Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Moosemilk and Cucumber Sandwiches? The Shared Anglo-Canadan embassy cocktail party...

There was a very interesting press release on the FCO website recently which reported on the visit by the Foreign Secretary to Canada for bilateral meetings. One of the outcomes has been a decision for the UK and Canada to investigate better shared use of embassy facilities across the globe, using each other’s diplomatic presence as a means of bolstering a wider presence across the world. The full text of the press release can be found HERE.

This is a really interesting and very positive development. The UK has over the years acquired a large global estate of diplomatic interests, which consist not only of FCO sites, but also representation from UK Trade & Industry, Department for International Development and also the British Council. Almost by accident the UK possesses one of the worlds largest global diplomatic networks, enabling access and presence across the globe. But, over recent years this network has shrunk as budgets have tightened and engagement priorities changed. By their very nature Embassies are expensive to run, and require a lot of funding, real estate and commitment to keep open. Both the UK and Canada have got to make reductions to funding of their Diplomatic Services over the next few years, and this represents an excellent way to continue representation instead of closing it down.

The suggestion that the UK may work with Canada to share facilities is a genuinely good news story. Both nations have a very long shared history, which is built on absolute trust and shared democratic values. Canada is a beacon of global standards; it shares a border with a vastly more powerful neighbour, yet is not in thrall to them. It has a history of peacekeeping, tolerance and willingness to absorb new cultures and create a better country, but when push comes to shove, is not afraid of using force to stand up for what it believes in.

Between 1945 and 1990 the UKs relationship with the three ‘old dominion’ nations (excluding South Africa) seemed to be destined to decline into near irrelevance. A UK focused on defending the Central Front, and withdrawn from the Far East and Asia Pacific region, was having far less to do with these countries. The end of the Cold War and the re-emergence of interventionary operations seems to have sparked a significant resurgence in co-operation between all four nations. If one looks at military operations conducted across the world, then for the last twenty years, and particularly since 2001, all four nations have worked closely together as a common alliance. Humphrey has had the honour of working alongside representatives from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and it is clear that for all the jokes about sport, and national differences when it comes to beer, wine and winning cricket, there is a far deeper bond shared between us than practically any other country. There is an absolute trust, an absolute alignment of values, and a willingness to go to far off places and do dangerous things in order to do the right thing. This is not a colonial ‘Master / Servant’ relationship – all four countries seem to regard each other as equal partners, each bringing different skills and experience and areas of influence to the table.

The news that the UK may be lucky enough to share with Canada in Embassies sends a very positive message. Firstly it will allow both countries to share office space in order to represent themselves overseas – furthering the interests of both nations. While the author has absolutely no idea as to where the shared embassies may be located, it would seem logical that they will be in places where one country has no current representation. In the UKs case, this may be in the Asia Pacific region, which has seen a steady drawn down of representation in recent years.

Logistically the move benefits both nations, who will be able to draw on office space to allow them to work at a vastly reduced cost compared to running two embassies in the same location. It doesn’t mean that there will be shared office suites with colonial officer Brits telling the downtrodden Canadians what to do. Rather it’s likely to mean there being shared office buildings, with separate national areas and ambassadors doing their own work. This is in many ways no different to companies sharing office space, or in the case of operational theatres, nations sharing each others support facilities.

The most important thing though is the strong message this sends to other nations. By having a joint embassy site, both nations are able to send a strong message about our shared values and interests. We can show the world that jointly our nations hold some things so dear, and have a relationship built on such trust, that we are willing to work together in this way. That is a very powerful message to send, particularly as Canada takes on an ever more assertive role in the world stage. The days of Canada as a quiet peacekeeper, trying to make everybody play nicely have gone forever. The modern Canada is a confident and assertive nation, not afraid to stand up for what it believes are acceptable standards of behaviour – just look at their actions in Afghanistan and the closure of their embassy in Tehran.

By sharing these facilities, the UK and Canada will be able to expand their diplomatic presence, and influence across the globe. It benefits both nations, and sends a strong signal to others of the immense value that comes from working together in a mutually beneficial relationship. This could be a most significant development indeed.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

"I have the honour to be, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells", or why there are not a dozen battleships mustering in the Gulf right now...

One of the more error strewn articles that Humphrey has seen in recent months emerged over at the Daily Telegraph last week (link is HERE). In short, the defence correspondent put together a short article claiming that ‘an armada of British and US naval power is massing in the Gulf’  reportedly to be able to conduct pre-emptive strikes on Iran in the event of the nuclear issue getting out of control. The article goes on to explain that over 25 different nations are massing warships in the Straits of Hormuz as Iran and Israel reportedly come to the brink of war.

It is rare for Humphrey to want to sit down and write an angry letter to a newspaper, but this article was stunningly poorly researched for an individual who has the title of ‘Defence Correspondent’ for one of the UKs most well-known newspapers.

This author’s pet hate is analytical material which includes poor, or non-existent research, or which seems to ignore very basic facts. Stepping away from the suggestion that there are three aircraft carriers, each of which is carrying more aircraft than the entire Iranian airforce, it then goes onto suggest that ‘the carriers are supported by at least 12 battleships’. This is just sloppy writing, conjuring images of Iowa class battleships supporting the carrier. Since Humphrey was a hugely precocious teenager, he has found it hard to resist screaming loudly when the word ‘battleship’ is used to describe an escort vessel.

More seriously the article suggests that the UK has dispatched four minesweepers, HMS DIAMOND and support ships to the region to participate in the exercises. This is an interesting interpretation of the situation.  In fact the UK has had four minesweepers based in the Gulf for many years, operating on a permanent basis with rotational crews. This has proven to be a very useful way of not only conducting operational work, but also building strong relationships with the UKs gulf allies. The presence of these ships is not new, nor are they ‘massing’ in the region - they have been a constant capability in the area for years. Similarly, the presence of HMS DIAMOND is hardly a crisis measure, as she’s been operating in the area for some time, since relieving HMS DARING. The UK has had escorts continuously based in the Arabian Gulf since the 1980 Armilla patrol, and DIAMOND is merely the latest incumbent.

So, when one looks beyond the hyperbole, the UK is not actually massing any ships at all in the region. Instead it continues to operate the same force levels as it has done for some time in the area. The RN presence East of Suez is one of those ‘good news’ stories that rarely get reported by the media, but which do go a long way to demonstrating how capable the RN is compared to other navies. On a daily basis, there are usually at least two escorts, four MCMVs, an SSN, plus two-three support ships operating east of Suez on a range of tasks. The RN also provides a strong command presence in Bahrain, running a 1* Maritime HQ. When one looks at operational, seagoing capability, it is clear that the UK has probably got the second most capable navy in the region, putting more ships to sea on a daily basis, and sustaining them for the long haul, than any other nation apart from the USN. The UK is emphatically not ‘massing ships’ in the region – it is just continuing to operate as usual. This is often forgotten when people decide to decry the state of the RN – its very easy to suggest the RN is getting smaller, but it’s much more difficult to suggest that it is still an incredibly capable navy.

