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A few months after the Harrier had been withdrawn from service in 2010, the UK found itself operating in a military campaign in Libya, as part of efforts to secure permanent regime change.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?
|HMS OCEAN during OP ELLAMY|
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.