Harrier to make last operational flight

The Harrier - the world's first operational fi...

The Harrier - into history (Image via Wikipedia)

The Harrier GR9 made its last operational flight later today, before it is retired from RAF service.

As many commentators have remarked, it is the end of an era for British engineering. Although the modern GR9 owes much to the McDonnell -Douglas AV version, the basis for the Harrier was still a solely-British engineering project. It’s telling that there was never any chance of Britain actually developing a replacement for the Harrier – we just couldn’t do it, we’re reduced to buying off the shelf from the Americans or going into expensive and difficult partnerships with our European cousins.

It’s like the Concorde being retired – we’re going backwards in the name of economy. All so the RAF can keep zipping their Bugatti Veyrons over the North Sea. Very sad indeed. In hindsight its remarkable that the Harrier lasted as long as it did – the RAF never really took it seriousy, probably because its not fast enough or flashy enough. Never mind that it produced results. The Harrier seems to have become a victim of its own success, and of inter-service politics. The RAF has sought over the past few years to undermine the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm, in an extension of the age-old land based vs. sea projected air power debate. The utility and flexibility of naval air power has been proven over and over again, yet by retiring the Harrier the RAF knew that it would by default retire the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers – something it failed to do in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

A sad end for an aircraft that deserves its place in the Pantheon of historic British military aircraft, alongside the Spitfire and the Lancaster. And like those two aircraft, the Harrier can justly lay claim to having won a war. Just as the only British jets to have shot down enemy aircraft in wartime since 1945 have all come from the Fleet Air Arm. Afghanistan is floated out as a ‘trumps-all’ ace card, the argument supposedly being that the Tornado is better suited to operating in Helmand. Yet the Harrier is more reliable in the heat, more maneouvreable in counter-insurgency conditions, can take off from rough short airstrips, and is cheaper and easier to run and maintain. In any case, even the Harrier is probably overkill for the job they need to do against the Taliban… the Pucara or even the old WW2 Typhoon would probably be sufficient.

The figures suggest that retaining the Tornado at the loss of the Harrier is actually a more expensive option, given that the Tornado is less reliable, far less flexible and more expensive to operate and maintain. In any case the Tornado fleet is due for an engine upgrade in the coming years – how this will be funded has not been adequately explained. These facts – plus the vehement opposition of such esteemed figures as Admiral Lord West, Major General Sir Julian Thompson, and Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward – suggests that the axing of the Harrier was due more to inter-service politics than making savings. I find it very hard not to be furious with people who put their own service above British defence as a whole, to the detriment of the overall picture.

Lord West in particular has been lobbying very strongly for the Government to re-think its decision regarding the Harrier. His argument, as outlined in the Portsmouth Evening News today, is that the Prime Minister and the Government were badly advised by senior RAF officers with ulterior motives aside from national security. As West points out, none of the arguments espoused for keeping the Tornado over the Harrier stand up to any kind of scrutiny. As well as arguing that the Government has been badly advised, you could also go further and to argue that the Government is full of men of such little stature and with no understanding of defence, that it is all the more likely that they will be hoodwinked by bad advice.

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32 Comments

Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

32 responses to “Harrier to make last operational flight

  1. John Erickson

    I’m not sure of the sentiments within the RAF and FAA, but there is an intriguing similarity between Harrier and the so-hideous-it-is-GORGEOUS A-10. The USAF has worked for decades to kill this poor beast. It barely survived during the pro-military Reagan years, was months from forced retirement when Desert Storm saved it from the ash heap of history. The USAF has tried to kill it, or deny it upgrades, but support from within the squadrons and from the Army (who love its’ long loiter time and heavy load outs) keep it just ahead of the headsman’s ax. Something tells me the STOVL version of the F-35 won’t enjoy the same blessing (unless we’re in a war when it gets into frontline service, God forbid!), and with the FAA going for the carrier version, that the USMC won’t have the pull to keep it alive. And so, the western world will give up on jet-powered VTOL, and chase the dream (nightmare?) of an armed Osprey. Pity that the brass can’t see the value as clearly as we can. James, I think you need to send these discussions over to the MOD and hope they wake up in time! :)

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  3. Hmmm. The fight to keep fixed wing RN flying isn’t over….

