Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on – knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.



Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

27 responses to “Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

  1. Do we know who it was who said that we could have no carrier ops for then years then suddenly pick up the baton?

    Was it a General or two?

    Nobody with experience of naval aviation would say anything as dumb as that.

  2. James Daly

    There are indeed some pretty dumb statements flying around, that show a complete lack of understanding intra-service. Jointery was supposed to stamp out that kind of naivety.

    Stopping flying off of carriers for 10 years and then starting again would be like the Army putting all its tanks in storage, detailing the RAC regiments to other duties, then expecting them to simply get them out again as if nothing had happened. Its exactly the same principle so they have no excuses.

  3. It would be interesting to see what the other countries using Harrier have to say about this impending cancellation. I’m looking into US usage literally as I type this – I’ll have to see if Spain and Italy are still using them, and if so, how widespread.

    I, too, find it incomprehensible that the military could believe that the unique knowledge required to operate such a technologically unique aircraft as the Harrier could be shelved for a decade without loss of that knowledge. Let’s hope the petitions and letter writing campaigns can change some minds – the best point to put forward would be the cost savings in axing Tornado rather than Harrier. It seems politicians on both side of the Pond are thinking far more with their wallets in these (allegedly) post downturn days.

  4. It’s not about operating the jet per se, it is about the flight deck crews who need experience of safely moving real aircraft about a carrier deck at sea, in all weather, day and night…

    And the others working on the flight deck.

    And other people from the bridge to the ship control centre, or the operations room (CIC in USN jargon) who are involved.

    • Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. When I said “operating” Harriers, I meant the deck crews, armourers, etc. (including hangar and bridge crews) as well as the pilots themselves. As complicated as they may be to fly, I can only begin to imagine the complications of keeping them flying (including such unique items as the directional thruster exhausts).
      I haven’t found any mention of US plans to retire the AV-8Bs, and it looks like Spain plans on using them for at least 2-3 more years. I’ll have to dig and see if I can find what the Spanish/Italian militaries think of Britain’s plans.

  5. Russed

    Pretty much agree but must comment on the “Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack”, as it was the precise opposite, namely a tactical strike aircraft(bomber) with a few, only originally for the UK, modified into being interceptors.

  6. James Daly

    Hi Russed you’re quite right, thanks for clarifying that for me. I think the theme still stands though, that it was very much a Cold War conceived project.

  7. Mel Robinson

    I think that a little hindsight is useful here rather than the traditional “The Light Blue undermined the Dark Blue” line. Speaking as an ex SHAR pilot and CO I could be extemely emotive but the reality is this. Post Falklands the RN gave up long term investment on fixed wing aviation, (I’m not talking about future projects here). The lack of SHAR numbers meant that only 2 squadrons each with 6 aircraft were maintained even though there were 3 carriers. For over twenty years 2 CAGs supplied 3 carriers so effectively that the enormous gap in warfighting capability was missed. In many ways the squadrons were so well maintained and determined to punch above their weight that the reality of 6a/c squdrons was camourflaged. NATO squadrons generally have 12,15 or more aircraft be they Dutch or American, must be an intellectually tested reason for it. Even the Balkans only emphasised how much the FAA could do with so little. But when real wars came along: Gulf 1, Gulf 2 the SHARS were kept away, not enough aircraft to maintain high tempo ops in a hot environment. Once the temperature cools to “Peacekeeping, Peacemaking or Presence” the SHAR becames ideal and very cost effective again as risk of attrition declines.

    In a defence review you have to argue your corner, the Harrier is a terrific aircraft to fly and a handful in a fight but it couldn’t go very far (if you lose Tornado where does our Interdicter/Strike capability come from?), couldn’t carry much and couldn’t bring much of it back on board due to VSTOL performance.

    A mid-life upgrade was planned post Falklands and was canned, the eventual transition to FA2 was prolonged and painful, far too late and didn’t include the engine needed to match performance with capability.

    For decades the Admiralty was content with what SHAR and later JF2000 brought to the table, plenty of bright guys have tabled papers and sought upgrades or replacements but minimal cost and minimal commitment have been the order of the day.

    A final thought, what about the elephant in the room, Rafale. In the renewed Entente-cordial it’s only a matter of time before someone bright spark suggests putting RR engines into it and putting on our own ships. Sounds reasonable except for the bit about proving the carrier case during the next 2 SDRs. If you operate carriers without jets for a decade how do you prove that you need them when the time comes?

    Rant over.

  8. Actually, Mel, that was pretty far from a rant. Too many solid, factual points. I would like to ask your opinion on a related point. If Britain cuts back (or cuts out) Harrier squadrons and available aircraft, and since Britain has decided to drop the F-35C (VTOL) for the F-35B (standard carrier model), what do you do with the carriers? The FAA seems to be built around assumptions of Short-Takeoff-Vertical-Landing (STOVL), but with Harrier cut and the F-35C rejected for the F-35B, where do you get the experience for catapult launch and arrestor recovery?

