Tag Archives: fleet air arm

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

Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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Filed under Army, debate, defence, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

The Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air Arm Memorial

Lee

Lee-on-Solent was selected as the site for the Fleet Air Arm Memorial as it was the location of the large Naval Air Station HMS Daedelus. It is one of the lesser known Memorials in the UK, but remembers 1,925 men of the Fleet Air Arm who have no known grave, most of them having been lost at sea.

The Fleet Air Arm served in almost every theatre between 1939 and 1945, such was the growing importance of sea-based airpower. Men and aircraft were lost in air combat, accidents, and also when aircraft carriers were sunk – the Royal Navy lost seven in the Second World War.

The Fleet Air Arm carried out many daring operations in the Second World War, including the hugely succesful strike on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940, the sinking of the Bismarck in 1941, and operations against the battleships Scharnhorst, Gneiseau and Prinz Eugen during their channel dash in February 1942.

20 Portsmouth men are remembered on the Lee-on-Solent Memorial:

The Aircraft Carrier HMS Glorious was sunk on 9 June 1940. Onboard were Air Mechanic 1st Class Harry Aldington (28, North End), Warrant Air Mechanic Leslie Ayres (34, Southsea) and Air Mechanic 2nd Class William Nevitt (20, North End). She had recovered RAF aircraft from Norway and was in the process of returning to England when she and her Destroyer escorts were intercepted and sunk by the German Battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.

Air Mechanic 1st Class Douglas London (21, Copnor) died on 27 November 1940. During this time his ship, HMS Hermes, was on station in the South Atlantic defending convoys and intercepting German warships.

Petty Officer (Airman) Ronald Hurford (28, Stamshaw) died on 1 January 1941 when HMS Formidable was in the process of transferring from the South Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

From HMS Goshawk Air Mechanic 2nd Class George Harris (21, Milton), Air Fitter James Davitt (19, Portsea), Chief Petty Officer (Airman) Alfred Dicks (36, Portsmouth) and Air Mechanic 2nd Class Stanley Newnham (29) were all killed on 17 January 1941. HMS Goshawk was a Naval Air Station in Trinidad.

Sub-Lieutenant Francis Gallichan (25, Southsea) was killed on 30 July 1941. His ship, HMS Furious, was operating in support of Arctic Convoys to Russia, Furious launched an air attack on Petsamo. 11 Fairy Swordfish Biplanes were lost.

Air Mechanic 1st Class Leonard Sanger (22, Copnor) died when HMS Audacity was sunk on 22 December 1941. Audacity was a captured German Mechant ship, converted into the Navy’s first Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier. Operating in defence of an Atlantic Convoy, she was spotted by Kondor aircraft and subsequently torpedoed by U571.

Leading Photographer Sydney Horne (23, Cosham) of HMS Sparrowhawk died on 1 April 1942. HMS Sparrowhawk was a Naval Air Station in the Orkneys. It hosted a number of different aircraft, including Swordfish, Rocs and Avengers.

Leading Airman John Bristow (20, Cosham) was a crew member of HMS Avenger when he died on 4 May 1942, while she was in transit from the US to England, having been acquired as part of the Lend-Lease agreement.

HMS Dasher sank on 27 March 1943. Amon those killed were Air Mechanic 1st Class William Cluett (21, Portsmouth), Chief Petty Officer (Air) George Chaplin (35, Fratton) and Petty Officer (Airman) Albert Young (44, Cosham). Whilst at anchor in the Clyde a fire onboard caused her to explode. An inquiry found that the fire was probably caused by a dropped cigarette.

Sub-Lieutenant Edward Clark (23, Hilsea) was serving in 838 Naval Air Squadron when he was killed on 1 May 1944.

Sub-Lieutenant (Air) Leslie Smith (21, Milton) was onboard HMS Illustrious when he was killed on 11 June 1944. During June 1944 Illustrious was operating in support of US Landings in the Mariana Islands, by launching diversionary air raids on Sabang.

Lieutenant (Air) George Cornish (24 Southsea) of HMS Puncher was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 8 June 1945 ‘for gallantry, determination and devotion to duty in carrying out a successful air operation in the face of heavy opposition’, for action on 26 March 1945. In poor weather Puncher launched air attacks on German shipping in Alesund, Norway. Cornishas killed during the attack.

Lieutenant Kenneth Lorimer (22, Southsea) died on 20 March 1947. He was serving at HMS Ferrett, a shore establishment in Derry, Northern Ireland.

