Friday, 14 September 2012

Withdrawing the Harrier - Part Three - OP ELLAMY and beyond

In the previous two parts of this article, we examined the decision to scrap the Harrier GR9 in the SDSR, in an attempt to understand why it was that Harrier was deleted over Tornado. In this final part of the article, Humphrey will attempt to assess what capability was really lost as a result of this decision, focusing primarily on OP ELLAMY (UK contribution to Libya) as an example.
A few months after the Harrier had been withdrawn from service in 2010, the UK found itself operating in a military campaign in Libya, as part of efforts to secure permanent regime change. The campaign came about at short notice, with UK planners getting less than two weeks’ notice of the warning order to prepare for offensive operations, and barely days between commencing serious planning and launching the first airstrike.

During the operation the UK employed a wide range of aviation capabilities from all three services, including Tornado and Typhoon strike aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Sentinel, Sentry and SKASACS ISTAR platforms and a wide range of support aircraft. At its peak, the UK had around 20-25 strike aircraft staging out of Italy, plus a similar number of support aircraft and helicopters operating either at sea, or out of various airbases in the region. The UK contributed in a wide range of roles, ranging from cruise missile strikes, through to delivering close air support for rebels, tanking and ISTAR ops and enforcing a no fly zone. It is worth noting that the UK was able to deliver on these commitments and also sustain operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere while the conflict was going on. This in itself is a notable achievement that few, if any, other credible powers could hope to achieve – namely conducting multiple air operations, all at substantial distance from the home base and sustaining this for roughly six months.
Although the UK was able to rapidly deploy its required capabilities, there was a strong line of argument in the press that an aircraft carrier should have been deployed to put the Harrier into action as this was apparently a far better solution than deploying out of Italy. The main argument put in favour of this seems to have been either the shorter distance, or costs. Is there any truth to this line of argument?
To start with, we need to consider what would have happened post SDSR had the Harrier replaced Tornado. It is likely that such a move would have seen the immediate deployment of Harrier back into OP HERRICK to replace the 12 Tornado airframes located in Kandahar. Even with extra resources assigned, this would have probably maxed out the operational ability of an aircraft fleet that had been reduced in spares, manpower and readiness for the last few years. The Harrier force would almost certainly have not had the ability to generate sufficient spare airframes and support to deploy on ELLAMY without impacting on Afghanistan. Given the reduction in spares and readiness, it is hard to imagine the Harrier force being able to sustain two deployments – 12 aircraft in Afghanistan, and 10 -12 aircraft in Libya. This would have required the Harrier force to surge to deploy nearly one third of its total airframes on operations at once. Something that would have significant implications for availability, and also the longer term airframe life.
The next question is, where would the Harriers have been based? In early 2011 the UK would have run one operational carrier – in this case HMS ARK ROYAL. As noted in part two, the UK was down to practically single figures for current carrier qualified pilots by the withdrawal of GR9 from service. Given Libya started some three – four months later, and given the likely commitment of pilots to Afghanistan, the question is, where would the pilots come from to operate the aircraft from ARK ROYAL? At absolute best, the UK may have been able to stick four - six airframes to conduct operations on Libya, at a cost of burning out their entire carrier qualified pilot force to do so.
The Harrier was not cleared to operate Brimstone or Storm Shadow, or the RAPTOR pod used for recce purposes and it is unlikely that either Harrier or Typhoon would have been capable of doing so by the time ELLAMY started. Do not underestimate the importance of these weapon platforms to achieving operational success in ELLAMY – the Storm Shadow made a huge difference in hitting command locations, while Brimstone had an accuracy rate that was almost ‘sci fi’ in capability. Of course it is possible emergency integration could have been carried out, but this would have come at significant cost, and would not have been the optimal solution. More significantly, it is exceptionally unlikely that trials would have cleared Harrier for operations at sea with this equipment, meaning that any operation with Harrier would have been land based to use this equipment.
Finally, we need to ask how effective a carrier would actually have been in the Med. Not for nothing is the region known as NATOs back yard. After nearly 65 years of an Alliance in the region, there is a plethora of airfields capable of hosting and sustaining military operations over the med and North Africa. The UK alone has two sovereign Permanent Joint Operating Bases (Akrotiri and Gibraltar) in the Med which have runways. There are plenty of places in the world where a carrier group is essential to support air operations. The Med is not one of them. At best, in this scenario a carrier offers an additional capability, but it is by no means a mission critical asset.
The two main charges levelled in support of the carrier was the reduced cost of life support, and the flexibility to sail in the region. While the author is inherently dark blue in nature, and has worn dark blue for his entire adult life, there are times when he wonders whether too many folk believe the Royal Fleet Auxiliary possesses TARDIS like stores holds…