Similarly the article goes onto suggest that the long planned deployment of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG)  (not the Response Task Forces Group as the article suggests!) to the Med in the autumn may be designed to move east of Suez if required. This is pushing the tenuous links – after all the whole point of having an agile and very flexible task group is its ability to deploy where-ever it is needed to go. Suggesting that the presence of the RFTG in the Med is part of a wider build up to threaten Iran is akin to suggesting that the deployment of the ARGUS over the summer to the Caribbean is part of plans to protect the Falkland Islands from invasion.

So, in short this is an article where one is left with the impression the author has not bothered to make even the most basic of phone calls to try and ascertain the level of UK commitment to the region. This is worrying because it raises several concerns. Firstly, at a most basic level, if a journalist cannot be bothered to do basic research on an article like this, then what else are they not reporting correctly?  It is essential that readers feel that a paper will provide them with an accurate analysis on a story, and that what they read is factually correct. In this instance, the article has been spun out of all recognition, changing the emphasis from a permanent British presence designed to reassure allies and protect UK interests, and make out that instead it is a massive surge into the region designed to threaten a foreign nation.

This raises the next concern –how does the media avoid giving the impression that what it reports always  emphatically represents national policy or decisions? By this, the author means that articles like this will be read in many countries, and probably seen by a range of policy makers, military figures and intelligence analysts. In nations where the relationship between the media and Government is far less open, it is hard to conceive of the idea of a truly free press. So, is there a danger that this article, and others like it, may in a small way raise tensions? If Iran, or other nations read this and judged that it was an accurate take on UK views, and that there is to be a surge of UK activity, then how would it be interpreted, and could this influence Iranian planning?

In a nation under perceived threat for many years, where the truth as we see it is often seen as smokescreen for more nefarious activity, the UK occupies a special place in the Iranian psyche. As a student Humphrey met Iranians, who were intelligent, charming and lovely people, and utterly convinced that the UK is a puppet master in the region, pulling the strings of all the US and other nations. The coup of 1953 is seen as hard evidence for this, and it is hard to explain that the UK is not in that business any more. There is plenty of accounts in the internet making out that Iran was convinced the UK was interfering in Khuzestan province, with SAS personnel training a low level insurgency.

Given this level of paranoia, which is hard to switch off, one has to ask whether this article may cause a reaction in Iran which could be less helpful to the situation. This is the issue at heart – do journalists have a duty to publish information which is accurate, in order to prevent sloppy journalism being the basis for an intelligence report which could help change a nations policy or actions. Humphrey is not suggesting for one moment that as a result of this sole article that Iran will suddenly declare war, or engage in all out hostility against the West, but it could be seized on as evidence of another devious British plot, rather than just reporting on the routine presence of UK vessels.

There is no right answer to this issue, for the importance of freedom of speech is absolutely imperative. But how does one encourage journalists to raise their game and understand defence matters in a way which not only informs, but also sells papers and puts the authors name out there? The UK is in a particularly exposed position here, as the websites of its national newspapers seem to get millions of hits from overseas – the Daily Mail is by far the worlds most viewed newspaper website. The sort of articles that 10-15 years ago would have been little more than filler in the back page of a tabloid newspaper can now be seen instantly across the globe. In a world where even basic open source information has the potential to be of intelligence value, one has to ask whether the sensational journalism practised at times has potential to itself become more than a story, but a source of conflict and tension.

The world of print and electronic media is changing, we see increasingly across the world reactions to media articles or short videos where there are strategic consequences. The tragic events in Libya recently show that a short video made by an extremist can lead to deaths, and threaten an international crisis for the most powerful nation on earth. In a world where people are ever more closely interconnected, and where a short newspaper story or photograph can go viral around the world in the space of a morning, the need for accuracy is ever more critical.

If a story is inaccurate, then it’s no longer a case of just having to print a short correction on page 43 a few days later. Instead inaccurate stories have the potential to not only cause short term reaction in the worst case, but also build mistrust and exacerbate the tensions they are reporting on. There is no easy answer to this challenge, but it seems increasingly clear that as we continue to enter an ever more globally interconnected planet, that the media have not only to report the story, but also to ensure that the story does not become part of a larger story in itself.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

It is MOD civil service bonus time again; cliches will fall when hit...

So once again news has broken in the media that the MOD civil service is to get a bonus, or more precisely £30 million worth of bonus payments this year. The Mail is outraged, and other newspapers seem to be gearing up for the latest instalment of  ‘lets all burn the civil service heathens’…

Despite appearances to the contrary this is not a ‘bonus’ in the Merchant Banker sense. Many years ago a decision was imposed on the MOD that as part of efforts to improve performance some of the annual pay award would be set aside, and instead of forming consolidated pay, which was pensionable, would instead be paid as a bonus (which was not pensionable). The theory was sound, more money = improved performance and a smaller pension bill. The reality has been 10 years of changing assessment methods, different criteria for qualification and a sense of frustration by many civil servants that they are being hung out to dry in the press for having the audacity to be paid.

Humphrey has never met a single MOD civil servant in 10 years who supports the bonus system. In its earliest iterations it was divisive, as it meant 50% of a team would get an award, while 50% would not. Latterly it has been awarded to everyone who has met their performance criteria – in other words, if you turned up to work, did your job and didn’t get into trouble, then you’d get a basic bonus. Put more effort in, which could be demonstrated in a short statement and confirmed by management, and you might get a bit more. The problem was that goalposts varied tremendously, as the definition of merit seemed to change from team to team.

Next year it is promised that things will change and that only the top performing 10-20% of civil servants will get a ‘bonus’. This seems an effort to move it away from the concept of providing a top up to basic salary, and instead rewarding real achievement. Even now though some of the authors friends think that 10% is too large a proportion – after all, if only 10% of staff get a bonus, then the temptation for report writers is to lead to grade inflation to try and get everyone in on the act.

Personally the author has a dislike of the bonus scheme – why not use the very effective system of rewarding good performance through thank you letters from seniors, GEMS payments, the honours system and the like? Why do we have to go through an annual process of being castigated in the press for receiving payments tied into doing our job? Bluntly, a short personal note from a senior officer acknowledging something the author has done would mean a lot more than a small cash payment.

