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Falklands hero Marine: Save the Harrier, scrap the Tornado

Useless pricey bomber risks pilots' lives in A'stan

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But forget the Falklands - the Tornado has already nearly killed two of our airmen in A'stan, and every takeoff there is an unnecessary risk

But the Falklands today aren't really the point - it's the illustration of the war there which shows how vital carrier aircraft are. No such example exists showing how vital deep penetration bombers are: yet Cameron and Fox have chosen to keep the Tornado penetration bomber force and get rid of carrier air for at least ten years.

It gets worse, too, even if we ignore carriers and the Falklands and pass over the utter absence of any need for low-level penetration bombing - the only thing the Tornado is really good for. Let's focus instead on Afghanistan.

It is true that the Tornado is now the only British jet deployed to Afghanistan, having finally taken over from the Harrier. For a long time the Harrier had to do the job as the runway at Kandahar airbase was not in good enough condition along enough of its length for the Tornado to use it. You don't just need a land airbase to use the Tornado - you need a good land airbase.

But even now that the Kandahar runway has been sorted out, Tornado operations are only marginally possible there. The problem is that the Tornado was specifically designed to fly well only at low altitudes - the idea was that it might get in undetected beneath Soviet radar in a Cold-War-turned-hot scenario, though the decimation of low-flying Tornados by feeble Iraqi defences in 1991 retrospectively cast a lot of doubt on that.

At Kandahar, the effects of high altitude are aggravated by hot temperatures. A Tornado can get airborne from the runway there with a combat load, but it has to be going very fast indeed before it will unstick - no less than 160 knots (184 mph!).

The local circumstances also mean poor acceleration even at maximum redline power, so that a Tornado will have used up most of the runway before it reaches the huge speed needed for liftoff. Every time one takes off, it goes past a point of no return at which there is not enough runway left to come to a stop should something go wrong - as it might very well do during the subsequent long tens of seconds with engines screaming at maximum before liftoff speed can be reached.

In fact this marginal safety situation has already resulted in the loss of a Tornado, just weeks after the jet deployed to Kandahar. The MoD preferred to say that the aircraft was "damaged" but both the crew naturally had to eject - in other words they and their seats were fired out of the plane explosively to descend subsequently by parachute - and the jet then ran off the end of the runway to crash at high speed. It's safe to say it won't have been back in working order very quickly, if ever. Ejection is no trivial matter for the pilot and navigator, either - spinal injuries are not uncommon. Both the crew required hospital treatment following the 2009 crackup.

Then we come to the facts that the Harrier offers a quicker reaction time, better availability and requires fewer people to operate it; in other words it does a better job in Afghanistan and does so more cheaply, quite apart from threatening the lives of its crew unneccessarily every time it takes off.

The fact is that neither the Harrier nor the Tornado are actually necessary in Afghanistan - manned fast jets are overspec'd and over-expensive for the task there. Increased numbers of cheap Reaper roboplanes would do the Afghan job better than either.

But it would certainly be a gutsy call to get rid of all Britain's strike jets. It does make sense to keep one of the two fleets. But surely, as General Thompson and his co-signatories argue, we should have kept the jet that was more capable in the war going on right now - that is, the Harrier. We should surely have kept the fleet that would cost at least £6bn less to run over the coming decade - the Harrier. It would also be good to keep the plane that offers the option to have a fleet carrier should we need one before 2020 - again, the Harrier.

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