Libya fighting shows just how idiotic the Defence Review was

Vast fleet of RAF planes delivers just 3 crap missiles

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Don't we just wish we had a carrier off Libya now? Shame we scrapped ours just months ago. Nice work, Mr Cameron

There can be little doubt that the Harrier would also have been better for Libya. The Harrier fleet actually had more aircraft modernised to drop the latest smart weaponry – it was a superior battlefield strike plane – and it was cheaper to run. Best of all, it could operate from our also-recently-axed pocket aircraft carriers right off the coast and thus reach the theatre of action in minutes rather than hours. France and the USA both have carriers operating off the Libyan coast right now, but our foolish decisions in the recent review have left us on the sidelines.

A Tomahawk cruise missile in flight, as launched from Royal Navy submarines. Credit: Crown Copyright/Royal Navy

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Oh, but carriers are expensive, aren't they? Why, the new ones – which we will still build, though they will get no planes until 2020 or later – might cost £5bn or more.

True, but air-to-air refuelling – of the sort that Tornadoes and Eurofighters need in such huge amounts to be even marginally useful – costs a hell of a lot more. Our future PFI air-to-air refuelling package is set to cost us no less than £10.5bn, plus billions more from Treasury reserves for actual combat operations. And at the end we won't even own the planes.

Point four: The decisions taken over many years to whittle down the Harrier force to the point where it was barely viable – and then finally axe it in the Review – were totally wrong. Instead the Tornado should have been scrapped. Our present-day fleet of more than 130 of these cripplingly expensive-to-run, slow, lumbering low-altitude jets, assisted by similarly costly tanker planes, has offered us an utterly pathetic capability to deliver three or four dodgy missiles into Libya and a minimalist air support capability thereafter.

Even by the time of the Review, when the Harrier fleet was down to an almost unviable 44 jets, it would have made more sense to keep them, scrap the Tornado and buy or lease some nice cheap F-18s from America to bulk up our strike forces somewhat. The RAF should be ashamed of itself for manipulating the Prime Minister into keeping Tornado; heads should roll.

Point five: The connected decision to forfeit strike carrier capability for at least 10 years has been shown to be utterly mistaken, just months after it went into effect.

The scheme of keeping Harrier and leasing some F-18s would have worked well on the carrier front too – right now Harriers would be above Libya, operating from our Falklands-vintage pocket carriers, and F-18s would presently replace Tornados in Afghanistan (and do a much better job there). When the first new carrier appears in a few years, F-18s – equipped as they are for tailhook deck operation, though not hover landing as required by the just-departed Harrier carriers – would be ready to move straight aboard. They would bridge the gap nicely until the planned F-35C tailhook stealth jets arrive in the 2020s.

A fleet of F-18s would also remove any possible need to keep the Eurofighter: we could scrap it and save not just the £11bn+ it is officially supposed to cost us in support down the road, but also the many extra billions it will actually cost to run in the real world.

Is there anything more we can learn from the Libyan fighting so far?

Well, maybe one thing. We can also consider Gaddafi's other hardware, the stuff which was letting him actually crush the rebels: his tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery on the ground. Our own army has a lot of this kit, not as old as Gaddafi's but mostly pretty old, and it would like to buy replacements. More than £10bn of funding is still allocated for this, even after the Review.

We should bear in mind here that the only real purpose of a main battle tank is to fight other armoured vehicles (unless you're into using them against street protests – definitely not our style). This is also mostly true of other armoured combat vehicles and most kinds of artillery: though they can be used in counter-insurgency fighting of the sort seen in Afghanistan, it usually turns out that there are better and much cheaper alternatives. We have in fact bought hundreds of new counter-insurgency type vehicles to use in Afghanistan, and very little of our traditional armour is there. Some of the artillery is, but it isn't firing many rounds; there are much better and easier ways to make explosives fall out of the sky than setting up a defended base to house a battery of guns or rockets every few dozen miles.

So armour and artillery isn't required for fighting Afghanistan-type wars. But perhaps it is required for warfare against proper armed forces, who have tanks and big guns and rocket batteries of their own? We won't be going into Libya on the ground in any strength, but we might easily want to in some future fight against some future dictator or junta of his type. We did in Iraq, twice, after all.

But even in 1991, the general who commanded the British armour assessed that in fact his tanks and guns had no real chance to do their bit2; the Iraqi army was smashed from the air before our troops could close with it. In 2003 for round two, only a third of the ground units we sent were actually armoured – the others were light troops, often in the past stigmatised as little more than "speed bumps" against enemy armour - and yet they had no problems during the invasion. The writing has really been on the wall for our armoured forces since then.

Today, Gaddafi's armour has been stopped cold outside Benghazi and it appears likely that it will be eliminated completely in the coming weeks – now that the cruise missiles have cleared the way for strike air to operate. Sure, Gaddafi's armour was every bit as obsolete and rubbish as his air force – though being simpler, rather more of the kit was at least partly functional – but this is what real enemies that you might actually fight are like. And anyway, it's now pretty widely acknowledged that even modern tanks will be cut to bits if they try to manoeuvre under hostile skies.

So armoured forces are useless either way: if you have air superiority you plainly don't need them, and if the skies are hostile they will be destroyed. Armour and most types of artillery are also extremely expensive, require enormous logistic support and take ages to get to the battlefield. They account for the majority of our army's budget and personnel, in fact, one way and another – perhaps a clue as to why the generals cling to them so vigorously.

Point six: The decision to keep well over half of our armour/artillery forces in the recent Review was a needless waste of money. Tank, reconnaissance (that is, light tank) and heavy artillery regiments should either be got rid of entirely or reduced to a single brigade's worth (ie one of each). This would free up tens of thousands of personnel billets and huge amounts of budget for more cost-effective formations. We might get to the point where the British Army could put as many troops into combat as the US Marines can3.

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