Tired old Cliches
The one thing that has annoyed all of the authors acquaintances today is the way that the media have trotted out the same old ‘pen pushers’ clichés. Apparently while the forces will ‘only’ get a 1% pay rise, while shivering to sleep at night in cold barracks, yet the civil service is laughing it up with their £30 million bonus.

Let’s be really clear about this – the civil service is now in a three year pay freeze, and within the MOD there is also a pay scale progression freeze. In real terms this means each civil servant in the MOD would usually progress one point up a pay spine each year, worth roughly 2.5% of salary. For the last three years, this has not happened, meaning that in broad terms, MOD civil servants are all being paid 7.5% less now than they were expecting to be back in 2010. At the same time it looks like a pay award is likely to be very small for the next two years, meaning in real terms most civilian staff are looking at best at a sub 1% pay rise, possibly as low as 0.1-0.5% in some cases. In the case of the bonus, this was part of the final payment from the last pay award, and was contractually obligated to be paid.

While this is going on though, although the military continue to have a pay freeze too, they have not had the same progression freeze on their pay scales, meaning they are still getting a real terms pay rise each year. Alright it’s not much, but the idea that the civil service is supping Bolly, while the military starve is as far from the truth as you can get. In reality the military are paid vastly more than their civilian counterparts.

 What has really enraged many of the authors friends today is the way that this news was leaked to the media before it had been announced to the MOD. Staff knew a payment of some form was coming, but to read in the Daily Telegraph more informed comment prior to being informed by their own management has really upset people.

The author has no idea who leaked this story; it could be a civilian, military or political background. But he is dismayed that once again it seems okay to try to do down the civilian component of Defence. It sounds silly, but the vast majority of staff who work for MOD are genuinely really proud of what they do, how they support the military and how in a small way they can help the armed forces achieve success. It really hurts to open the papers and find ourselves being cast in the worst possible light by the media, particularly when you suspect that that story can realistically only have come from somewhere within your own organisation.  It hurts to know that someone, somewhere, cares so little for the civilian component of defence, that they are willing to crush peoples morale and see people genuinely upset in order to achieve a desired effect.

The author knows people who are really upset about this. The public neither know, nor wish to know the intricacies of how the MOD CS get paid. They do get angry when they think that our military is suffering from a lack of funds and they blame the civil service. The person that leaked this doesn’t have to go and meet new people and admit, almost shamefacedly, that he is a civil servant. The last time the bonus system was in the media, the author discussed what he did at a black tie dinner party he was publicly lambasted for 20 minutes by his dinner colleagues for his own personal failure to support the front line in some undefinable way. Now, he knows it’s that time all over again as people will once again be incredibly rude and direct their anger on the civil servants who have no control over this policy, and not the people who came up with it in the first place.

The person that leaked this will not have to put up with peoples anger which is directed against the civil servants who have done nothing more than try to do a difficult job for very little money at a time when tens of thousands of their colleagues are being made redundant. They didn’t choose to implement a bonus policy, but they are the ones who will face public anger over today’s announcement. The anger is there and it is real, because the author has himself experienced it.

It would be nice if there was some kind of defence, some strong statement standing up for the MOD civil service and an effort to remind the public at large that we are all part of UK defence, no matter whether we wear combats or pinstriped suits.

The MOD civil service is an amazing organisation, filled with some of the brightest, funniest, astute and dedicated people the author has ever met. They are almost all passionate about their work, they are hugely proud of serving their country and they genuinely do care about Defence. They deserve far more respect than they get in the media, because they too play a vital role in keeping this country safe. Don’t judge them by their payment system, judge them by what they do for this country, and remember that even if they don’t wear uniform, they too play a vital part in the defence of the UK.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Withdrawing the Harrier - Part Three - OP ELLAMY and beyond

In the previous two parts of this article, we examined the decision to scrap the Harrier GR9 in the SDSR, in an attempt to understand why it was that Harrier was deleted over Tornado. In this final part of the article, Humphrey will attempt to assess what capability was really lost as a result of this decision, focusing primarily on OP ELLAMY (UK contribution to Libya) as an example.
A few months after the Harrier had been withdrawn from service in 2010, the UK found itself operating in a military campaign in Libya, as part of efforts to secure permanent regime change. The campaign came about at short notice, with UK planners getting less than two weeks’ notice of the warning order to prepare for offensive operations, and barely days between commencing serious planning and launching the first airstrike.

