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Cameron: Carriers tomorrow, bombers today

Huge victory for slug-balancers

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Prime Minister David Cameron has at last announced the Coalition government's plan for sorting out the Ministry of Defence's finances.

The RAF's deep-penetration bomber force will be preserved, and much of the Royal Navy's frigate and destroyer fleet: the cost of this is that there will be no jets able to fly from Royal Navy carriers for several years. However Mr Cameron pledged that the Navy will have one carrier always operational carrying a force of F-35C strike fighters in years to come.

The other major point in the plans is a postponement of Trident's replacement. This would normally be expected to cost some billions more over time due to increased running costs and inflated replacement costs, but Cameron expects to mitigate these factors by shaving the number of weapons carried by the subs. The successors to today's Vanguard class will be able to launch 40 nuclear warheads each rather than 48.

As had been widely expected, both the new carriers for the navy will be built, the Labour government having willingly locked itself into a binding contract that would have made it more expensive to cancel the ships than build them. However there will be no jets to operate from the first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. Today's Harrier jumpjets and the pocket-size Ark Royal from which they operate will be scrapped immediately. The Harrier is the UK's only dedicated battlefield support jet in RAF service, and the navy's only plane of any kind - in particular its only fleet fighter*.

According to Mr Cameron the Royal Navy will acquire catapult and arrester machinery to allow conventional tailhook planes to fly from the carriers rather than expensive jumpjets. He said that this machinery will be "fitted to the operational carrier", rather implying that there will be only one set of kit. The other ship will kept at "extended readiness" - ie in mothballs, without a crew or any aircraft.

F-35C tailhook stealth fighters will be bought in coming years in such numbers that, according to Mr Cameron, they will not only furnish the airgroup for the running carrier but will also be the main partner for the RAF's Eurofighter fleet by 2020. The UK's plans to buy more complex and expensive F-35B jumpjets will be cancelled.

Meanwhile the scrapping of the Harriers, Ark Royal, several frigates and a biggish chunk of the Army's armour has allowed the RAF to survive effectively untouched. Corporately the air service didn't like the Harriers, planes which work for the Army or the Navy. The airmen will feel some pain with the loss of the horrifically expensive Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol planes, also confirmed today, but again that was a type of aircraft which mainly helped the other services rather than bigging up the idea of Air Power.

The RAF's small fleets of transport aircraft and helicopters will of course survive and even be enlarged somewhat - they are vital to the war in Afghanistan. The brand-new Eurofighter Typhoon jet, still being delivered, is also preserved, though there will be no further UK orders.

More controversially, all these cuts will permit the RAF's force of Tornado GR4 bombers to survive. The Tornado, though it is doing battlefield support duties in Afghanistan now, is primarily a "deep strike" plane intended to penetrate enemy air defences and bomb targets far away from any friendly ground troops.

Deep strategic bombing is the reason the RAF was created, and it is central to the justification for an independent air force; the Tornado fleet is the cultural heart of today's RAF and the Junior Service will be rejoicing at its preservation. However, this jubilation may be somewhat diminished by Mr Cameron's suggestion that by 2020 the Tornado will be largely replaced by F-35C carrier-capable planes, some of them presumably navy-manned.

We'll offer detailed comment/analysis on all this once we've had a chance to chew through the accompanying documents. In summary, we here on the Reg defence desk see it as overall a huge victory for the RAF, with worrying times ahead for the Royal Navy - which must now weather at least one more election and five-yearly review before getting its single running carrier capability, without any existing community of naval aviators to carry the torch. ®

Bootnotes

*The former Sea Harrier was arguably the UK's best fighter until the introduction of the Eurofighter, but it was retired as it was of little use at sea in hot climates: losing thrust as air temperatures increased it would struggle to make a vertical deck landing still carrying heavy AMRAAM missiles.

Today's GR9 Harriers, operated by Navy and RAF squadrons, are primarily ground-attack planes. However they can carry Sidewinder missiles and therefore offer useful air cover to a fleet despite the lack of a fighter radar. (One should remember that the Harriers which did so well above the Falklands had only Sidewinders.)

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