  4. James Daly

    When I think of the situation all I can visualise is a bunch of very smug Air Marshals who got to keep their nice Tornado rides. Kinda like a mid-life crisis bloke selling the family car to keep the soft-top running.

  5. What do you make of the story that was in the Telegraph last Wednesday (sorry, no link)…

    Navy Chiefs’ plan to save jump jets

    A last-ditch attempt has been made by the Royal Navy to save Harriers from the axe, with a proposal to allow reservist pilots to fly them.

    As the last flight of the jump jets takes place at RAF Cottesmore today a plan, said to be backed by the First Sea Lord, has been put forward to preserve a rump of 20 Harriers.

    Navy chiefs have warned of an “unbridgeable skills gap” for pilots needed to fly the Joint Strike Fighter off the new aircraft carriers that will come into service in 2020 if carrier training is stopped. Without the ability to fly off carriers for the next 10 years, Navy pilots will lose the skill of landing on rolling decks in bad weather and deck crews will not get the practice they needed to safely launch and recover aircraft.

    The decision to scrap the Harrier in favour of the RAF’s Tornados in the strategic defence review infuriated the Navy.

    But hopes of saving the Harrier, of which there are 65 serviceable aircraft in total, will be raised at a meeting of the defence board in January.

    A proposal will be made to allow Royal Navy Reserve pilots to continue flying the planes at weekends from Yeovilton, Somerset.

    Senior naval officers say the RAF is rushing to retire the Harriers to make the defence review decision a “fait accompli” before alternatives are put in place.

    • John Erickson

      I’ll have to try to find the article online. While it sounds interesting, I do see a few problems. First off is money – the Harrier’s getting the chop to cut operational costs. While 20 or so Harriers flying only on weekends would be cheaper than the current number and flights, it’s still a drain. Also, it’s only 20 – so you can only train 20 pilots and 20 crews (I don’t know offhand how many persons in a crew) Granted they could serve as a cadre, but what if the RN drops the STOVL F-35 in favour of the carrier version? You’ve wasted training of pilots and ground crew on something they don’t need to know. Spares would be simple – either cannibalise the British planes, or get parts from the USMC flying AV-8Bs (assuming compatibility – I’d have to check that to be sure). Just off the top of my head, I’d have to say this whiffs of a certain last-ditch foot-dragging effort in the face of stiff opposition, even if it IS a good idea (in our humble opinions here). What do you think, X? Where’s my favourite devil’s advocate?:D (Or anybody else can tear my analysis to pieces – take a shot, I’m open!)

    • John Erickson

      By the by, is “Yeovilton” in the same area as Yeovil, Somerset? If so, my wife has a friend there. If they go through with this, she might be able to get us a photographer “on the fence”, as it were.

  6. It is very close.

    The UK has juast opted for the F35C instead of the F35B, but that’ll count for nothing if:

    a)A sudden crisis occurs and we have no ability to respond

    Or

    b)The RN loses the skills needed to run fixed wing flying operations at sea

    As for cost – we’d have less aircraft, with less flying hours, and less personnel (many of whom would be reservists).

    They wouldn’t just fly at weekend, but also for work up periods several times a year. And if mobilised if needed. The point is that it is thought to take ten years to go from having zero fixed wing flying to having the RN’s current level of corporate experience.

    • John Erickson

      Not to bash my fellow countrymen, but there is the problem of delays and cost overruns on all models of the F-35. If the Harriers go away in the very near future, there’s going to be an ever-expanding dearth of ANY fixed-wing naval aviation until all the bugs are worked out. And if the F-35B (STOVL) only has one group interested (USMC), it will be a hard to get the money to build them, what with the Marines wanting the EFV in addition to the F-35Bs. So now you not only lose your VTOL Harriers, but you eventually replace them with conventional carrier planes, so you lose the operation and maintenance knowledge peculiar to VTOL aircraft. That’s on top of the “re-learning” curve just to fly fixed-wing carrier planes. Double whammy!