  9. Mel

    For some reason your name rings a bell. Anyway, when the RN deployed 6 x SHAR aboard a CVS in the Adriatic, wasn’t the RAF contribution to NATO operations over Yugoslavia also small – 8 or so Jaguars based in Italy?

  10. Yep. Bit hard for a airfield to do that!

    • Not really. As long as you locate the airfield in the valleys of California, then wait for “The Big One” (earthquake) to shift the airfields a few dozen yards! Just make sure your airplanes are airborne before it hits! 🙂

      • James Daly

        Or you can move Australia a few hundred miles on the map to prove a point. I’ve never heard any concrete proof that this incident DID happen, but it does fit in with the light blue way of doing things…

  11. Mel Robinson

    Re Jag squadrons of 8. It was actually a detachment with pilots cycling through every 6 weeks or so. The beauty of this is that pilots don’t get rusty – there is nothing worse than “Peacekeeping/UN Support Ops” for tactical currency, after 6 weeks it would be back to blighty to regain tactical profiency in air-to-ground etc. RN squadrons didn’t do that, we had less than 10 pilots, everpresent and though superb around the ship (day or night), most of the time spent of Bosnia/Kosovo was spent converting fuel into noise.

    It’s true that CVS/SHAR combi is very flexible, I often flew at short notice when fog in the Po valley closed down NATO flight ops, with a ship you just move to where the fog isn’t but that isn’t solely what this debate is about.

    With regard to moving Austalia or not, that was yesterdays arguement, the only way to preserve fixed wing at sea is to make an intellectually and politically sound arguement, if that includes jobs in Preston, Tyneside and the Clyde better still.

    My tenet was that the RN lost the battle for fixed wing at sea nearly 30 years ago and this loss was disguised by over-achieving, under-equipped squadrons that were protected from all out war operations by being omitted from them. I’m neither for nor against the RAF, they staff their arguements well and like the Communists, never sleep in defending their case.

    Owning 4+ acres of flight deck can give an extraordinary capability from a diplomatic perspective. A carrier with a large crew brings huge benefits in projecting national capability (and you may not have to drop a single bomb). Imagine a carrier with 20 or so helicopters operating in the Indian Ocean during the typhoon season, that’s an awful lot of potential assistance to coastal regions that become inundated. Carriers are full of engineers, mechanics, power generation capability, water production, fuel, first aid, surgery, dental, large scale catering, and it can all swing into aid provision.

    I’m pro carriers, I think they allow a certain political dexterity, 70% of the world population lives within 70 miles of the sea. A carrier means that permission is not required to operate in areas of interest/unrest,instability. If you look at the issues regarding Somali piracy, there is a purely Naval environment. Far too high risk to even consider putting air/land forces ashore, it was tried by the US and Italians amongst others and it was a shambles (Black Hawk Down anybody). A carrier operating off the coast can provide 24 surveillance, offensive/counter ops, and probably shut down piracy ops if given UN authority, you can’t do that with a Tornado and a Tank.


  12. James Daly

    Interesting thoughts Mel. I have to disagree about yesterdays arguments however; especially when we have the same arguments cropping up again and again throughout the past century or so. Particularly regarding inter-service rivaly and the RN and RAF trying to out-maneouvre each other – there is a long-term precedent to all of these machinations. I think if it is in the culture of a particular service or institution to use particular tactics then we would do well to be mindful of this. It is a long-term historical trend that the RAF fares well out of Defence Reviews, for whatever reason. I was stating – here and elsewhere – long before the SDSR that the RN had to get its act together PR wise, with both the public and in whitehall. This it obviously failed to do, with terrible results. Again, there are historical precedents of the RN being a ‘silent service’ and not looking after its interests very well.

  13. Mel makes an excellent point about the carriers providing sovereign territory anywhere in the world. While I’m not advocating Britain having a fleet the size of the US Navy, I would direct arguments towards our policy with our CVs. Any country in the world knows that if a US carrier parks off your shore, you’re in trouble. Conversely, if you have suffered a natural disaster and a CV arrives, you know there will be tons of supplies and hundreds of people caring for you. A carrier’s presence is often more than half the battle, and with the RN having fewer carriers, logic would dictate they would only go to the points of greatest threat or need. (Note I said logic, not reality.) No carriers, no mobile influence on foreign countries.

  14. Mel I think that our paths once crossed……..

    I genuinely believe that the idea that you can haved a decade with no fixed wing aviation at sea, and them pick up the baton and carry on, is so ignorant it suggests that nobody with experience of carrier aviation was consulted.

    Ignorance rules?

