN see's are more core assets, as the above annon commenter says. The FAA simply is not on the current priority as its other branches, Merlin HM2 and Wildcat being the main focus for what resources are available for the FAA...with the CHF Merlin transfer on the horizon.

    Very good and clear post SirH, sadly I some people will still bury their head's on the beach.

  6. Great Article, actually informed me of some things I had failed to notice. Credit to the author.

    For me the issue with the decisions made go much deeper, the fact that we could not afford to maintain all of the assets discussed in the article causes me great concern.

    The defence budget is sizeable, and we do not get value for money, to much is wasted by the MOD. In any case the government should have stepped in and increased funding to save our capabilities but clearly they did not have the stomach for it. It may be a contested issue but surely funding could have been found in the wider national budget, foreign aid for example.

  7. Good article of which the most salient and important part is the "failure" of the "RN" to fund the fixed-wing element of the FAA.

    While this is undoubtedly the end effect, it is probably fairer to suggest that the "capability management" regime has had a large part to play in this. As Sir H will be aware, the RN did not actually have a budget, it was controlled by the capability managers in town. This is not to support the theory that it's all the fault of the dastardly crabs, merely to point out that the RN is not entirely master of its own destiny and certainly doesn't have it's own "budget" independent of wider Defence.

    A classic example is the disposal of the SHAR, where once upon a time, prior to JFH, two squadrons and a larger OCU/trng squadron existed happily in Somerset. That organisation was viewed and treated largely as a carrier-borne capability (by all concerned), but was actually perfectly capable of contributing to the overall AD of the UK, complementing the Tornado F3. However, that opportunity was never taken whether by the RN or the relevant capability mgr, I don't know, which left SHAR portrayed as carrier-only and F3 exempt from any FE@AR trade-offs.

    I think given the options available in SDSR, there was no alternative, unpalatable though it was. However, there are many decisions taken in the period 2000 to 2008 that are questionable with the benefit of hindsight.

  8. I'm not sure there was need to perform QRA from Yeovilton. I don't think they ever performed QRA? With plenty of F3 and the drawdown, I'm not sure of the benefit other than keeping SHAR on the books.

    1. Not suggesting that QRA from Yeovilton was a need. Point being that QRA could have been mounted in rotation from East Coast/Scottish bases if SHAR squadron(s) not on deployment. Log support was modular in any case to go aboard ship.

      Would have allowed SHAR to backfill QRA when F3 deployed overseas (eg Balkans, Southern Watch) or even to do that themselves if suitable.

      And yes, the benefit would have been keeping SHAR on the books, but in capability terms it would have kept a Blue Vixen / AIM120 / JTIDS platform that was carrier capable, at the expense of (at the time) a Foxhunter plus Skyflash platform that was land-based only.

    2. Should actually clarify that I'm not suggesting SHAR should have been retained at the expense of the entire F3 Fleet, nor is this necessarily applicable to the "two fleet argument" faced in SDSR. Just illustrating where UK defence and perhaps the RN head shed missed a trick.....

    3. 'Would have allowed SHAR to backfill QRA when F3 deployed overseas'

      Like I said not much need, if that was the trick missed, with respect it wasn't much of a trick. The chance of it needing to back fill F3 to do UK QRA was nil. F3 had AMRAAM and JTIDS was put on as part of it's 2000 upgrade program. It was one of the last upgrades on the OEU before it disbanded.

    4. So - had SHAR been treated as a potential UKAD asset between mid-90s and 2000, could have either avoided integration cost of AIM120/JTIDS on F3 or reduced the number of a/c modified. In essence a reduction of F3 FE@R in mid to late 90s, while recognising SHAR as more than just a carrier-based capability.

      Might well have had a different impact on the decision to withdraw SHAR in 2006. Not saying it would have been the right or wrong decision. It would certainly have been "worse" for the RAF and probably "better" for the FAA. What the impact would have been for UK defence as a whole, we'll never know. The point is that because of capability stovepiping, it was never even considered.

    5. It could have been and probably was looked at but like I say I don't really see any point in it. The F3 upgrades were planned from the late 90s funding lines are difficult to unpick at best.
      To add Shar into the QRA would be looking for a gap in a role that wasn't there. The F3 already covered the role. FE@R and QRA are 2 different things so they wouldn't really have clashed. If anything FE@R would have gone up, if you wanted so many F3 deployed you could justify using Shar on QRA.

