Possibly the single most contentious decision of the 2010 SDSR was the move to withdraw the Harrier Gr9 from service, and take a ‘holiday’ from fixed wing flying in the RN until the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter. This decision continues to arouse strong passions among anyone with a keen interest in UK defence, and is one that is often argued on internet forums – was it right to withdraw the harrier from service? The purpose of this article is to look at the decision, and try to understand the wider rationale behind how this sort of decision is reached, before looking at what the RN would be like today if Harrier remained in service.
From the outset, Humphrey wants to make clear that he believes fixed wing naval aviation is inherently a good thing, and that when the RN recovers this capability, it will be a good day. But, his view remains that given the incredibly difficult decisions faced in the SDSR, the decision was probably the right one based on the circumstances of the time.
A Short History
The path to the deletion of the Harrier really dates back to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which reaffirmed the UK interest in procuring two large aircraft carriers in the 2012-2020 timeframe. At this time the UK operated two mutually exclusive fleets of Harriers – the GR7 variant, operated by the RAF in a CAS role, and the FA2 variant, operated by the RN in the air defence and limited attack / recce role. In total the RAF operated about 70 airframes, supporting three front line squadrons, while the RN operated just under 40 airframes supporting two front line squadrons.
The SDR put forward the proposal of pooling resources to create a single ‘Joint Force Harrier’ which would pool harrier support, training and other arrangements in a single area, nominally under the control of an RN 2*. In reality with both aircraft types not having significant commonality, and having very different roles, this move was perhaps less successful than anticipated. The intent was to build a joint force which would lead into the introduction of the JSF in the 2016 onwards timeframe. Over the next few years the RN and RAF worked to build up a joint capability, deploying increasingly capable airwings on the INVINCIBLE class, peaking at deployments of 16 Harriers (FA2 and GR7), plus ASW and AEW, albeit spread over both the carrier and the AOR.
|GR9 At Sea (Copyright AIRFORCE
These challenges, coupled with a renewed challenge on the defence budget meant that something had to give. Ultimately the decision was taken to withdraw the FA2 from service in 2006, and instead transfer the entire force to the upgraded GR9 fleet standard. This decision remains controversial, with supporters of the FA2 force claiming that the RN remains unable to deliver fleet air defence, and that the GR9 would be unable to deliver this requirement.
By 2006 then the UK possessed a force of some 70 Harrier airframes in the process of being upgraded to GR9 standard. The force, spread among two RAF squadrons, and the RN Naval Strike Wing, ostensibly 800 & 801 squadrons in a single identity, plus training units. This allowed the UK to deliver three squadrons of 9 aircraft into front line service, plus supporting units.
Although on paper a reasonably large force, several issues began to emerge which reduced the ability of the RN to deploy carrier groups. The deployment to Kandahar of six airframes immediately impacted on the wider ability to deploy – the resources needed to sustain a deployment of this nature effectively tied up an entire squadron. When one considers the need to maintain a 3:1 ratio to sustain a deployed squadron, it quickly became clear that the Kandahar harrier deployment would eat up the majority of Harrier airframes, resources and personnel.
By late 2006 it looked clear that the RN would struggle to deploy a carrier group of any meaningful size. The loss of the FA2 meant a loss of indigenous air defence capability, and the GR9 fleet was fully committed to the support of OP HERRICK. It is fair to say that the RN ability to deploy a worked up carrier group with credible fixed wing capability ended in 2006 – at this stage there was simply no spare capacity on the GR9 fleet to deploy to sea for sustained periods, and also support operational commitments elsewhere. The other challenge was with the use of a single fleet, the RN was reliant on RAF personnel and equipment to support detachments at sea, and these assets were already committed to Afghanistan.
If one reviews RN deployments from 2006 onwards, there is a clear change in publicity – no more shots of carriers at sea with large airwings, instead there was a shift to maintaining ‘seedcorn’ capability – training the bare minimum number of personnel to keep a maritime fixed wing ethos alive, but accepting that for the duration of the OP HERRICK commitment, there would be no large carrier deployment using Harriers.
