Falklands hero Marine: Save the Harrier, scrap the Tornado
Useless pricey bomber risks pilots' lives in A'stan
Keeping Tornado also meant fewer lifesaving Chinook choppers. Shame on you, air marshals!
Thompson and the admirals don't mention it, but there is another downside to the shameful push by the RAF to preserve the expensive, not-very-capable (but splendidly budget- and personnel-intensive, thus good for the RAF) Tornado fleet. Not only has saving the Tornado cost us the Harrier, removed our carrier option and torn the guts out of our amphibious capability - it has also required a direct cut in support to our combat troops in Afghanistan.
Very few have picked up on it, but the fact is that Labour had actually planned to buy 22 new Chinook transport helicopters as of last Christmas. The powerful Chinook is the only copter which can really operate well in the hot-and-high conditions of Afghanistan - there are large parts of the country which only the Chinook can reach, certainly while carrying any payload. More Chinooks is the fervent demand of every British combat soldier who has served in Helmand.
“We were questioning the number of helicopters and the limited [flying] hours right from the start, before we even deployed,” Brigadier Ed Butler has since said. Butler's paratroopers were very nearly overrun and defeated more than once during the desperate battles of 2006, when the resurgent Taliban attacked the then-tiny British force en masse.
But Labour had planned to pay for the new Chinooks in part by cutting some Tornados - the relatively small savings that could be made cutting cheap Harriers would not be enough. So now the RAF, which would so much rather have Tornados than more Chinooks, has - unbelievably - succeeded in getting the order slashed from 22 down to 12. And Cameron has not questioned this.
Saving the Harrier and deep-sixing the Tornado would not only mean better strike jet service in Afghanistan, not only preserve our fleet carrier option, not only spare our airmen the need for desperate hair-raising takeoffs every day at Kandahar for the next who-knows-how-many years. It would also, easily, save enough money for the extra 10 Chinooks - and that would absolutely unarguably save lives and win battles for us in Helmand.
The only real criticism one can offer for Thompson and the admirals' letter is that it was probably in the navy's power to save the Harriers without reference to the RAF - but it chose instead to use its political capital preserving its frigates and destroyers. We on the Reg defence desk had previously argued that if necessary the RN should come down to 12 or even 10 surface warships if that was required to preserve a proper carrier capability. Even the most rabid frigate advocate should be able to see that a navy with a strong carrier always available and 10 frigates is enormously more powerful than one with no carrier and 19 frigates - the navy we will shortly have.
(Anyone who has been bamboozled by the specious argument that frigates are in some way a cost-effective means of fighting pirates should note that there are much cheaper options for getting the necessary Marines and helicopters to sea - and these methods, in use right now, work just fine.)
Unfortunately, Vice-Admiral Blackham - one of Thompson's co-signatories - chose in the run-up to Cameron's decisions not to argue for carriers but instead for more frigates. Only now, almost certainly too late, has he realised what really matters: and one might say the same for the admirals currently in uniform, who should have given ground on frigates to whatever degree was required during the recent review, and evidently failed to do so.
The air marshals of the RAF have been guilty of much more cynical empire-preserving bureaucratic manoeuvres - particularly shamefully, perhaps, as they are putting their own light-blue people's lives at risk unnecessarily in Tornado operations at Kandahar as well as denying our fighting troops the Chinooks they need - but the admirals haven't covered themselves in glory here, either. The state of our forces is a sad indictment of the whole present-day class of British senior officers, in fact.
But Julian Thompson's laurels at least are pretty much undimmed: and he isn't just a combat veteran or a Marine commando or a general either. Since leaving the Corps he has become a respected military-studies academic - he really does know what he's talking about when it comes to defence, not just his own little parish.
If he says scrap Tornado and keep Harrier, this isn't navy special pleading - this is worth listening to. Cameron and Fox have made it more or less clear that they aren't listening, but they might change their minds if enough British voters suggest that they should.
It's probably time to dust off the letters desk, email or fax machine and rattle our MPs' cages again. ®
*The Army's 5 Brigade, the other land formation, came ashore after 3 Commando and saw less action. Most analysts suggest that some of its units weren't really ready for the brutal conditions ashore, a factor which contributed to the heavy casualties at Bluff Cove.
**Wet And Fucking Useless, a phrase perhaps resulting from mandatory aircrew rest hours - a privilege not enjoyed by those who merely drive ships - and the occasional lack of resilience exhibited by Fleet Air Arm personnel (who spend much of their time in comfortable shoreside air stations) when faced with conditions at sea or in the field. The WAFUs themselves prefer to suggest that the letters stand for Women All Fancy Us.
***By using more or less the entire RAF air-to-air tanker fleet in a massive effort of tankers refuelling tankers and so on (the "Black Buck" missions) the airforce managed on several occasions to get a single bomber into the skies above the Falklands. These raids, though technically-magnificent feats of airmanship, achieved very little - the Argentine aviators who so menaced the Task Force were based on the mainland, not the islands themselves.