Had ARK ROYAL deployed, she’d have done so with a battle group to protect her – most likely a T23 and possibly a T42 to provide air defence. There would also have been at least one AOR (in fact the only AOR left in service).  This represents a deployment of some 1400-1600 personnel, depending on how many aircraft were deployed on the carrier. In practical terms this is probably greater than the number of RAF personnel deployed to Gioa Del Colle airbase to support the Tornado and Typhoon force, which at its peak had 26 Tornados & Typhoons. Although the Italians would have added to this number of personnel, it is hard to see how a carrier deployment would have been cheaper – at best the ability to stick four – six GR9s over Libya would have been a mild capability enhancement, but would not in itself have won the war.
The carrier would also have been dependent on host nation support – a fact often forgotten. Every RN carrier operation in recent memory has needed a land based forward logistic site.  The CVS & AOR would have had the ability to support Harrier ops for some time, but ultimately would have been dependent on a shore base for spare parts flown in the from the UK. In the case of ELLAMY, it was a simple matter of flying them into the airbase, or doing road moves from the UK in order to provide support. Similar support could have been delivered to the RFA, but would have required transporting munitions from the airhead to a port capable of handling explosives and other munitions. It would have required a reasonable ground footprint to run the shore parties to handle all the logistics and allow for transfer of explosives and other key spares through to the dockyard for the RFA to collect.
This is a key point – the RFA is a brilliant organisation at providing support to vessels at sea, and allowing RN ships to stay deployed for longer than usual. But, the days when the RFA could rely on a chain of vessels to resupply them and have an ever longer chain stretching back to the home port have gone forever. The RFA in OP ELLAMY, and the future RFA, will comprise of just three stores ships. At the time of the campaign, one was operating with the amphibious task group, the other was in deep refit after coming out of reserve and only FORT VICTORIA was actually available. What this means is that had the RN deployed a carrier to the coast, it would have been utterly reliant on a single point of failure – namely the AOR and her ability to stay at sea. One of the key arguments used in support of the RFA is this ability to stay at sea indefinitely, but in reality with only one ship on task, at best the RN could have sustained an operation for a couple of months prior to needing to return both the carrier and the AOR to the UK. There would still have been a need for a shore presence in Italy, and the RN would still have needed access to Italian airbases and road moves to support the campaign.
While the Harrier deployment could have provided aircraft slightly closer in to the mainland for operations, the cost savings in fuel would probably have been negated by the need to provide extra fuel for the carrier and her escorts as they operated in the region. In reality such costs would probably work out the same as just flying a mission from a land airbase. When one considers that many of the aircraft used on the campaign were taking on multiple mission profiles in one sortie, such as bombing, shows of force, enforcement of the no fly zone etc, there was a reliance on tanker aircraft to keep the air campaign flowing. The Harrier would have needed the same tanking profile, no matter where it took off from, particularly if it was running operations across Libya, as was the Typhoon and Tornado fleets. So, in reality the location of the aircraft for day to day basing was not hugely relevant; wherever the mission was based, there would be a lot of fuel expenditure occurred.
It is also worth noting that the UK would have probably had to fly proportionately more missions to cover for the reduced capability and effectiveness of the Harrier, compared to the GR4 and its Brimstone load. In modern operations targeting is essential – you cannot just ‘drop a bomb’ and accept that to achieve the mission you will kill civilians. Brimstone provided commanders with a level of accuracy that helped achieve hits on the right target at the right time. There is no guarantee that Harrier could have done the same, meaning more missions and possibly more civilian dead in order to try and defeat some sites.
So, while Harrier provided a useful capability, it is hard to imagine that had it been retained ahead of Tornado then the UK would have found conducting OP ELLAMY any easier. Similar levels of manpower would have been needed, and there would still have been a requirement for shore support for the RFA.  Given the weapon systems deployed, the missions flown and the support requirements, this authors view is that Tornado represented a better value, more capable platform for ELLAMY.
How much future capability was lost?
The assumption prior to SDSR was that the Harrier would have flown until about 2015 on the Invincible class (most likely ARK ROYAL), and then withdrawn from service in 2016-2018 timeframe. Realistically then, one must assume that from 2010 until 2015, ARK ROYAL would have been able to conduct two, possibly three major deployments, plus a maintenance period and work ups through FOST. At the same time, after 2012, she would have been the sole UK carrier in service, with HMS OCEAN undergoing a major refit.
With a very small Harrier fleet available, and a small number of pilots in the system (with others beginning to transition onto the JSF pipeline), then at best the UK has lost the opportunity for two or three planned seagoing deployments, which may have embarked 4-6 Harriers. With OCEAN in refit, it is likely that ARK ROYAL may well have been rerolled into a helicopter carrier anyway, in order to keep the amphibious force supported and allowing the UK to train to deploy amphibious capability ashore.
So, while it is nice to dream that the UK would have spent the period 2010-2015 with a fully operational strike carrier force, the harsh reality is that at best there would have been one or two deployments in order to maintain a basic level of capability and currency. The idea that the UK would have surged multiple squadrons of Harriers to sea is a pipedream.

