Falklands hero Marine: Save the Harrier, scrap the Tornado
Useless pricey bomber risks pilots' lives in A'stan
A Marine general famous as the leader of Britain's heroic commandos and paras during the Falklands War – joined by some retired admirals – has written an open letter to the nation arguing that Prime Minister Cameron's recent decision to scrap the UK's force of Harrier jumpjets and preserve the RAF Tornado bomber fleet was a huge mistake and should be reversed.
The letter to the Times, a model of brevity, makes the following unanswerable points:
Harrier could still use Kandahar runway if half of it were blocked by Taleban action; can use any make-shift landing site; has a response time of less than 10 minutes, as against 30 [for the Tornado]; performs better in hot weather; requires fewer ground crew; and has better availability.
Harrier can deliver close air support of ground forces anywhere from the existing carriers ... [it] has nearly twice as many airframes provided with precision-guided ground attack capability [as Tornado]; will not require a further £1.4 billion to re-engine in 2014; and can remain in service until 2023 without significant investment.
The existing Tornado force will cost, over 10 years, seven times as much to keep in service as Harrier ...
The decision to axe the entire Harrier force is strategically and financially perverse.
The letter is signed by former Royal Marine major-general Julian Thompson, who should be the best-known of the signatories. Thompson commanded the UK's Commando brigade, mostly made up of Marines (reinforced for the occasion by troops from the Parachute Regiment) during the Falklands campaign, when it acted as the primary unit in the victorious land fighting*.
Signing alongside Thompson is another Falklands veteran, Lord Alan West, who captained the frigate Ardent in 1982 (and was last man off when she sank) and later became head of the navy. The two are joined by another former First Sea Lord, Julian Oswald, and two retired vice-admirals, Jeremy Blackham and John Mcanally.
Thompson and the admirals' letter has been criticised on the grounds that it is merely special pleading by the Royal Navy. True, around half of today's Harrier force is operated by naval pilots and ground crews, and the Harriers are the only jet capable of flying from the deck of HMS Ark Royal, Britain's current designated strike carrier (now marked for the bin alongside her planes).
But one should note that the other half of the Harrier force is run by the RAF: Thompson and his dark-blue co-authors' argument is not wholly an anti-RAF, pro-navy one. Furthermore one might note that none of them are naval aviators by trade - Thompson, a normal Marine, is primarily an infantryman and the admirals all spent their careers in surface warships. Yet here they are, arguing themselves blue in the face in defence of the often rather disliked Fleet Air Arm - the "WAFUs"**, as they are known, are by no means universally popular in the Navy and Marines.
One time when the Fleet Air Arm - supplemented by RAF Harrier pilots, too - has been very popular with the rest of the fleet was during the Falklands War, of course. Land-based RAF aircraft couldn't reach the theatre of battle effectively*** and so it was left to carrier-borne Harriers to contest the Argentine air force for control of the skies. Lacking carrier-borne radar aircraft to direct them, the British jets could intercept incoming strike missions only by being fortunately in the right place at the right time - but they managed this surprisingly often. We don't need Thompson and West's firsthand testimony to tell us that without the Harrier carriers the war of 1982 would have been a bloody, disastrous defeat for the UK.
Thompson and the admirals are probably wrong when they say that closing down Blighty's carrier capability for the coming decade - as is the Coalition's plan - means that "Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation on the scale of the loss of Singapore". The fact is that we now have jets based ashore in the Falklands, which means that an Argentine invasion force ought to be gutted from above before it could land.
The suggestion isn't totally foolish, however. We here on the Reg defence desk recently spoke to a British infantry officer whose men had lately played the part of Argentine special forces in a security exercise at the UK airbase on the Falklands, RAF Mount Pleasant. He said that he and his troops had easily penetrated the base perimeter and had they really been hostile would have found it a simple matter to put Mount Pleasant and its aircraft out of play for some time - easily enough time for an Argentine main force to arrive and land, for instance.
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.
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.