    • John Erickson

      Totally off-topic. Brian Hanrahan died today, BBC America is currently eulogising him. He was the voice of the Falklands War – we didn’t have the BBC in America back then, but the US network ABC used BBC reports for information. We did have BBC on cable when the Berlin Wall fell. He was the voice in my head for most of the 80s and 90s. What a tremendous loss. Godspeed to him, and God bless to his family. (Hijack over, the thread is yours again.)

      • James Daly

        Hi John I don’t think thats off-topic. I read about the sad passing of Brian Hanrahan on the train last night. He was responsible for one of the best pieces of war journalism ever, and that on its own went a long way to giving the Harrier the recognition that it deserved. It’s unusual indeed for a civilian to be so irrevocably linked to a military aircraft’s history like that.

      • John Erickson

        James- Now that I think of it, you’re absolutely correct. An interesting part of the BBC TV News commented on his story of the first sortie over the islands. The narrator stated that for security reasons, Mr. Hanrahan could not give counts of aircraft or any casualties. He got around it with a remarkably canny comment – “I counted the Harriers all out, and I counted them all back”. A clever way to report zero casualties, as well as hinting at the number of aircraft based on public-knowledge information (within a certain “fudge factor”). His death is a great loss.

  7. Not sure when the defence board meeting is….

    • James Daly

      I’ve been looking at the membership of the Defence Board:

      Permanent Under Secretary, CDS (Richards), FSL (Stanhope), CGS (Wall), CAS (Dalton), VCDS (Houghton), Chief Scientific Advisor, Chief of Defence Materiel (O’Donoghue), Director General Finance, and three outside bods from BP and the Pru, bizarrely.

      Stanhope is looking pretty lonely there, up against four Generals (CDS, CGS, VCDS, CDM). He’ll have his work cut out making a case.

  8. Four Generals? FFS…

    • James Daly

      Its a very unusual situation, normally the convention is that the CDS and VCDS are never the same service. Obv Stirrup staying on and then Richards being promoted early has thrown everything out of sync. I know it sounds like Buggins turn, but if I was the PM/Defence Secretary I would give serious consideration to ensuring that the VCDS and Chief of Defence Materiel stand down asap in favour of an airman or admiral for each job to ensure balance in debate and decision making.

  9. Also…from http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/ChangesToRoyalNavysSurfaceFleetAnnounced.htm

    HMS Illustrious will be withdrawn from service in 2014, once Ocean has emerged from a planned refit and been returned to a fully operational state. This will ensure that we retain the ability to deliver an amphibious intervention force from the sea and maintain an experienced crew to support the later introduction into service of the new Queen Elizabeth Class carrier.

    Experienced crew = experienced in suuporting flyig operations?

  10. Back to the RNR idea: http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/431997-decision-axe-harrier-bonkers-69.html#post6758107

    “I believe the RNR harrier idea was conceived mostly to mess with Crabs for entertainment, though when they looked at the numbers to maintain a very limited capability (1 bomb 1 missile type) at reasonably long readiness state it nearly progressed into more than that due to the very surprisingly low cost.”

    Idea killed by politics?

    • James Daly

      I like the way that the default position in British military procurement is always that most expensive is best, and we are all shocked when a cheap alternative is pursued anywhere beyond the quick flick through the catalogue…

  11. I think the problem here is the politicians not wanting to be embarassed, and not wanting to think outside of the box.

    • James Daly

      It’s an endemic problem nowadays, leaders in public life not having the balls to make the right decision, even if it means theres a chance you might lose your seat at the next election. Getting re-elected and keeping up in the opinion polls is the be-all-and-end-all in modern politics, and I don’t think that kind of shallow, self-servedness fits very well with efficient military strategy.

  12. Can’t argue with that – sadly.

  13. Forgot quote:

    The Naval Prayer asks that the Royal Navy be preserved ‘from the dangers of the sea and from the violence of the enemy’. The Senior Service could justifiably and usefully add ‘and from the arrogance and ignorance of politicians’.

    Amen to that.

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