Authors: Steven Jermy, Sharkey War & Michael Clapp
‘Self-preservation appears more important to our Air Marshals than supporting our soldiers.’
Air Marshal Anderson, Director General of the Military Aviation Authority, has been speaking privately to MPs in defence of the RAF’s fast jet forces – warning that “without such an air defence capability, the UK would not be able to guarantee security of its sovereign air space”. His premise was that the UK would be “unable to respond effectively to a 9/11-style terrorist attack from the air.” He also argued that the RAF offered a “flexible political and military tool”, whose use was often less costly in every sense than the large-scale commitment of ground forces. He summarily dismissed the views of ‘armchair theorists’ who do not agree with him.
This short paper considers AM Anderson’s comments and convictions, in the context of the wider and more pertinent roles of British fast jet forces within the global arena, and draws lessons from the Afghanistan war to demonstrate some of those important factors that AM Anderson left out of his own ‘armchair perspective’.
Its contributors include professional Fleet Air Arm aviators, whose experiences that range from, in 1982, successfully shooting down 26 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat (26 more than the RAF has achieved since WWII) to being deployed on the ground in recent operations in Afghanistan. The authors like to think, therefore, that they have a modicum of operational experience to support their armchair theorizing.
AM Anderson was speaking in accordance with his convictions and in defence of the RAF’s fast jet forces (Typhoon, Tornado and Harrier). But he failed, unfortunately, to refer in any way to the Joint RAF/RN Harrier Force (JFH) or to the demonstrable combat proven utility of these different aircraft types.
It is important, at the outset, to recognise that some of Britain’s fast jets are more critical to our security than others. In addition to the defence of the United Kingdom’s airspace, against which there is no immediate plausible military threat, there is also an enduring need for our fast jet forces to support our troops on the ground and our ships at sea, wherever they are in combat, but most obviously in current operations in Afghanistan. In some scenarios, air superiority and air defence is paramount but against the Taliban and Al Qaeda the whole emphasis, quite correctly, in direct support of our ground forces when they are in close contact with an often numerically superior enemy.
It behoves us, therefore, to provide our troops with the best possible Offensive Support (OS) capability. When our Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Harrier squadrons deployed to Afghanistan to replace the United States Marine Corps Harriers, they acquitted themselves with distinction and proved to be the most effective and sought after OS aircraft in theatre. The Harriers were also extremely cost effective.
Since then, the Harrier GR9s have been replaced by the Tornado GR4, and we are thus in an ideal position to compare the two aircraft types, in particular:
- The operational effectiveness of each,
- The overall cost in the theatre and to our tax payers, and the question
- “What is the real intent behind the deployment of the GR4 in a theatre to which it is clearly unsuited?”
This paper will examine each of these issues in turn, having first considered the veracity of AM Anderson’s private remarks to MPs.
Discussion of AVM Anderson’s Comments.
Although there is much to be admired in the passion with which AM Anderson’s has argued his case, those ‘in the know’ in military aviation will have cause to question some of his convictions:
- AM Anderson’s convictions: “Without such an air defence capability, the UK would not be able to guarantee security of its sovereign air space”.
- The reality: In the short term, there is no plausible military air threat to the UK that cannot be covered by existing Typhoon squadrons. The most plausible air threat is from terrorists, in the form of an air attack such as in 9/11. This risk is, however, now adequately managed through a combination of counter-terrorist intelligence, airport and airline security procedures, and two on-call Typhoon squadrons for intercepting, escorting and if necessary destroying the (sub-sonic) threat of a high-jacked civilian airliner. Clearly, the Typhoon is unnecessarily advanced for such a contingency, but in any event the role is comfortably within its capabilities.
- AM Anderson’s convictions: The UK would be “unable to respond effectively to a 9/11-style terrorist attack from the air.”
- The reality: It is difficult to understand why any professional airman would assert that we need to retain the fifth largest air force in the world to monitor occasional intruders or possible hijacked threat aircraft.
- AM Anderson’s convictions: The RAF offered a “flexible political and military tool whose use was often less costly in every sense than the large-scale commitment of ground forces.”
