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.