During the operation the UK employed a wide range of aviation capabilities from all three services, including Tornado and Typhoon strike aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Sentinel, Sentry and SKASACS ISTAR platforms and a wide range of support aircraft. At its peak, the UK had around 20-25 strike aircraft staging out of Italy, plus a similar number of support aircraft and helicopters operating either at sea, or out of various airbases in the region. The UK contributed in a wide range of roles, ranging from cruise missile strikes, through to delivering close air support for rebels, tanking and ISTAR ops and enforcing a no fly zone. It is worth noting that the UK was able to deliver on these commitments and also sustain operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere while the conflict was going on. This in itself is a notable achievement that few, if any, other credible powers could hope to achieve – namely conducting multiple air operations, all at substantial distance from the home base and sustaining this for roughly six months.
Although the UK was able to rapidly deploy its required capabilities, there was a strong line of argument in the press that an aircraft carrier should have been deployed to put the Harrier into action as this was apparently a far better solution than deploying out of Italy. The main argument put in favour of this seems to have been either the shorter distance, or costs. Is there any truth to this line of argument?
To start with, we need to consider what would have happened post SDSR had the Harrier replaced Tornado. It is likely that such a move would have seen the immediate deployment of Harrier back into OP HERRICK to replace the 12 Tornado airframes located in Kandahar. Even with extra resources assigned, this would have probably maxed out the operational ability of an aircraft fleet that had been reduced in spares, manpower and readiness for the last few years. The Harrier force would almost certainly have not had the ability to generate sufficient spare airframes and support to deploy on ELLAMY without impacting on Afghanistan. Given the reduction in spares and readiness, it is hard to imagine the Harrier force being able to sustain two deployments – 12 aircraft in Afghanistan, and 10 -12 aircraft in Libya. This would have required the Harrier force to surge to deploy nearly one third of its total airframes on operations at once. Something that would have significant implications for availability, and also the longer term airframe life.
The next question is, where would the Harriers have been based? In early 2011 the UK would have run one operational carrier – in this case HMS ARK ROYAL. As noted in part two, the UK was down to practically single figures for current carrier qualified pilots by the withdrawal of GR9 from service. Given Libya started some three – four months later, and given the likely commitment of pilots to Afghanistan, the question is, where would the pilots come from to operate the aircraft from ARK ROYAL? At absolute best, the UK may have been able to stick four - six airframes to conduct operations on Libya, at a cost of burning out their entire carrier qualified pilot force to do so.
The Harrier was not cleared to operate Brimstone or Storm Shadow, or the RAPTOR pod used for recce purposes and it is unlikely that either Harrier or Typhoon would have been capable of doing so by the time ELLAMY started. Do not underestimate the importance of these weapon platforms to achieving operational success in ELLAMY – the Storm Shadow made a huge difference in hitting command locations, while Brimstone had an accuracy rate that was almost ‘sci fi’ in capability. Of course it is possible emergency integration could have been carried out, but this would have come at significant cost, and would not have been the optimal solution. More significantly, it is exceptionally unlikely that trials would have cleared Harrier for operations at sea with this equipment, meaning that any operation with Harrier would have been land based to use this equipment.
Finally, we need to ask how effective a carrier would actually have been in the Med. Not for nothing is the region known as NATOs back yard. After nearly 65 years of an Alliance in the region, there is a plethora of airfields capable of hosting and sustaining military operations over the med and North Africa. The UK alone has two sovereign Permanent Joint Operating Bases (Akrotiri and Gibraltar) in the Med which have runways. There are plenty of places in the world where a carrier group is essential to support air operations. The Med is not one of them. At best, in this scenario a carrier offers an additional capability, but it is by no means a mission critical asset.
The two main charges levelled in support of the carrier was the reduced cost of life support, and the flexibility to sail in the region. While the author is inherently dark blue in nature, and has worn dark blue for his entire adult life, there are times when he wonders whether too many folk believe the Royal Fleet Auxiliary possesses TARDIS like stores holds…
Had ARK ROYAL deployed, she’d have done so with a battle group to protect her – most likely a T23 and possibly a T42 to provide air defence. There would also have been at least one AOR (in fact the only AOR left in service).  This represents a deployment of some 1400-1600 personnel, depending on how many aircraft were deployed on the carrier. In practical terms this is probably greater than the number of RAF personnel deployed to Gioa Del Colle airbase to support the Tornado and Typhoon force, which at its peak had 26 Tornados & Typhoons. Although the Italians would have added to this number of personnel, it is hard to see how a carrier deployment would have been cheaper – at best the ability to stick four – six GR9s over Libya would have been a mild capability enhancement, but would not in itself have won the war.
The carrier would also have been dependent on host nation support – a fact often forgotten. Every RN carrier operation in recent memory has needed a land based forward logistic site.  The CVS & AOR would have had the ability to support Harrier ops for some time, but ultimately would have been dependent on a shore base for spare parts flown in the from the UK. In the case of ELLAMY, it was a simple matter of flying them into the airbase, or doing road moves from the UK in order to provide support. Similar support could have been delivered to the RFA, but would have required transporting munitions from the airhead to a port capable of handling explosives and other munitions. It would have required a reasonable ground footprint to run the shore parties to handle all the logistics and allow for transfer of explosives and other key spares through to the dockyard for the RFA to collect.
This is a key point – the RFA is a brilliant organisation at providing support to vessels at sea, and allowing RN ships to stay deployed for longer than usual. But, the days when the RFA could rely on a chain of vessels to resupply them and have an ever longer chain stretching back to the home port have gone forever. The RFA in OP ELLAMY, and the future RFA, will comprise of just three stores ships. At the time of the campaign, one was operating with the amphibious task group, the other was in deep refit after coming out of reserve and only FORT VICTORIA was actually available. What this means is that had the RN deployed a carrier to the coast, it would have been utterly reliant on a single point of failure – namely the AOR and her ability to stay at sea. One of the key arguments used in support of the RFA is this ability to stay at sea indefinitely, but in reality with only one ship on task, at best the RN could have sustained an operation for a couple of months prior to needing to return both the carrier and the AOR to the UK. There would still have been a need for a shore presence in Italy, and the RN would still have needed access to Italian airbases and road moves to support the campaign.
While the Harrier deployment could have provided aircraft slightly closer in to the mainland for operations, the cost savings in fuel would probably have been negated by the need to provide extra fuel for the carrier and her escorts as they operated in the region. In reality such costs would probably work out the same as just flying a mission from a land airbase. When one considers that many of the aircraft used on the campaign were taking on multiple mission profiles in one sortie, such as bombing, shows of force, enforcement of the no fly zone etc, there was a reliance on tanker aircraft to keep the air campaign flowing. The Harrier would have needed the same tanking profile, no matter where it took off from, particularly if it was running operations across Libya, as was the Typhoon and Tornado fleets. So, in reality the location of the aircraft for day to day basing was not hugely relevant; wherever the mission was based, there would be a lot of fuel expenditure occurred.
It is also worth noting that the UK would have probably had to fly proportionately more missions to cover for the reduced capability and effectiveness of the Harrier, compared to the GR4 and its Brimstone load. In modern operations targeting is essential – you cannot just ‘drop a bomb’ and accept that to achieve the mission you will kill civilians. Brimstone provided commanders with a level of accuracy that helped achieve hits on the right target at the right time. There is no guarantee that Harrier could have done the same, meaning more missions and possibly more civilian dead in order to try and defeat some sites.
So, while Harrier provided a useful capability, it is hard to imagine that had it been retained ahead of Tornado then the UK would have found conducting OP ELLAMY any easier. Similar levels of manpower would have been needed, and there would still have been a requirement for shore support for the RFA.  Given the weapon systems deployed, the missions flown and the support requirements, this authors view is that Tornado represented a better value, more capable platform for ELLAMY.
How much future capability was lost?
The assumption prior to SDSR was that the Harrier would have flown until about 2015 on the Invincible class (most likely ARK ROYAL), and then withdrawn from service in 2016-2018 timeframe. Realistically then, one must assume that from 2010 until 2015, ARK ROYAL would have been able to conduct two, possibly three major deployments, plus a maintenance period and work ups through FOST. At the same time, after 2012, she would have been the sole UK carrier in service, with HMS OCEAN undergoing a major refit.
With a very small Harrier fleet available, and a small number of pilots in the system (with others beginning to transition onto the JSF pipeline), then at best the UK has lost the opportunity for two or three planned seagoing deployments, which may have embarked 4-6 Harriers. With OCEAN in refit, it is likely that ARK ROYAL may well have been rerolled into a helicopter carrier anyway, in order to keep the amphibious force supported and allowing the UK to train to deploy amphibious capability ashore.
So, while it is nice to dream that the UK would have spent the period 2010-2015 with a fully operational strike carrier force, the harsh reality is that at best there would have been one or two deployments in order to maintain a basic level of capability and currency. The idea that the UK would have surged multiple squadrons of Harriers to sea is a pipedream.