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Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

Falklands then and now: Aircraft Carriers

One of the pre-requisites of any military operation is air cover. And when you are looking at an amphibious assault against a prepared enemy, thousands of miles from any friendly base, in the enemys back yard, that means aircraft carriers and as many of them as you can lay your hands on.

The picture in 1982

HMS Hermes and HMS Illustrious in 1982

HMS Hermes and HMS Illustrious in 1982

In 1982 the Royal Navy could call upon two Aircraft Carriers. HMS Hermes was a post-world war two Centaur class light fleet carrier. After serving in numerous guises in her career, in 1982 she was equipped to operate Sea Harriers. She could carry 12, in addition to 18 Sea King Anti-Submarine and Airborne Early Warning Helicopters.

HMS Invincible was virtually brand-new, and the lead ship of the new Invincible class. Although officially ordered as an anti-submarine carrier, she could operate 8 Sea Harriers and 15 Sea Kings. She was also fitted with the cutting edge Sea Dart Surface to Air Missile. HMS Illustrious, Invincibles sister ship, was also nearing completion.

Therefore, the British task force in 1982 could call on 20 Sea Harriers and 33 ASW and AEW Sea Kings, on two carriers. Wisdom at the time taught that this was the bare minimum needed, given the strength of the Argentine Air Force (something that we will look at later). Given that Combat Air Patrols usually consisted of 2 aircraft, the Sea Harriers would be very stretched indeed. There were also doubts about how the Sea Harrier would perform against the super-fast Mirages that the Argentines possessed. A few replacement Sea Harriers could be expected, and halfway through the war some RAF GR3 Harriers arrived.

That these aircraft were on two ships is also important. It meant that if one ship had to slip out of action temporarily, to clean a boiler, for example, then there was at least another ship to cover. More hulls give flexibility. But still, the loss of one carrier would probably have ended the war.

The picture in 2009

A very rare picture of all three Invincible Class Carriers at sea together

A very rare picture of all three Invincible Class Carriers at sea together

In 2009, the Royal Navy only possesses two active aircraft carriers, both of the Invincible Class: HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal. HMS Invincible is technically in ‘extended readiness': however, with her propellers removed and sitting on her deck, and denuded of parts to keep her sister ships running, it would take at least a year to her running again.

Of the two ships, one is usually at high readiness, and the other is usually either undergoing trials or in refit. Much would depend on the status of the reserve carrier: if it was in deep refit, it would take a lot of time to make ready. Even if it were ready, the crew might not be completely up to speed with operating aircraft.

The Sea Harrier was retired in 2006 as a cost cutting measure, and in its place the Fleet Air Arm shares Harrier GR9’s with the RAF. These are far from ideal for providing air defence, and do not have the Sea Harrier’s Ferranti radar, for example. RAF Harriers are designed for providing close air support to troops, their electronics and weapons fit is completely different to the Sea Harrier. They might struggle against the Mirages in terms of performance, although Argentina only has around 15 of them currently.

In addition, there are only enough Harriers – eight – available to the Naval Strike Wing to equip one Aircraft Carrier at a time. Even if somehow more were made available, this would entail a maximum of 16 Harriers. The Carriers do not embark their Aircraft as often as they did back in 1982, so operational effectiveness is bound to be affected.

Conclusion

The Royal Navy has a much weaker Aircraft Carrier capability than in 1982. It can operate markedly fewer aircraft, which are not specialist maritime jets and are not designed for providing air defence.

Everything would pivot on whether the second Aircraft Carrier were available. In a very best case scenario, two Aircraft Carriers might be available, and operate 16 Harrier GR9’s. If only one Carrier were available, sailing to war with 8 aircraft would be unthinkable. And both of these Carriers are now over 25 years old. Interestingly, the elderly HMS Hermes is still serving in the Indian Navy, operating Sea Harriers. What a difference she would make to the Royal Navy….

Fortunately, the Argentine Air Force possesses far fewer Fighters than in 1982: 15 high-performance Mirages, although she does still have many Skyhawk multi-role attack jets.

Given that the performance of the Sea Harrier was one of the pivotal aspects of the Falklands War, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that even in a best case scenario, the air defence that any modern task force could offer might struggle in terms of effectiveness, even against a reduced Argentine Air Force.

We must await the Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers and the Joint Strike Fighter with interest.

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