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RAF in plot against Fleet Air Arm again

1930s, 1970s ... disaster every time they do it

Regrettably from the point of view of learning lessons, the Falklands was a very short war and the return to business as usual afterwards was correspondingly rapid. The Navy was allowed to start calling its pocket carriers by their proper name, and was allowed to have some improvised airborne-radar helicopters for them, but that was about it. The interservice squabbling resumed almost at once.

So low had been the Navy's status in the 1970s - it had been planned by Mrs Thatcher's government to chop it down into a small dedicated antisubmarine force for work exclusively in northern waters - that the prestige boost following the Falklands barely let it carry on as it had been. Nobody started to talk about new carriers until the economic bubble of the 1990s, and then the terrible financial clusterfuck of the early-21st century MoD budget plans started to bite.

So far, the planned new carriers have survived this - probably as much because they offer a chance to channel money to politically important Scottish shipyards as for any other reason. But once again the old manoeuvres are under way; once again the RAF is playing the Whitehall game with its customary brilliance.

The moves actually started ten years ago, with the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. One of the many things which came out of this was "Joint Force Harrier", in which the navy's Harrier squadrons were amalgamated with the RAF ones and put under the air force's command structure. In order to sell this scheme, the RAF originally agreed to put an admiral in one of its most senior posts, ensuing that the naval fliers would still have friends in high places.

But just a couple of years later the RAF decided to reorganise its upper levels again, squeezing the admiral out and leaving the Navy squadrons firmly under air force management: a masterly bit of bureaucratic footwork.

And now, yet again, the economy has plunged off a cliff. Once again, the cry for economies goes up. Once again, all eyes are focused on the Fleet Air Arm. The carriers are to be delayed, saving money in the short term but making them cost more in the end. The plan is now to get rid of all the Harriers without replacement - a thing that the RAF can choose to do, as it now owns them outright.

There is some doubt as to whether the planned new jumpjets will even be able to operate as fighters from the ships, in any case - and one may be sure that the RAF doesn't care deeply whether they can or not. None of the new jets have actually been ordered, and the only commitment the UK plans to make soon is for three test birds. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see the RAF argue in a year or two that it doesn't want any jumpjets after all - it would rather have enhanced Tranche 3 Eurofighter deep bombers - leaving the Navy with two big ships and much too broke to buy enough planes for them.

We're back in the interwar era, in fact. The RAF-run Harrier force is now robbing the Fleet of air cover and forcing carriers into a marginal position - just as the RAF-run Fleet Air Arm did back then. Just as happened in the 1970s, too, the issue of fleet airborne radar is being ignored in the Navy's desperate scramble to hang onto any air at all.

But there is actually a solution, and it doesn't need any more money than is there already.

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