The Harrier fleet was committed to Afghanistan until 2009, when it was replaced by Tornado GR4. Humphrey recalls some of the debates at the time around this, and it was an interesting period. There was a strong argument to be made for the keeping of Harrier in Afghanistan for the long haul, flying the fleet into HERRICK until withdrawal and running it into the ground. This made logical sense on the one hand, as the infrastructure and spares were in place, and it was a sustainable commitment – but equally such a move would all but delete the UK ability to deploy harriers at sea (HMS ILLUSTRIOUS completed a far east deployment with just four harriers embarked in this period). This ties into the wider debate about whether the MOD was required to plan to achieve success in Afghanistan at all costs, or whether it was required to try and regenerate capability to meet contingency planning. By keeping Harrier on HERRICK, the UK would have been able to keep a sustainable long term force in theatre at little fiscal cost, but would have probably destroyed our ability to operate fixed wing aviation, and also broken the harmony cycles of personnel, leading to an ever worsening situation where people left, and those left had to work harder to cover for those who had gone before.
|Sea Harrier FA2|
The decision to withdraw Harrier should be seen as being as much about the need to regenerate carrier currency and regenerating contingent capability as it was about meeting the military requirements in theatre. By withdrawing Harrier, the UK was able to ease the pressure on a force which had for five years sustained continuous operations, and which was tired and in need of maintenance.
The problem facing the Harrier fleet though was the next round of Defence cuts in the 2009 period, the so-called PR08 - PR09 process. At this point the MOD was once again having budget difficulties, as it tried to balance the books, support OP HERRICK and also try to meet SDR planning assumptions, all the while knowing that a new SDR was likely regardless of who won the 2010 election. With funding at a premium, plenty of decisions had to be taken to try and achieve short term balancing, often a cost of longer term cost increases – this was because of a marked political reluctance to allow cuts to force structures, and an unwillingness at the time to reopen the debate about wider strategic goals.
One example of this cut was the decision to reduce the Harrier force to 10 Force Elements At Readiness (FE@R). In other words, to make the books balance, the Defence Board made a conscious decision to reduce the number of Harriers that could be sustained on operations to an absolute minimum (10 FE@R was essentially the lowest you could go prior to the Harrier fleet becoming unsustainable). In simple terms then, funding for the 70 strong fleet was massively reduced, and it would in future only be required to be able to generate the personnel, equipment and resources to sustain 10 airframes for contingent operations. Astute readers will note that this is more than were deployed in Afghanistan, but in reality the force reportedly struggled to sustain six airframes for five years at a point when they were funded to generate significantly more aircraft.
The decision to move to 10 FE@R was the point at which Harrier really became a fleet in jeopardy, as it was now at the lowest possible level of funding. In reality the funding ascribed to it would not provide sufficient resources to bring the fleet up to standard post HERRICK, nor generate sufficient pilots to meet contingent capability and the requirements for carrier aviation. Arguably by 2009, the sole reason Harrier was being retained was as a so-called ‘seedcorn’ capability to keep RN STOVL fixed wing flying capability alive until JSF entered service.
The aircraft was always due to exit service no later than 2018 – given the drawdowns usually start 3-5 years earlier as training courses stop running, supplies start to be reduced and the fleet prepares for its successor, then by 2009, the UK was looking at running a bare minimum capability for about another 3-5 years, prior to really cutting back. In other words, Harrier was being kept alive simply to prepare for the JSF, and little else.
|Twilight Days, GR9 in Oct 2009 -|
What this meant in real terms was that limited funding existed to get pilots, most of whom had not done any credible sea time since 2004, or in the newer cases possibly not even been to sea, and try to use the period 2009-2016/17 to keep a small cadre of pilots intact who could lead the transition onto the CVF and the JSF. There appears to have been no intent of returning to big airgroup operations – the days of the RN sticking 16 harriers onto a CVS went forever long before, and at best it would have been a case of the odd deployment of 3-4 airframes to keep essential skills alive. The sole rationale for Harrier was the STOVL version of JSF.
So, to end part one of this article we need to be clear that the Harrier GR9 fleet was not in a healthy state in mid 2010 when the SDSR began. We also need to be clear that the UK had lost the ability to put large carrier air groups to sea, and that Harrier was looking vulnerable as funding for it reduced.
The next part of the article will focus on why SDSR chose to chop the Harrier fleet, and address the ‘so what’ implications of this decision. It will look at the lessons of ELLAMY and ask whether the operation could have been done if Harrier were in service, and try to show that no matter what happened, the SDSR would have resulted in the loss of fixed wing carrier aviation in the UK.