Future of the Fleet Air Arm - the JSF
This three part article has tried to show in constructive a manner as possible that whatever decisions were taken in 2010, it is likely that the UK would have been required to make some very serious decisions about the future of Harrier as a carrier borne asset.
It was a wonderful platform and a great aircraft, but even if SDSR had chosen to keep Harrier over Tornado, then the airframes would have almost certainly been used in a land based role. The RN would have struggled to generate a meaningful carrier force anyway after 2012 as the fleet reduced to a single available hull, and it is hard to see how Harrier would have provided a more potent strike capability than Tornado on OP ELLAMY when one considers the weapons systems employed.
Looking to the future, the UK will, on current plans, regain a carrier borne capability within the next six years as JSF begins to enter service. While numbers and organisations remain unclear, what is clear is that the UK is not out of the carrier business for good, it is merely taking a short break. This short break probably would have occurred anyway, even if Harrier had remained in service. The future looks exceedingly bright, and even if people feel concerned now about the lack of Harrier, in reality at the end of the decade the UK will have put fixed wing naval aviation firmly back on the map as a core part of UK defence capabilities for decades to come.


  1. Typhoon.

    The white elephant in the room.

    It wasnt a choice between Tornado and Harrier

    It was a choice between Tornado supporting delayed upgrade typhoon, and Harrier supporting enhanced upgrade typhoon.

    You are very correct, that the harrier fleet would be struggling to provide both 12 airframes in Afghanstan and a carrier wing.
    That said, in the Falklands, they managed to field 28 of 34 sea harriers.
    Could they have got 12 flying in Afghanistan and 12 on the carrier?

    Would 6 Harriers operating from Illustrious and 6 Apaches from Ocean have been better than Tornado from Norfolk?

    Even if thats a coin toss, once you throw in Typhoons from Norfolk lobbing storm shadows, whats not covered?

  2. Excellent stuff Sir H, completing an excellent series.

  3. Excellent stuff.

  4. "The carrier would also have been dependent on host nation support – a fact often forgotten. "

    This ^
    People often cite basing as a problem for aviation...its the same with ships. The French struggled to maintain C de G's tempo of operations...even though being in her 'backyard'...

    Excellent article, though already got one narrow comment (read more into the Norfolk Operations please...).

    Well done SirH, no doubt this will loose some 'freinds' on the naval-minded blogsphere, but I applaud this series. A balanced and clear comment from someone in the loop.

  5. Very interesting. I always found it ironic that some claimed ELLAMY as evidence for why Harrier should have been kept when it was quite the reverse.

    One point I don't think you developed completely was how little a difference deploying at sea vs deploying on shore would have made.

    Just like Tornado GR4, choosing Harrier GR9 would still have meant Typhoon deploying to enforce the No-Fly zone. So the RAF would've had a fast jet presence in the Italy anyway. Then add all the support aircraft you mentioned (Sentry, Sentinel, tankers, transport) and the RAF presence would still have been sizeable.

    Presumably the individual deployments (Tornado, Typhoon, Sentry, etc) benefited from synergies by sharing capabilities - perhaps a transport bringing Brimstone also carrying parts for Sentry - and therefore sharing some of the costs.

    So simply swapping GR4 for GR9 would not have reduced the overall cost of the land deployment that much (let alone removed it altogether). And that's before you consider the additional costs of operating at sea as you mentioned.

    Incidentally to what extent was GR4 force involved in the planning from the very beginning in the ground attack role? The mission was originally supposed to be just enforcing a No Fly Zone wasn't it? So deploying Typhoon was a necessity from the beginning.

    I imagine GR4 may also have been required from the beginning to dismantle the Libyan Air Defence System, using Storm Shadow principally. But if the mission was only supposed to be a enforcing No Fly Zone (and had remained so), would GR4 have had any significant role beyond the initial strike and possibly reconnaissance role?

