Something I have frequently focussed on in recent months is the need for integration and inter-operability between the three armed forces. It is very rare indeed that any of the armed forces are called upon to act in isolation, so it makes complete sense to work together as much as possible. Not only that, but UK Armed Forces are smaller than the US Marine Corps, but have much more duplication and a more bloated and complicated command structure.
My interest in co-operation between Land and Air forces stems from Operation Market Garden in 1944. Then the Air Force planners held a veto over picking landing zones for the Airborne Forces, leading to them landing too far from Arnhem Bridge. Clearly, co-operation was poor, and it costs lives and the outcome of the battle. Another aspect of Land/Air Co-operation is the need for the Air Force to provide close support to Army units.
In terms of Sea-Air co-operation, we need look no further than the aircraft carrier. There has always been an extremely complex relationship between the RAF and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The latest episode in this was the decision to retire the Sea Harrier early, and to operate RAF GR Harriers at sea – a far from ideal solution. Its a discord that promises to run further, with the debate over the Joint Strike Fighter.
Co-operation between the Navy and the Land Forces can be traced to need for amphibious operations. It has long been the role of the Royal Navy to transport the Army, land it, and then recover it. As shown during the Falklands, this involves securing Sea and Air superiority, transporting the landing force, then getting it ashore and keeping it there. That the Royal Navy has its own amphibious land force, the Royal Marines, and the longer history compared to air, makes this one of the more harmonious relationships.
Although there have been notable developments since 1944, some of the essentially historic problems remain. And they are, by and large, parochial and cultural. As the junior service the RAF remains fiercely proud of its independence, especially given recent calls to disband the RAF entirely. It is hard to dispute that by procuring as many Eurofighters as it can lay its hands on, the RAF is securing its status. Whereas providing close support to the Army is a slippery slope to being renamed the Royal Flying Corps once again. Hence why the Army has to provide its own battlefield support in the shape of the Apache. Reports that the RAF would be happy to foresake the Joint Strike Fighter as a replacement for the Harrier add to suspicions.
But aren’t we missing something here? Are service loyalties really that important, that broader UK Defence is sold down the river? Its hardly surprising that officers who have served a lifetime in a service are loyal to it, but all are first and foremost servants of the Crown and the Government. Are we creating needless barriers by thinking in terms of Land-Sea-Air, and structuring our forces as such? Is this a sensible way to manage our forces in the modern era? Perhaps in bygone times when each service required more specialist management, but in a time were technology has bridged the gaps between the seas, the air and dry land, are we right to divide our forces by these out-dated envitonmental factors?