- The reality: The vast majority of Royal Air Force fast jet aircraft are land-based and thus lack the full flexibility to act in a truly global sense as political or military tool in support of Britain’s future expeditionary operations worldwide. The only truly flexible political and military fast jet tool available is the carrier-capable Harrier. Convictions to the contrary are evidentially flawed. Furthermore, airpower is just one important part of the total expeditionary task force weapon system and in the majority of the UK’s conflicts since WWII has been projected in the main from aircraft carriers. And any implicit or explicit assertion that land-based air power is more effective in, for example, counter-insurgency operations is also evidentially naive, and flies in the face of our contemporary experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. As any soldier or student of counter insurgency will tell you, tactically, ‘boots on the ground’ are the only way to establish the political face-to-face contact essential for delivering the essential human security that is a key factor in tactical success.
The Operational Comparison of the Harrier GR 9 and the Tornado GR 4.
Harrier and Tornado are known, in the jargon, as OS aircraft, short for Offensive Support. In plain English, they are both specialist ground attack bombers, optimised for strike operations against a variety of land targets. Our Harriers in Afghanistan were replaced by Tornados in early 2009, so we have an unusually good case study for a comparison – and so far, unfortunately for the Air Marshal, the evidence is unequivocal.
In terms of operational effectiveness in Afghanistan, the Tornado GR4 has fallen well short of the proven capability of the Harrier GR9:
- The informal feedback from NATO colleagues is that Harried has a higher probability of getting airborne to meet the mission task. This is understood to be because:
- Harrier GR9 mission availability is comfortably above 95%
- Tornado GR4 availability is yet to achieve anywhere near 80%.
- If so, then mathematically a minimum of 11 Tornados would need to be deployed to achieve the same mission generation and the success rate as 8 Harriers.
- The Harrier, with its short take off capability, was able to react much more quickly and reliably to urgent air support requests. This is what our troops deserve, and the weather limitations of the Tornado mean that, through no fault of the aircrew or maintainers, it is inevitably less responsive to their needs.
- The Harrier is understood to have a much greater flexibility of war-load against moving or stationary targets and has a much faster locate, track, target and destroy cycle.
- It also enjoys greater aircraft survivability when on task. Because it was designed for low level operations in Europe, when carrying out air-to-air refuelling, the Tornado runs out of breath when ‘hot and high’ and is forced to maintain a lower height over the ground thereby increasing its vulnerability to ground fire and endangering the tanker aircraft as well.
- At operating altitudes in the Afghan summer heat, Tornado must defuel or reduce weapons so much so that it carries less fuel or ordnance than the Harrier for the hot two-thirds of the year – these are the months of the so-called Afghan fighting season, when the overwhelming amount of air support is most needed. Similar adverse comparisons would pertain in any hot and high environment, most obviously the Gulf and Middle East.
- In winter, heavy snow conditions in the North can prevent Tornado from flying due to lack of diversion airfields. The Harrier does not suffer from this constraint.
- Last but not least, the Harrier has proved the safer aircraft. Because Tornado struggles at the high altitudes, it is well known in Kandahar that, for 5 to 7 months of the year its aircrew face a very serious risk on take-off. The informal feedback is that at a ground speed of 130kts the pilot must make the decision to continue or not in order to get airborne at 165kts. Past 130kts, if an after-burner is lost the GR4 cannot fly but nor, on Kandahar’s long 10,500ft runway does it have remaining distance to abort its take off. In such circumstances, pilot and navigator must eject, and the aircraft will be lost, as will the immediate tactical support to troops on the ground. The feedback is that one aircraft has already been lost in such circumstances, and a second badly damaged, and, if so, this is not a theoretical risk.
The Harrier has also proved the cheaper aircraft – the feedback from Kandahar is that.
- The Kandahar Tornado detachment comprises just under 170 personnel (24 pilots and navigators, and 144 maintainers)
- The Harrier detachment comprised just over 85 personnel (11 pilots and 75 maintainers).
- In other words, the Tornado detachment needs double the personnel of the Harrier to produce, at best, the same air effect.
- The Harrier is cheaper in the air, too. The Tornado fuel load for a similar mission profile is 17,500lb vice 11,500lb.