    If none, then surely it would have been politically difficult to deploy Harrier - as an obviously Ground Attack aircraft (no Storm Shadow, reduced reconnaissance capability) - initially? Even if privately the decision had already been made to assist the rebels through Close Air Support, the Government did appear keen to pretend that it was merely enforcing the No Fly Zone initially. Wheras for GR4 it was more of a natural progression as the capability was already on hand as part of the No Fly Zone mission.

    1. Very good points on the RAF deployment size. One thing it is essential to understand is that it it almost impossible to envisage a scenario where the UK is committed to a military deployment without relying heavily on the RAF. The RN brings carrier airpower to bear, but this is only part of the equation. We have to consider the force as a whole.

    2. I'm more than happy to agree that Ark + GR9 would have brought little to the party, compared to what GR4 and Typhoon contributed.

      However, this should be caveatted with the caution that it's very current system specific and should not be interpreted as "an aircraft carrier" would not have been as effective, full stop.

      QEC plus (say) somewhere between 12 and 20 F35 with Crowsnest would have been a completely different proposition. It's interesting that the above is the only post that references the original mission proposed - "No Fly" ie essentially something between OCA and DCA. Maintaining a two ship or more Typhoon CAP from Italy / Cyprus would have been a whole lot more taxing (in terms of sorties launched and probably AAR) than running what was essentially a CAS ATO.

      Running deck launched intercept or CAS of appropraitely capable aircraft from a ship 100 miles offshore would have been a lot easier than than running it from Italy.

      While the comments re RFA are also true, a shuttle run from Gib is entirely possible every three days if required. It's also worth noting that the only addiional costs for that would have been marginal costs beyond those already programmed. Nor did the RAF presence across the Med come for free. Lots of marginal accommodation, transport, fuel and airframe costs burned during Op Ellamy.

    3. Should be DLI and CAP, obviously, pesky keyboard....

  6. Nice article, interesting to see things from a RN perspective from someone who is serving and give a different viewpoint from most pro-navy blogs. The RFA point and how it works and the need for land/air based support is interesting, something I've not seen. Do you have any plans to do some articles on how the RFA operates day to day?


    It's not really clear where the money saved from removing Harrier went, not doubt into various areas.

    'Would 6 Harriers operating from Illustrious and 6 Apaches from Ocean have been better than Tornado from Norfolk?'

    Since they did different jobs it wouldn't really be 'better'. The Tornados from Marham did a very specific task that neither Harrier or Apache could perform.

    'Even if thats a coin toss, once you throw in Typhoons from Norfolk lobbing storm shadows, whats not covered?'

    Well they aren't cleared to fire SS. There aren't any Typhoons in Norfolk either...

    1. "Well they aren't cleared to fire SS"

      As I said

      "It was a choice between Tornado supporting delayed upgrade typhoon, and Harrier supporting ***enhanced upgrade*** typhoon."

      We delayed a big chunk of work on Typhoon when we opted for tornado over harrier

      "If none, then surely it would have been politically difficult to deploy Harrier - as an obviously Ground Attack aircraft, Even if privately the decision had already been made to assist the rebels through Close Air Support, the Government did appear keen to pretend that it was merely enforcing the No Fly Zone initially."

      Yeah, erm, where was the commando brigade.....
      "Training" near cyprus?

    2. 'We delayed a big chunk of work on Typhoon when we opted for tornado over harrier'

      Did we? What work?

  7. Thanks, Sir H. for a very interesting series of articles. That said your final paragraph is, I think, hopelessly optimistic:

    "Looking to the future, the UK will, on current plans, regain a carrier borne capability within the next six years as JSF begins to enter service"

    The RN with a carrier capable of operations by 2018?

    1. I agree,
      As with the previous article - the Navy currently has a lower priority on the fixed wing FAA than its other branches, understandably so with the level of funding ect.

      2018 is an optimistic date for a flying F35 in the UK, let alone beggining to relearn carrier aviation routines with a wholley new type of aircraft and ship.

      IOC for F35 in land based ops at 2020 seems a more realistic - if still optimistic date - with all large pieces of kit, especially aviation and maritime; getting IOC and FOC takes longer than many realise.

    2. Fair points on the ISD - I think my optimism can occasionally run away from me. With hindsight, I'd suggest that in 2018, we'll see a CVF entering service as a functional platform (rather than just doing first of class trials). We'll all but completed the skills reconstitution for carrier operations by working with our allies, and we should be at a point where JSF is about to enter service. It would be a bit more time before we see credible squadron sized operations.
      This is perhaps another point to make when considering the harrier - there was always going to be a 'harrier / JSF' gap in about 2016 onwards as the Harrier left service with the gap then until JSF came into full service.