Future of the Fleet Air Arm - the JSF
This three part article has tried to show in constructive a manner as possible that whatever decisions were taken in 2010, it is likely that the UK would have been required to make some very serious decisions about the future of Harrier as a carrier borne asset.
It was a wonderful platform and a great aircraft, but even if SDSR had chosen to keep Harrier over Tornado, then the airframes would have almost certainly been used in a land based role. The RN would have struggled to generate a meaningful carrier force anyway after 2012 as the fleet reduced to a single available hull, and it is hard to see how Harrier would have provided a more potent strike capability than Tornado on OP ELLAMY when one considers the weapons systems employed.
Looking to the future, the UK will, on current plans, regain a carrier borne capability within the next six years as JSF begins to enter service. While numbers and organisations remain unclear, what is clear is that the UK is not out of the carrier business for good, it is merely taking a short break. This short break probably would have occurred anyway, even if Harrier had remained in service. The future looks exceedingly bright, and even if people feel concerned now about the lack of Harrier, in reality at the end of the decade the UK will have put fixed wing naval aviation firmly back on the map as a core part of UK defence capabilities for decades to come.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Scrapping the ARK ROYAL - a sad end, but a proper one...

On Monday 10 September the MOD confirmed what had long been the most likely outcome for the future of HMS ARK ROYAL. She will be towed to Turkey in 2013 and recycled into new use, in the same manner as her sister ship HMS INVINCIBLE. At the same time the MOD has announced its intention to offer up HMS ILLUSTRIOUS for preservation by interested parties once she leaves service in 2015.

There has been something of a hue and cry about this in the media, mainly railing against the notion that ARK ROYAL is to be scrapped and not sunk as a reef, or otherwise preserved. Some commentators are linking the scrapping of the vessel to the decline of the Royal Navy, and see it as a sad end to UK carrier airpower. In reality all that is occurring is that ARK ROYAL is going three years earlier than planned, while ILLUSTRIOUS is extended by three years. Nothing else has changed in terms of hull disposal policy – these dates have been set in stone for years.

In reality the decision to scrap ARK ROYAL was all but inevitable. When one considers the thousands of ships built for the Royal Navy over the last century, and how few remain afloat in a preserved condition, there was little doubt about her final end. Some have asked why not scrap her in the UK, and give work to British yards. While a laudable idea in theory, in reality there is very little ship recycling going on in the UK – HMS INTREPID was done in Liverpool some years ago, but when one considers the huge controversy over the US ‘ghost fleet’ that would have been recycled in Hartlepool, it is clear that scrapping vessels in the UK is more effort than economically worth. The fight against environmentalists, and Daily Mail style headlines implying that ship breaking could cause cancer or increase illegal immigration means few companies can make money out of it. When one drives into Portsmouth now the once legendary Pounds Ship breakers, which was usually home to a veritable flotilla of ex warships and submarines is now a shadow of its former self.

The decision to move ARK ROYAL to Turkey for scrapping is probably the best outcome. The work can be done quickly and efficiently and will generate maximum return for the taxpayer, and perhaps more importantly the most limited cost and liability. While the idea of using ARK ROYAL as a diving wreck or heliport seemed tempting, the MOD may have found such options either lacking in credible long term finance – begging the question as to what happens next to the hull. Imagine if ARK ROYAL had become a heliport in London, and the operation had then gone bust. The final destination of the former hull may have been of more concern to the MOD, which is unlikely to welcome an ex carrier hull floating to parts unknown. Similarly preparing the ship for becoming a diving reef could expose the MOD to unwanted costs, and liability as the vessel was prepared to be sunk. Scrapping her provided the most cost effective and guaranteed method of disposal, without leaving a nasty bill or liability for the taxpayer.

ARK ROYAL returning home (Copyright

Museum Ships?                                                                                 

The idea of offering up HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to conservation groups is intriguing, but could pose a real challenge. Humphrey loves museum ships, and has spent many happy holidays, particularly in the US visiting some of the world’s most famous preserved warships. But, he remains immensely cynical that an aircraft carrier museum would work in the UK.

If ILLUSTRIOUS were to be preserved, the question is, where would she go? Relatively few ports have room for a 22,000 tonne aircraft carrier, and even fewer have berths where she can be safely left for the long haul without interfering with marine traffic. Those that do are often not in natural tourist destinations, and no matter how much interest there may initially be, it is hard to see the venture making sufficient profit in the long haul.

This is the major problem that the UK has with its maritime heritage. Those private museum ships, such as HMS CAVALIER or HMS PLYMOUTH have long struggled to make sufficient funding to stay afloat. HMS CAVALIER took nearly thirty years to find a long term home, and was nearly scrapped on several occasions. PLYMOUTH is likely to go for scrap as there is no credible business plan that will keep her going. In the UK the most successful maritime collections seem to be those in Portsmouth, where the collection of VICTORY, MARY ROSE and WARRIOR (soon to be joined by CAROLINE) provide a world class collection of maritime vessels, and also HMS BELFAST. The former Royal Yacht Britannia is also doing reasonably well too.

Those who would seek to run ILLUSTRIOUS as a museum need to consider many challenges – how to turn an operational warship into a profit making museum which is safe to run, and which costs the bare minimum to run. Warships are not designed as museums, and require major work to run safely, and facilitate visitor access. When one considers the rabbit warren of a CVS hull, and even the basic challenge of getting a steady stream of visitors onto the Island and Bridge without causing major traffic jams, it does seem a real challenge.

Based on the USS INTREPID museum, then the ILLUSTRIOUS museum would probably only have the Island, hanger, ops room, flight deck and some messing open to visitors, with the possibility of the engine rooms too, plus ancillary spaces along  the way. What this means is that most of the ship won’t actually be open to visitors or useable, but it would require some form of maintenance to keep running. There would be a challenge to build a credible aviation museum too, which would enable some aircraft to be parked in the hanger or on the flight deck.

Without wanting to sound too depressing, but it is hard to see how such a museum ship will make sufficient money to cover their costs and the long term challenges of keeping a hull in the water for the indefinite future. One only has to look at the issues surrounding much of the so-called USN ‘museum fleet’ such as the USS OLYMPIA or the USS TEXAS to see that decades old warships require major work to keep afloat. Whoever takes on the ILLUSTRIOUS would be committing themselves to a very long term project, which would require vast amounts of maintenance and support to keep going.

