RAF in plot against Fleet Air Arm again
1930s, 1970s ... disaster every time they do it
Opinion In a bizarre repeat of history, reports have it that the Royal Air Force is once again seeking to take over the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy - a sure sign that the economy really is in desperate trouble. Just as it has meant more than once in the past, a successful RAF bid to grab a greater share of the taxes in tough economic times is likely to mean soldiers and sailors dying unnecessarily in years to come.
The Sunday Times reported on the new RAF takeover push yesterday, which is apparently operating under the unofficial slogan "one nation, one air force". It appears that Air Marshals Glenn Torpy and Jock Stirrup, heads of the RAF and of all three services respectively, would like to shut down the joint RN/RAF Harrier jumpjet force, which would put an end to fixed-wing aviation in the Navy.
When the two planned new aircraft carriers finally arrive - it is an open secret that there are plans to delay the ships - their air groups would naturally be furnished by the RAF, which would by that point be the only British service set up to fly jets.
We've been here before, more than once.
In the dark days of the 1920s and 30s, against the background of the General Strike and the Jarrow March, the cry for economies placed the Fleet Air Arm under RAF ownership in just the sort of plan now developing. There was one nation, and one air force. As one would expect, the Fleet Air Arm was the Cinderella of the RAF, neglected in favour of the strategic deep bombers which the air service institutionally loved (and continues to love) more than anything else.
In 1939, on the eve of war, when the Royal Navy finally regained control of its own aircraft, it was left with pitifully weak air cover. The fleet's main strike plane - the famous Swordfish, aka "the Stringbag" - was an aged biplane, almost a flying antique. The service never acquired a proper carrier fighter through the whole war, as the pre-war RAF had seen no need for such a thing - indeed, had felt little enough need for landbased fighters in some quarters. The fact that carriers had served since World War I as bases for the RAF rather than as warships had led the navy to buy too few of them and to hope wistfully that big-gun battleships might retain their old dominance.
As the wasteful, murderous strategic bombing campaigns by the Luftwaffe and RAF began, slaughtering civilians in droves at the cost of thousands of heroically brave airmen, achieving almost nothing in the process, the Navy was cut to bits for lack of seaborne air cover. The battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese air attack, with more than eight hundred men lost. Another nine ships were sunk and many more battered almost into wrecks in the evacuation of Crete, where again no air cover was forthcoming. In addition to almost two thousand sailors killed, a thousand soldiers died in the land fighting and thousands more were captured.
All through the war the RN suffered from lack of carriers and lack of planes to fly from them, and had to make desperate efforts to catch up. By the end of the fighting, every convoy finally had an escort carrier - largely ending the horrifying bloodletting of the early Atlantic war. Every fleet had a fleet carrier. The aircraft carrier had finally replaced the battleship as the main unit of naval power in all sensible people's minds.
None of this was necessary. Had the Navy had a strong fleet air arm to begin with, these defeats and losses need never have happened. It could have easily been afforded - had the Navy been allowed control of the aircraft, it might have done so on its own. Purchase of the necessary kit would have been easy to afford if the excesses of Bomber Command had been avoided; and it isn't as though campaigns like Dresden actually achieved anything useful.
But scarcely was the fighting over before the same old poisonous inter-service strife revived. By the mid-1960s, once again the long-range bomber men of the RAF were manoeuvring successfully to kill off the Navy's painfully-acquired carrier force. In a famous lie, they argued that planes operating from land bases around the world could cover a fleet at sea anywhere - even in the middle of the Indian Ocean. (In order to "prove" that this could be done, the RAF had to produce a special map with Australia moved a long way to the west.)
With the economic problems that came to full flower in the 1970s already very apparent in the mid-60s, the new Labour government was happy to believe that the Navy didn't need carriers. In 1966 the decision was taken that the UK would no longer have such ships and the new Fleet carrier intended to replace those of World War II - CVA-01 - was cancelled. As the economic gloom deepened again into the Winter of Discontent, once again the Navy found itself stripped of air cover in the name of economy, once again with the RAF assuring everyone that it had matters well in hand.