    • Unfortunately, when civilians are involved with military purchases, it’s a case of penny-wise, pound-foolish. Our Congress wants to cut the F-22 and F-35, without any replacement, because they cost so much per copy. But if we lose those, we go back to 1975 state-of-the-art with F-15s and F-16s. Cheap today, how expensive when those 1970s vintage birds start falling from the skies (as the F-15s have started to with wing cracks)? Less a case of outright stupidity, far more a case of failure to plan beyond today.

      • James Daly

        Similar situation with our Nimrods – its ludicrous how the Government got away with pretending that it was replacing the old Nimrod’s with new Nimrod’s, that were in fact the old ones refurbed. No wonder they’re falling out of the sky, they’re based on the DH Comet, 50+ year old technology.

    • James Daly

      It reminds me of the inter-war 10 year rule, another ignorant, penny-pinching decision that cost us dearly in lives and misery. Short sighted in the extreme when you weight the miniscule savings against the potential costs.

  15. mel robinson

    sorry about that – switch pigs. The point is it is not the RAF who undermined the carrier/aircraft case it was the RN itself by not getting their ducks in a row. Enough from me, I’ve enjoyed the chance to vent my views.

    • Mel, I might get stomped on for this view, but I think some of the ire shown on this story is old rivalries rearing their heads. If I do poorly, I can either blame myself, or blame you, and blaming you is easier! 🙂 NOTE! I am not trying to insult our patient, knowledgeable, and erudite host (I live in farm country, I’ve learned how to rapidly shovel sh….er….manure!), nor anyone else on this site. I’m referring to the official proclamations of disaster for the FAA being caused by the RAF. You are absolutely right that the RN did itself the injury. Just as over here, it is the Air Force to be blamed for most of our front-line fighters being 70s leftovers. Had they properly sold the F-22 and F-35 as needed replacement, rather than as their latest technology-laden “toy”, most of the old birds would either be in the deserts of Arizona slowly rotting away, or sold to other countries for them to worry about. Yet the USAF grouses about the Marines’ EFV, or the Army’s MRAP/Humvee replacement, rather than admitting they were poor salesmen. Easier for the RN to point at the RAF and cry “foul” rather than point at themselves and say “mea culpa”.
      And keep ranting, Mel. It’s rants like yours that keeps this site interesting. Besides, you give me the opportunity to take a good-natured swipe at some of the nice folks here! 😉 (All in good fun – James knows I’m kidding! Um..James…you DO know I’m kidding, right?) 😀

    • Here’s a PDF with details following up the SDSR:
      It’s not too big, about 25 pages and 214k of data.

  16. mel robinson

    You mention Arizona John, as an aside I had the honour of taking a life-exed AV8C from VMA513 out to Davis-Monthan from Yuma in the mid 80’s. I was on exchange at the time, a glorious 3 years and a real eye opener as to what grownups do with regard to funding defence. I recall being part of a 20 aircraft strike package (AV8s and A7s escorted by F14s) against San Clemente Island defended by the Topgun F16Ns and F18s (another 20), I’m not sure that I learnt much but it was an extraordinary 60 minutes. I’ve flown in the UK and elsewhere and never seen anything like that volume of airpower.

    But I digress. In the UK press today a Former First Sea Lord and others have written in the times seeking a reversal of the Harrier/Ark Royal decision. A Government Minister actually came on the radio and said that the Falklands could be protected by land based aircraft should the islands fall, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it. Ignorance on a biblical scale. That said, for the time being the RN has lost the arguement and they to invest significant intellectual effort as well as future budget planning if they are to get there fixed wing back but it is going to be excruciatingly difficult. Particularly so as funding for future fighter projects will almost certainly come from the RAF budget, he who holds the purse strings chooses the aircraft.

    • James Daly

      Hi Mel, fascinating stuff as always – particularly for a feet-on-the-ground civvie such as myself!

      I’m working on a post at the moment about the Admiral’s letter. I was particularly interested that they drew parallels with the 10 year rule in the 1920’s and 30’s – something I pointed out not too long ago!

    • Mel- Thanks for that personal memory you described. I have thought about visiting Arizona and seeing the “boneyards”, but I’m torn. The tech geek in me would love seeing all that hardware. The romantic in me would weep seeing so many wonderful machines parked, being slowly disassembled before being violently broken up. I love the USAF museum at Wright-Patterson field in Dayton, and I’m only about 4 hours away, but every time I go, I leave quite melancholy. The same with auto museums – planes were meant to fly, cars to blast along a road. Seeing either parked, silent and immobile, is profoundly sad. Then again, I’m spoiled – I worked several years at a racetrack seeing vintage race cars in action, and I’ve been at numerous airshows, seeing gorgeous birds from every era soar overhead. Though I’d give an arm to fly RIO in an F-14!

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