Personally this author feels the best museum to UK carrier aviation exists already at the Fleet Air Arm museum in Yeovilton. Here one can see a replica of a carrier flight deck, and also some of the world’s finest collection of historical aircraft in one location.  It is hard to see how an HMS ILLUSTRIOUS museum could top this. Indeed, Humphrey would suggest that the only way the ILLUSTRIOUS would succeed as a museum is if she was brought into the Royal Navy museum at Portsmouth as part of the historic ships collection, and used as the Cold War memorial to post war RN vessels. Space does exist in the dockyard at the Railway jetty, and this is on part of the waterfront that the RN could easily give up if it chose to reduce its footprint in the dockyard area. This way there would always be a carrier in Portsmouth, and it would provide an absolutely world class historical museum, and provide some wider financial support to keep the venture afloat. Beyond this option it is hard to see a museum ship working, and an all but inevitable sad end would surely follow.

Humphrey would be delighted to see ILLUSTRIOUS preserved, as a very young toddler he watched her sail from the Tyne to sail to the Falklands, and as a teenager he visited her on Navy days. Although he’s never been to sea with her, she remains an iconic naval vessel, and one that has many fond memories. But, his greatest fear is of watching a proud vessel slip into a terminal decline, unable to be maintained and loved, and instead ending up forlorn and abandoned on a quiet dock. In the worst case, it would arguably be far better to scrap her and let her memory live on, or sink her at sea for target practise than the indignity of decline.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

New MOD Ministers -initial thoughts on the reshuffle

So the much anticipated parliamentary reshuffle has gone through, and many MPs are probably currently wondering how they ended up in their new posts, and wondering how much extra they can claim off the taxpayer as a result.

It was somewhat surprising to see Defence getting new Ministers – for a department that so recently lost its Secretary of State, it came as genuine surprise to see MINAF (Nick Harvey) resign from the Government, and Gerald Howarth fired. Of the six ministers in the MOD, right now only three have more than one years experience in the department. At the moment, the current Ministerial line up appears to be as follows:

Secretary of State for Defence – Phillip Hammond MP

Minister for Armed Forces – Andrew Robathan MP

Minister International Security-  Currently vacant (was Gerald Howarth MP)

Minister Defence Personnel – Currently vacant (was Andrew Robathan MP)

Minister Defence Equipment – EDIT (05/09) - Currently Vacant (was Gerald Luff MP)

Under Secretary of State – Lord Astor

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – Andrew Dunne MP (role to be confirmed)

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State - Andrew Murrison MP (role to be confirmed)

If the reshuffle is complete, then it looks as if at least one Ministerial position has been lost, and its not yet clear whether the appointment of Andrew Dunne is in addition to Lord Astor, or as a replacement for him.
The staff at the MOD (both civilian and military) have a very close relationship to their Ministers, probably far closer than any other department. There is often a genuine sense of affection for the Minister people deal with (regardless of party), and people tend to take real pride in having a sense of knowing who their Minister is, and often having work sent in to their offices. Accordingly reshuffles have a tendency to get the gossip mill working overtime as people try to work out what may come next and what the implications are.
The loss of Gerald Howarth does not come as a surprise – an individual who seemed to be to the far right of the party, he was an honourable man who some would whisper seemed more comfortable being a backbencher and speaking his mind than representing the Government and speaking formally. His departure will not really hurt the department and will free him up to perhaps speak more freely on many of his bête noires.  

The really interesting move is the loss of Nick Harvey as MINAF. This post was a particularly interesting one, as it was in essence the deputy to SofS, and the individual who most frequently would be seen as the No2 Minister within  the department. For the Lib Dems to walk away from it means losing control over a particularly key Ministerial post.

In practical terms this move means the MOD as a political department is now fully under Conservative control (although this could change if a low ranking Minister is appointed tomorrow). Having delivered the SDSR, and preparing for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, one could argue that Defence now should have a relatively quiet two- three years ahead of it, with no significant policy shifts due, or major changes to the way the department does business expected. The procurement budget is balanced, and there seems to be no intent on holding any further defence reviews before the next election.

What then could have precipitated such a move? The authors very personal view is that this could be linked to the issue of Trident and Lib Dem posturing ahead of the next election. We know that a review is underway in the Cabinet Office into the Trident system and the wider provision of the deterrent. This review was conducted largely at Lib Dem behest, potentially to try and provide wider options for the really tough decisions on what to do over the replacement of the deterrent.

One conspiracy theory could be that the review may be about to conclude that it is not possible to downgrade the deterrent, nor make widespread changes. Such a move would sit uncomfortably with many party members, and Nick Harvey may have felt unable to support the results of the review.

By stepping away from the MOD, there is now time to enable the conservative party to push forward on their commitment to replacing the deterrent. The Lib Dems can step back and be far less involved in the day to day process, and perhaps open up wider opposition to its replacement. Its much easier to be opposed to something when you don’t have a Minister in the department responsible for implementing the policy. In a deeply hypothetical outlook, then come the 2015 election, it may then be politically far easier for the Lib Dems to align themselves with Labour, who themselves appear to be less than committed to the deterrent at present.

This resignation may well be for the wider sake of party politics, but it does leave a hole in the MOD. Getting new Ministers in takes time – the new arrivals today will take six months to a year to be fully comfortable with their portfolio. It will not be easy to make tough decisions on defence matters when half the Ministerial team are still brand new to their posts.
Its unlikely we’ll see any short term implications from these changes, but its worth bearing in mind the relative inexperience at the top of the department for the next few months, and the likely delays that this may cause as Ministers settle into their portfolios and bring themselves up to speed. Hopefully though there will be no longer term implications for the MOD.

EDIT - 05 Sep
Since posting last night, it has emerged that Minister for Defence Procurement (Peter Luff) has also gone, and that the Department has lost 50% of its Ministers overnight. It remains to be seen how the deck will be shuffled to assign Ministers to roles. It is slightly depressing though that the MOD is once again seeing significant role changes - at present it seems to have lost every Minister appointed to his original role, with the exception of Lord Astor since 2010.

EDIT - 05 Sep
Andrew Murrison MP has been confirmed as a Minister now. He is an ex Naval Officer, who is still a serving RNR Officer who served in Iraq. Is this the first time the MOD has had a serving RNR officer as a Minister since the war?

Monday, 3 September 2012

Withdrawing the Harrier - Part Two - the SDSR debate

In the last part of this article, Humphrey looked at the history of the Harrier force from 1998 until the start of the 2010 SDSR. It left off with the Harrier GR9 force having been reduced to just 10 FE@R, and looking vulnerable ahead of a long awaited Defence Review.

The 2010 SDSR was a review that was always expected, although many political games were played between the three parties in the run up to the election. At different times, all three major parties committed to conducting a review, although the MOD couldn’t formally do any preparatory work until the then Labour Government had confirmed it too would hold one. Its always slightly embarrassing for the Civil Service to be planning ahead for the next Government agenda, while your current Government is yet to commit to that particular course of action.

