Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/17/navy_vs_raf_carrier_battle/

Navy glovepuppets minister in carrier battle against RAF

'Flat-tops will only be safe when they decommission'

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 17th February 2009 16:10 GMT

The UK's plan to build new aircraft carriers remains under threat, and ongoing attempts by the RAF to shut down the Harrier jumpjet force - eviscerating the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm - have yet to be resolved. However, the RN has managed to manoeuvre a Defence minister into endorsing the view that Britain has needed proper carriers since the Falklands.

The updates came at a press conference held yesterday in London by the navy to mark the centenary of British naval aviation, attended by senior naval bigwigs and Quentin Davies MP, minister for Defence Equipment and Support.

The whole "Fly Navy 100" initiative is a not-so-thinly veiled campaign by the navy to keep its carriers and the Fleet Air Arm alive in the face of massive MoD budget pressures and a determined push by the RAF to wipe both things out in favour of the Eurofighter.

Senior officers and MoD officials aren't permitted to discuss such matters openly, but it is fairly well known nonetheless that right now the RAF and navy are locked in a bitter dispute over the future of the UK's Harrier jumpjet force, operated jointly by the two services.

The RAF would like to get rid of the Harriers soon, before their replacements arrive, saving large sums in support and maintenance costs during the coming decade. The airmen want to achieve savings with the goal, among other things, of funding the Tranche 3 Eurofighter combat jets to their desired level - the level where the jets can become a true deep-penetration bomber, rather than a pure air-to-air fighter with "austere" air-to-ground abilities bolted on as in the case of the first two tranches.

But the disappearance of the Harriers would leave the navy with very little in the way of aircraft to fly from its existing pocket-size carriers. It would also kill off the naval fixed-wing aviation community.

Meanwhile, the UK remains uncommitted to any firm purchases of the replacement F-35B jumpjets. One may be sure that if the RAF had to choose between fully-pimped Eurofighter Tranche 3s or getting F-35Bs, it wouldn't hesitate for long. Once the Harrier force is gone, the chance that it will genuinely be replaced by F-35Bs will be significantly lower.

At the same time all major spending on the carriers has been pushed back into the next government. It's looking more and more as though that government will be a Conservative one - one without any serious interest in the welfare of the Scottish shipbuilding towns. Labour's desire to hold off the SNP in its Scots strongholds has had much to do with the carriers' survival to this point.

In other words, the ships' future is far from certain.

Harrier-pilot Commodore: "I'll be able to say the carriers are safe when they decommission"

Thus it was no surprise to hear yesterday from Admiral Sir Jonathan Band, First Sea Lord - the head of the Royal Navy - that in his view: "Provided the Harrier force can be stewarded [until the arrival of the F-35B] the handover will be smooth... provided that we have enough flight experience from the sea in the next ten years, things will be fine."

He confirmed that in the end, all such decisions are made at ministerial level and in fact he and the head of the RAF have relatively little to say about it.

"I'm paid to sing from the hymnsheet I'm given," he said. "If the government tells me it wants [carriers], and it tells me at the moment that it does, that's what I'll work towards."

In other words, it is more what Mr Davies and his superiors in government think - or say they think - that matters. Here, however, the Fly Navy 100 campaign appears to have scored a minor victory right off. Unveiled at the press do was a new video, commissioned by the naval PR staff and narrated by the Beeb's John Humphrys. You can watch it online here.

The vid is almost a statement of government defence policy as the Fleet Air Arm would wish it to be, rather than an ordinary piece of puffery. Humphrys' reassuringly impartial voice, so familiar from Radio 4, tells us:

In an increasingly uncertain world, the UK's ability to protect its interests thousands of miles from our shores and airfields is fundamental to national and global security [and] remains at the heart of national defence policy...

The aircraft carrier with its carrier air group is the lynchpin of expeditionary capability, a powerful and potent ship of the realm ... delivering war-winning combat effect wherever and whenever it chooses.

Delivering offensive airpower from the sea will be a critical capability in the decade ahead.

And don't think you could get by with some Brylcreem'd RAF type just popping aboard ship now and then whenever required, oh no. You need a proper naval air arm.

Operating aircraft from a warship at sea is a capability that takes years to develop... landing on a pitching a rolling deck requires a unique set of skills, an intrinsic understanding of ships and the sea... the specialist knowledge and expertise to do this can come only from an aviation team that is continually and inexorably linked with the experience and ethos of operations in a maritime environment ...

"Continually and inexorably linked"? Hmm. After all, sadly perhaps, it seems that in fact the Fleet Air Arm's special deck-landing sauce may soon be replicated by a damned robot. But no matter.

Most tellingly of all, the PRs got in the naval-aviation view of the Falklands:

Without the bombers, fighters and airborne early warning that a full carrier air capability gives, the efforts to retake the Falklands were severely constrained... the lessons learned were compelling... fewer lives and ships would have been lost [had the British fleet had proper carriers]

The coup for the navy comes in the fact that Mr Davies, the equipment minister, then got up and firmly endorsed the whole movie, saying it was "excellent" and that Monday was "a proud day for the whole country" - thus giving the script something of the ring of government policy in fact, rather than just as the navy would wish it to be.

Mr Davies may have thought he was going to a simple historical celebration. But after this he will surely be contradicting himself more than just a little if he announces an early demise for the Harrier force, or any further delays and/or reductions to the carrier project: a mildly cunning manoeuvre by the navy, then.

But that's not to say that a Conservative equipment boss, appointed in 2010, might not make those moves - or that Davies might not contradict himself regardless. The battle between the air force and the navy over whether the nation gets its carriers and carrier planes looks set to run on for a while.

Against this background, then, it's no surprise that Commodore Richard Hawkins - the senior naval Harrier pilot currently serving, we were informed - later told the Reg: "I'll be able to say the carriers are safe when they decommission." ®

Bootnote

Full disclosure: We're in favour of carriers here on the Reg defence desk, even unnecessarily expensive, relatively weak ones like these will be. In favour as taxpaying Brits, that is, rather than just as former navy officers.

We hope the RN manages to win this round in its eternal struggle with the RAF - though we think the admirals were fools to buy their incredibly expensive new Type 45 destroyers first (costing as much as carriers and airgroups put together) rather than securing the hugely more important flat-tops and aircraft back when funds weren't so tight.

That said, this sort of nudge-nudge can't-say-a-word-in-public Byzantine backroom manoeuvring seems like a pretty crazy way to be running the second richest military establishment in the world.