  8. A superb analysis of a complex issue which illustrates the difficulty of decision making in a multi-dimensional theatre and in which the ticking of the clock is another dilemma.
    Which chicken begat which egg?
    So far the much-maligned SDSR has covered over two years of it's term without something dropping off except the initial choice of carrier aircraft and that merely involved a change of mind in time.

    1. You're correct Derek that we haven't seen any other official reversals yet, and nothing has been formally dropped completely.

      However the Sentinel surveillance aircraft were intended to be scrapped after Afghanistan in 2015. Since 2010 they have given fantastic service over Libya and now are also committed as Britain's contribution to NATO'S alliance ground surveillance collaboration.

      I see the above two developments as happy indicators that Sentinel is here to stay!

  9. Thank you for as ever a very interesting and enjoyable article Sir H!

    Past the initial shock of SDSR I have been sold on the relative benefits of retaining Tornado over Harrier for some time. The latter paired with Ark Royal was a suburb capability and a tragic loss, but it was a direct choice between one or the other and I believe that under these circumstances they made the right decision.

    I'm trying to be optimistic about the future as well. Even with all the limitations and problems it looks as if we will end up with one carrier on call with the ability to surge the air-group to something like 24+ jets for a Libya style operation. That's capability which is roughly equivalent to the French, and although not ideal it's certainly respectable.

    Out of interest how do you see the numbers, type and service ratio of Lightning ending up?

    1. Thanks challenger.

      I think observers often do the UK down, but last year there were two simaltaneous complex warfighting deployments going on, several thousand miles apart from each other and the homebase, with nearly 40 strike aircraft and a couple of dozen supporting aircraft deployed.
      Very, very few nations could deploy and sustain this level of capability.

      As for Lightning - I'm not sure, I think the decisios have yet to be taken and I'm not keen to second guess experts on this sort of thing!

    2. I totally agree, it's very impressive when one ignores the negative press and sits down to look at the facts.

      I know what you mean about Lightning, my personnel view changes weekly, often in relation to ideas/news about the relative Tornado/Typhoon situation.

      At the moment I believe that Typhoon T2/T3 will almost certainly get a midlife upgrade and soldier on in-to the distant future, probably to be eventually replaced by the F35A (or the equivalent) and drones. Couple this with the 48 F35B and I think the only intriguing question is what variant will replace Tornado and how many are eventually ordered. I think that B is probably the most sensible option but that RAF pressure, money and politics may result in the A.

      But hey, that's just my current view, it will probably change in a few days! I completely respect you're desire to not second guess with this very murky subject.

  10. The really worrying small print in this article is the pitiful size of the RFA. I'd be interested for an objective assessment of the RFA and whether we really do have any capacity in a Falklands type engagement, irrespective of carrier strike capability.

    On a broader point, gradual reduction of capability reduces economy of scale for suppliers of course, which is why we are now faced with the possibility of the BAE EADS merger. It is interesting that the aircraft which survived the so-called "strategic" defence review are those which are joint projects between BAE and EADS. Coincidence?

    A lack of national vision has brought us to this point: a slave to events rather than driving growth through vision. Can someone please make it a condition of being an MP that politicians are banned from having studied the PPE degree and have had at least 10 years' experience of real life work rather than how to dine out and backstab in Shepherds Bush and Islington?

    1. I fully endorse your first paragraph, Anonymous
      17/1044. There do appear to be two furture
      'sub-texts'. The first, is that we cannot manage effectively with just one QE, and the second we won't have the capabilty to replenish either carrier at the
      distances for which they're ideal.

  11. Go away and re-read your own blog with a critical eye. Some of it would properly be classifed at RESTRICTED but in places you have gone further. Remember that in many cases your position and your knowledge make your opinions themselves classified in nature.

    1. Hi anonymous

      Let me reassure you. All figures usef and all dates referred to are open source. This blog only uses internet released material.

  12. Very good piece. Thoroughly shredded my cherished view. Bother. Does Sir H have any concerns about the RAF playing nice and sharing the F35 properly with the FAA given the slow death of the Harrier?

  13. Given the circumstances your conclusions may well be right. But what is truly staggering is that in just 12 years following the 1998 SDR we managed to get ourselves into such a pickle that it has resulted in a 10 year gap in our most core of core capabilities (I include in that the ability of the the RFA to fully support a carrier group). I hope to goodness the lessons have been learned and we get away with it over the next couple of years.

  14. Nice article Sir H, it makes me realise what a complex monster defence is. For me the scrapping of the maritime recconnasance element of a maritime nation is pretty contentious. Anything to blog about the Nimrod?