Nonetheless, in the run up to the 2010 election, its fair to say a lot of preparatory ‘think tanking’ was done in various quarters, considering some of the likely exam questions that would crop up in a Defence Review. This author remembers discussing with senior officers the need to begin slowly preparing the groundwork for a Defence Review as early as 2008 – this wasn’t a political statement, more an acceptance that whoever won the election would want to review Defence. By the time Liam Fox arrived at the MOD in May 2010, a lot of work had gone into establishing the underpinning work that would later inform the SDSR.  

The SDSR provided the first chance in 12 years to review where the UK was heading, and to try to take stock of the massively overheated equipment programme. From the outset it was clear that cuts would be required to try and return the funding into a balanced position, and that everything was up for grabs.

 Humphrey was deployed on OP HERRICK at the time, so had no involvement in the SDSR at all. Talking to friends who were involved, it was clear that it was a challenging time, as the MOD had to try to put together a force structure which would meet the stated goals of the National Security Strategy, achieved military success in Afghanistan and met the various defence outputs that together formed the Military Tasks for the MOD.

This was not an easy task. On the one hand, planners were being required to sort out a budget which had to fund a disproportionately large fighting force until 2015, meaning manpower cuts, which was where real savings could be made, could not occur in  large numbers until this point. They then had to consider how to fund a military that would need at least four – five years to recover from OP HERRICK and associated tasks in the 2015 – 2020 period. In theory then, by 2020 the military would need to be operating a force capable of conducting a full range of contingency operations. In broad brush terms, the challenge the planners had looked something like this.

Time Frame
Sustain Operation HERRICK (10,000 ground troops) as Defence Main Effort, and recover to UK. Exceptionally limited other capability.
Cannot easily reduce size of Army and supporting forces without affecting HERRICK.
Reorganise from Op HERRICK, regenerate forces and deliver limited expeditionary capability.
Implement SDSR2015 findings.
Window to deliver major reduction in force levels without impacting on operational output.
Regenerated forces capable of delivering full range of Military Tasks.
Implement SDSR2020 findings.
Harder to put redundancies through as UK able to conduct discretionary ops again.
Having identified the three main time periods, each of which had very different requirements, planners had to consider how to build a force that could meet the likely military tasks. In broad brush terms this meant build a range of force packages which could produce a different series of outputs. If you look at the SDSR, then the outputs stated – such as maintaining a 30,000 strong three brigade force in the field for six months, through to long term sustainment of 10,000 troops on discretionary operations is a direct reflection of the force packages considered. In other words, all the equipment in use today is ascribed to be able to deliver to part of the force packages set out in the SDSR. Everything has a place, no matter how hard it may be to see where it is at times!

While the argument over what the force should look like was going on, another series of debates was occurring over what was affordable, both as in service equipment and as new equipment. It was very clear that there simply wasn’t the money in the system to fund the forward programme. Part of the challenge was the combination of an overcommitted defence budget, desperately trying to fund the cost of sustaining operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the previous decade, and significant cost growth in many major programmes. This, coupled with a political unwillingness to cancel major programmes meant that the budget was completely out of kilter.

As part of these budget cuts, it was clear that there was only sufficient funding in the system for two fleets of Fast Jet aircraft to run through until 2020. At the time the UK planned to operate the Typhoon, Tornado GR4 bomber and the Harrier GR9 until the 2019-2024 timeframe.

The problem with running FJ fleets is that no matter how many airframes you reduce in front line service, there will always be costs that cannot easily be saved. You have to have support contracts, you need to have maintenance support, you need a training pipeline which provides fitters, engineers, pilots, and all the other personnel needed to make an aircraft fly. You need to run dozens of training courses across multiple ground schools in the various pieces of ordnance, technology, engines and kit and all this comes at a significant cost. You cannot turn this off while the aircraft remains in service, so reductions in FJ are only useful if they come with a wider reduction in billing.

For the MOD, it was clear that the only way to meet the very large sums required was to take an entire fleet of aircraft out of service, and enjoy the costs of fleet reduction, reduced training, manpower, real estate and so on. 

Tornado GR4 (Copyright Wikipedia)

The case for Tornado.
It seems to be clear that both Tornado and Harrier were considered for possible deletion. Ultimately, the decision was taken to retain the Tornado over the Harrier force. But why?

At its simplest the case for Tornado was far more credible than Harrier. The Tornado force of some 140 airframes had been in service for some 30 years by this point, although as with Harrier, the fleet had been significantly upgraded. It seems that about 60-70 aircraft (Humphrey can’t find the exact figures) were attributed as FE@R.  The aircraft were scheduled to remain in service until 2024 (or thereabouts) providing the UK with a longer term strike capability than Harrier, which was due to go in about 2016-2018.

The fleet was cleared to carry a much wider range of munitions than the Harrier force, including ALARM, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles, which provided the UK with a credible weapons package. The funding for the Harrier to carry such missiles had never been approved, meaning that it had a theoretical capability only.

By contrast the Harrier was leaving service sooner than the Tornado, and far less airframes were available. It would take time and money to bring the Harrier fleet back up to readiness for the various tasks already ascribed to the Tornado fleet. Any deletion of the aircraft fleet would probably need to be done by the end of the financial year, meaning if it were withdrawn, then the UK would at a stroke lose its ability to deploy ALARM, Brimstone and Storm Shadow.  Losing a highly capable cruise missile platform, and exceptionally useful 'wild weasel' and anti-tank platform would have been far more damaging to the long term defence argument than losing the Harrier.

The final problem was that for the Harrier force, the main rationale to remain in service was the need to sustain seedcorn capability for the carrier fleet. The decision to alter CVF to a CTOL platform removed this argument at a stroke. CTOL was so sufficiently different from STOVL that a whole new set of skills would need to be relearned – hence the deployment of pilots to train on the F18.

If CTOL was coming in to service in 2018, and the UK was committed to Afghan Operations until 2015, and then recovering from 2015-2020, then a reasonable assumption could be made that Harrier was a lower priority. After all, there would be limited likelihood of an operation requiring carriers to occur, and with the Harrier fleet committed to HERRICK, then there would be little chance of finding spare pilots to engage in sea deployments (Humphrey has heard friends claim that the RN was into single figures for fully qualified carrier pilots by the end of the Harriers life).

Tornado by contrast was committed to Op HERRICK (some 12 aircraft by that point were in Kandahar) and had no programmed successor entering service before 2020. The Harrier fleet would need to be assigned to replace Tornado, and given the paucity of pilots, and wider resource for Harrier, this would mean making it a single deployment.