      I've some sympathy in what you type, you work closely with the navy, no-one wants to see a cutback in what ever area they are in, but using at as QRA would be doing little to justify the money it would have cost.

    6. Sorry TM, I think you're missing the point or I'm not being clear enough. QRA is a requirement for X cabs at Y mins notice to launch, set for a number of "sectors" for want of a better word.

      FE@R is the number of cabs/pilots maintained at levels of capability / training to fill the QRA (and other) requirements. Given that QRA is a subset of the overall numbers of aircraft required to meet tasking, FE@R is always larger than the a/c requirement for one role (eg QRA).

      Had the FE@R to meet the QRA requirement been spread across both F3 and SHAR forces, rather than just the F3 force, then you'd be able to reduce the combined total of SHAR + F3 FE@R. I'm suggesting that this would have been at the expense of the F3 in order to retain a carrier-based AD capability, which was also capable of filling elements of UK AD requirement when not deployed.

      I would be very surprised if it was looked at al all. Not least because to the best of my knowledge the UK AD requirement has always sat within the "Deep Target Attack" capability area, whereas the carrier-based AD capability sat within Precision Strike. I'm sure both capability desks now have different names, but am reasonably sure the division of responsibilty remains the same. Hence the stovepiping.

      Once again, not saying one solution is right or wrong, merely pointing out that someone (RN or UK Defence) may have missed a trick here.

    7. NaB, thanks I know what QRA is.
      Any savings from reducing the F3 fleet would have just bled across to the SHAR. You want them to do more, it costs more. The real saving is in getting rid of a fleet. There really would be no filling in, nearly all of the F3 fleet could perform QRA, and so could most of the G/crew and aircrew. FE@R generally relates to overseas deployments rather then QRA, costs of a/c fits, PEPS, taskings overseas, AT and so on.

      I didn't mean they were run by the same desk bod, just that all options are looked during large changes and budget cuts. Various options are given to those that need to know, these options need not be 'desk' bound. They can cover across various capability areas.

      Like I said the idea is fine to justify a larger tasking on a fleet that was for the chop and give it more money. Like I said I've some symphathy with that, but we didn't have the money to keep it going. As I said further up I can't see that we really missed out on anything.

    8. TM - I know you know, was just trying to be clear in the definition of what I meant. We'll have to agree to disagree here, I think the RN head shed and UK defence may have missed a trick, you're certain that UK defence and the RAF didn't.

      Done my time in town as well, so I know how the options are done. In that particular case I very much doubt whether the F3 and SHAR were viewed as options in the same pot, but it is ancient history and a potential opportunity missed back then, that's all I've been trying to illustrate. Nothing whatsoever to do with the "two-fleet" solution that SDSR was bound to end up in.

    9. NaB.

      No problems, yep on this one I think it's safe to say we'll agree to disagree.

  9. The two problems the RN faced back in the late 90s seems to be an under-appreciation of the inherent consequences of JFH, coupled with a lack of funds to independently upgrade and sustain it's own Sea Harrier fleet.

    What an impossible situation to be faced with, I don't envy whoever had to make those tough decisions!

    It almost feels that after all these years and painful cuts we are coming full circle. What do people think the realistic chance is of the RN getting real/full control of these 48 F35B on the horizon?

  10. 'What do people think the realistic chance is of the RN getting real/full control of these 48 F35B on the horizon?'

    To be blunt, nil.

    1. Banter mode on :

      Unless the next SDSR ends the "100 year experiment"

      Banter mode off......

  11. I think the fixed-winged FAA effectively died with the retirement of SHAR in 06, been nothing but a token force since then.

    Would it really be terrible for the F35Bs to be wholly owned and operated by the RAF. They are probably only going to be required to provide one 12 aircraft squadron and associated crews for carrier deployment at any one time, with perhaps one other squadron in training to replace them. Realistically, how often will they be required to surge to 36? Overseas deployments by RAF rarely amount to more than 12 aircraft anyway, so the carrier deployment amounts to the RAF's expeditionary role, with less need for tankers.

    The deployment of carrier airpower will always be a political rather than purely military decision so it will be up to HMG/MOD to ensure no inter service "funny business."

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