The RN did, in fact, manage to sneak in some very small and limited ships under the pretence that they were "through deck cruisers", not carriers. These are the ships now in service. Also one of the WWII-vintage flat tops was still (just about) serviceable when the year 1982 rolled around, though already marked for sale to India. As these ships had no catapults or arrester wires, and so couldn't operate proper jets, they had been equipped with Sea Harrier jumpjet fighters.
Unfortunately, the lack of cash at the Admiralty had meant that no fleet airborne radar aircraft of any kind had been developed to replace the former Gannet, binned with the last of the real carriers. This was a very serious problem in the era of sea-skimming shipkiller missiles launched from low-flying attack planes - for instance the Exocet/Super Etendard combo operated by the Argentines.
A radar mounted in a ship would not detect such an attack coming until it was pretty much too late to do anything about it, not being able to see over the horizon like a high-flying radar aircraft. As a result, though the Sea Harrier fighter pilots did brilliant work, they could generally only intercept enemy aircraft by being luckily in the right place at the right time. Most of the Argentine air strikes were able to fly through the incomplete fighter screen to inflict devastating damage.
Not only were warships sunk and damaged by missiles and bombs, but far more importantly the merchantman Atlantic Conveyor was lost with a huge load of military supplies. Another such sinking would probably have crippled the land battle for the Falklands altogether. The troopship Sir Galahad was hit too, effectively gutting an entire battalion of soldiers. Almost all the hundreds of British sailors and soldiers who died and were wounded in the Falklands war were hit in air attacks. Once again, lack of naval air had led to an entirely avoidable slaughter.
Meanwhile, far from being ready and able to cover the fleet as they had promised when the CVA-01 was cancelled, the RAF was almost entirely absent. By making a huge effort using almost their entire fleet of air-to-air tankers they were able to get one lonely heavy bomber into the sky above the Falklands - achieving very little, as long-range bombing generally does.
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.
Simply upgrade the carriers to include catapults and wires. Buy the cheaper US Navy arrester-hook version of the F-35, not the expensive and probably troublesome jumpjet. Buy nice cheap carrier radar planes, as lots of people do worldwide. All this will actually cost less over time than the current jumpjet ships and custom rotary-wing radarcraft plans.
Let the Navy run the seagoing aircraft, not the RAF. That way they might still be around when needed.
To save money in the short term - the short-term pileup of stupid legacy projects is the problem right now - cut some projects, rather than shutting down operational combat units yet again. Axe the Nimrod MRA4 patrol planes, the Future Lynx helicopters, the deep-bombing upgrades to Eurofighter Tranche 3, the A400M transports: buying cheap and excellent off-the-shelf replacements where necessary. Scrap the rubbishy, expensive Merlin HC3 helicopter fleet and buy the RAF some more Chinooks instead. By all means beach a few more pointless cocktail-party frigates if that's what it takes to get some real, properly equipped carriers and preserve the submarine force.
Yes, you'd see some job losses among arms workers - bad news in times like these. But closing down the Harrier force as the RAF would like to will cause job losses too. And frankly, given the choice between millstone regional aircraft factories which keep on bleeding the services white year after year, or actual combat units - tried and tested over the decades, just returned from hard fighting in Afghanistan - I know who I'd rather keep on the payroll.
If all that doesn't save enough money, frankly I'd join the decorated Iraq hero and SAS officer Colonel Tim Collins and say break up the RAF, not the Fleet Air Arm. I'd say "one nation, one army, one navy - that'll do fine". As a way of having aircraft, the RAF is an unbelievably expensive and troublesome to deal with. (The Israeli air force has about the same number of useable combat aircraft, many of them actually better than the RAF's. It has less than half as many people. The Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps manage to operate highly sophisticated aircraft with far fewer bodies per cab.)
With just two services, you only have scope for one interservice dispute, after all. As it is we have three, allowing a triplefold fight which threatens to paralyse us even in good times - and cripples us outright when money is tight.
Let's try and remember the lessons of history just for once, here. Let's remember all our thousands of soldiers and sailors dead in the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, at Crete, on the Atlantic and Arctic and Malta convoys - and all over again, heartbreakingly, in the Falklands. Let's remember that every time a British fighter has shot down an enemy aircraft since World War Two, that fighter took off from a ship to do it.
Seriously, write to your MP about it. I know I will. And Admiral Jonathan Band, current head of the Royal Navy: if this goes ahead, you'd better not still be in uniform when it does. ®