In other words, had the decision been taken to delete Tornado, then Harrier would have had to have gone back to Afghanistan, to replace the air cover lost by removing Tornado. A fleet barely half the size of the GR4 fleet would have been probably broken trying to sustain 12 aircraft, particularly when deploying just six airframes caused problems during its previous deployment.

With the likelihood that all the Harrier force would have been assigned to Op HERRICK, or supporting maintaining a token contingent capability elsewhere, then the likelihood of seeing a carrier deployment would have been slimmer than ever. It is essential to understand that had Harrier been kept in the SDSR, then the Royal Navy would still not be doing any fixed wing carrier flying today.

Could the RN have funded the Harrier alone though? Its often suggested  that the RN should regain control of its fighter squadrons and use the money to fund its force directly. A great argument in theory, which ignores a salient fact. The RN over the last 14 years could have made sacrifices to find the funding – under older arrangements it could have put forward plans to sacrifice other capabilities directly to fund the Harrier. It chose not to do so, preferring instead to try to find savings through joint work.

Latterly, as procurement budgets got tied into a very complicated mixed of ‘capability areas’ it could have found commensurate savings elsewhere in the budget to enable funding to be found to run on Harrier. This would have been complex – needing the RN to find sufficient funding to enable resources to run front line squadrons plus a training pipeline, plus all the various elements that supported keeping aircraft flying. This isn’t to say it couldn’t have been done, but it would have needed work to find funding cuts elsewhere which would generate sufficient savings to keep Harrier alive.

Again, it is telling that despite the many reviews of the last 14 years, the RN has chosen to put other capabilities ahead of funding the Fleet Air Arm. No matter how often people may cry foul about the RAF, the fact the RN was unwilling, or unable to find the money should not be forgotten either.

The great hope of the Fleet Air Arm. JSF and CVF
Look – No Carriers!
The other problem was that the Royal Navy would probably not have had any aircraft carriers to fly the Harriers off anyway. The original disposal plan for the Invincible class saw the first going in 2010, followed by ILLUSTRIOUS in 2012, and finally ARK ROYAL in 2015, while OCEAN ran on. At this point  CVF would have been working up and theoretically embarking harriers in lieu of JSF.

In reality the decision to delay CVF in an earlier planning round meant that conversion to CTOL became feasible. Had the original timelines been adhered to, then QUEEN ELIZABETH would have been entering final stages of construction as the SDSR came along, and could have borne Harriers. The RN decision to delay CVF in the 2008-2009 period meant CTOL conversion became feasible, and a carrier gap became reality.

The only difference between pre and post SDSR for the RN carrier fleet was losing HMS ARK ROYAL slightly early. The RN was always going to be a single carrier fleet by 2012. More importantly it is often forgotten that HMS OCEAN has always been due a two year refit in the period 2012-2014.

However you look at it, even if SDSR had kept Harrier, then the sole UK carrier in service, most likely ARK ROYAL would probably have been required to re-role into an LPH anyway to cover for HMS OCEAN. In other words, if SDSR had kept Harrier, the RN would still not have a fixed wing carrier capability right now. It would instead be focused on delivering an LPH capability, which if anything has been shown by recent operations to be of more value to the UK than a carrier.

The key message to take away is that SDSR was effectively irrelevant to the future of the RN fixed wing flying. The decisions taken in earlier spending rounds had sealed the fate of Harrier. The reduction in readiness, and the decision to delay CVF entry to service meant the RN would have struggled to send a carrier to sea.
So, by 2015 the RN would have reduced to a single carrier (HMS OCEAN), unable to operate Harrier aircraft. With HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH not due in till 2016 at the earliest, even then configured as an LPH, a Harrier OSD of 2018 and with the CVF conversion to CTOL predicted to take longer, it’s clear that even if Harrier had been run on to 2018, the UK would have had a capability gap. In realistic terms, it’s hard to see the UK having the capability, even under pre SDSR plans, to put a credible harrier force to sea beyond 2012. Beyond this point the focus shifts to providing LPH capability, to keep the amphibious task group skills alive, as a higher priority than running old jets on.

To this author, a convenient ‘rewrite of history’ has occurred over the Harrier. Its very easy to sit and make out that the RNs beloved fixed wing aviation capability was destroyed in SDSR, enabling sailors to sit in bars and lambast RAF deviousness. In this narrative the RN would right now be putting mighty warships to sea armed to the teeth with the GR9, and awaiting the arrival of CVF and its bright future.

Such a narrative is utter rubbish. At best the most the RN could have hoped for between 2012 and 2018 was the occasional deployment of a small contingent of RAF aircraft to try and keep fixed wing skills alive. This would have been fleeting and dependent on other tasking not needing the aircraft for shore based work. If Harrier had been kept on from SDSR, then it would have been deployed on HERRICK, and its likely that a ‘delete ARK ROYAL’ option may well have been considered anyway, as the reality of limited carrier operations became clear.

This authors personal view is that in the eyes of the RN, securing the future capability was a more important battleground than retaining a hugely limited present capability. Hence the realisation that if CVF was secure, actually retention of Harrier was less important to fund as long as a successor was confirmed. In the case of CVF, the CTOL option gave the RN a good opportunity to build a force package which enabled for deletions of high profile capabilities which actually offered little in the way of deployability, such as ARK ROYAL and the supporting AORs, and instead focus resources on two areas – sustaining the escort fleet and the amphibious assault capability. Humphrey believes that if push came to shove, and it had been decided to save the Harrier, then the corresponding savings would probably have come from even greater reductions to the surface fleet, or the complete removal of the amphibious capability – on the grounds that there was little else left to take.

The RN made a compelling case in SDR for a power projection focused navy, which as will be seen when ELLAMY is discussed, made an incredible contribution to maritime operations in Libya. Had the RN sacrificed more ships, marines and amphibious ability to pay to keep a small number of Harriers at sea, then this would have been far more damaging to the long term national interest of the UK.

Instead, accepting a small risk in terms of deployability but continuing to build up the training pipeline and working on skills retention, has left the RN in the best situation in a bleak world.

Be in no doubt, the best case scenario would have seen the RN remain in the carrier business and also kept other assets too, but to play that game required more funding than was available. Instead the RN has managed to keep itself reasonably balanced, accepting short term limited risk versus long term capability.

That concludes part two of this series. The next part will look at the ELLAMY environment, and also move onto look at the wider post SDSR environment, and also address the myth that the RAF ‘won’ the SDSR. It will also look at what was really lost in terms of capability delivery and try to look at wider lessons for the Armed Forces.