- Harrier is also cheaper strategically – whereas the Harrier Afghanistan detachment required 3 Squadrons, it is understood that it is taking 7 Tornado Squadrons to deliver the same air effect.
- Investments in Harrier have given the aircraft the potential to operate through to around 2025 at little additional capital expenditure.
- Whereas it is understood that Tornado may need something in the order of an additional £1Bn to see it through to the end of its life and on top of this, and unlike Harrier, has to be re-engined – at significant extra cost.
In every dimension therefore, the Tornado GR4 provides much less capability and at, arguably, twice the price of the Harrier. If so, this surely represents a significant disservice to our troops on the ground and an unnecessary and inefficient drain on our defence budget.
“What is the real intent behind the deployment of the Tornado GR4 in a theatre to which it is clearly unsuited?”
The answer to this lies buried in a further question, “Why do our Air Marshals continue to promote the retention in service of the Tornado and at the same time suggest the withdrawal from service of the Harrier?”
On every measure, the Harrier seems to be the better aircraft for Afghanistan and for a global expeditionary strategy. Why, then, is AM Anderson not arguing positively and openly for its retention? The reasons are clearly institutional rather than strategic. As context, it is worth noting that, because the Harrier force is small (and half-Navy, half-RAF) and the Typhoon force is young, the vast majority of Air Marshals are Tornado aviators, known within the RAF as the ‘Tornado Mafia’. The problem they face is that, were we to follow the obvious strategic logic of the situation and pay off Tornado, then a core area of the RAF, ‘dear to their hearts’, would be lost. But the strategic point is that the Tornado does not fit well with an expeditionary task force and global maritime strategy: whereas the Harrier represents a very cost effective and operationally impressive solution. But the decision must be thought through from the point of view of Britain’s interests, including those of providing essential air support to the Army and Navy, and not be based solely or even predominantly on the RAF’s internal institutional concerns.
The strategic answer is surely clear. The partisan pursuit by AM Anderson and the ‘Tornado Mafia’ may be laudable from an institutional perspective, but Britain’s politicians and senior officers need to take a wider and clearer view. Strong institutions can deal with setbacks, and recover. The Fleet Air Arm was mauled by the carrier debate in the late-1960s, but recovered and, with the Sea Harrier, Hermes, and Invincible, went on, in 1982, to decisively defeat the Argentinean Air Force.
The key point is surely that, on any strategic logic or measure, the continued pursuit of partisan Tornado interests will adversely affecting the quality of service that we provide for our troops on the ground and ships at sea. It is strategic nonsense to suggest that it is a good idea that our most efficient and operationally proven offensive support military aircraft, the Harrier, be sacrificed in order to maintain a much larger and very much more expensive fleet of aircraft that is so limited in its operational capability.
The time has surely come, therefore, to do the obvious and right strategic thing:
- Pay off expensive-and-ineffective Tornado.
- Retain cheap-and-effective carrier-capable Harrier.
- Invest in Typhoon, so as to give it a true ground-attack capability.
It makes strategic sense that:
- Typhoon should be responsible for the air defence of the United Kingdom base, and have its ground attack capability improved for the medium-to-long term, and that
- The carrier-capable Harrier should be responsible for:
- Offensive Support for our ground forces in combat theatres;
- Offensive Support for our maritime forces against enemy shipping.
- supporting the air defence of task force operations and our dependencies abroad.
There is no place for wishful thinking or misplaced convictions in this time of financial stringency. Tornado, for all the admirable bravery and passion of those who have flown it, is of the past.
It is surely time for the Royal Air Force to bid farewell to Tornado, and concentrate on maximising the operational benefit to be gained from the very significant national investment already made in Typhoon, their aircraft of the future. And it is surely time, also, to transfer Joint Force Harrier in its entirety to the control and management of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, whose carrier professionals have a proven track record of combat success and cost effectiveness in the safe operation of fast jets from RN carriers in pursuit of Britain’s national interests.
There is a highly pertinent Caribbean expression, “Open the mouth; words come out”.
The Fleet Air Arm of the Silent Service believes in action, not empty words nor ephemeral convictions.
 Daily Telegraph report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11529330
 “Mobile Bases versus Static Bases.” Phoenix Think Tank paper.
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