Sunday, 2 September 2012

Withdrawing Harrier - taking the right decision, no matter how wrong it felt (Part 1)

Possibly the single most contentious decision of the 2010 SDSR was the move to withdraw the Harrier Gr9 from service, and take a ‘holiday’ from fixed wing flying in the RN until the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter. This decision continues to arouse strong passions among anyone with a keen interest in UK defence, and is one that is often argued on internet forums – was it right to withdraw the harrier from service? The purpose of this article is to look at the decision, and try to understand the wider rationale behind how this sort of decision is reached, before looking at what the RN would be like today if Harrier remained in service.

From the outset, Humphrey wants to make clear that he believes fixed wing naval aviation is inherently a good thing, and that when the RN recovers this capability, it will be a good day. But, his view remains that given the incredibly difficult decisions faced in the SDSR, the decision was probably the right one based on the circumstances of the time.

A Short History

The path to the deletion of the Harrier really dates back to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which reaffirmed the UK interest in procuring two large aircraft carriers in the 2012-2020 timeframe. At this time the UK operated two mutually exclusive fleets of Harriers – the GR7 variant, operated by the RAF in a CAS role, and the FA2 variant, operated by the RN in the air defence and limited attack / recce role. In total the RAF operated about 70 airframes, supporting three front line squadrons, while the RN operated just under 40 airframes supporting two front line squadrons.

The SDR put forward the proposal of pooling resources to create a single ‘Joint Force Harrier’ which would pool harrier support, training and other arrangements in a single area, nominally under the control of an RN 2*. In reality with both aircraft types not having significant commonality, and having very different roles, this move was perhaps less successful than anticipated. The intent was to build a joint force which would lead into the introduction of the JSF in the 2016 onwards timeframe. Over the next few years the RN and RAF worked to build up a joint capability, deploying increasingly capable airwings on the INVINCIBLE class, peaking at deployments of 16 Harriers (FA2 and GR7), plus ASW and AEW, albeit spread over both the carrier and the AOR.

The first signs of real problems emerged with the realisation that the FA2 and GR7 both needed significant upgrades, but that the differing fleets meant it wasn’t possible to create a single pool of parts for upgrades. The FA2 in particular suffered from a lack of hot weather performance, and would have needed upgraded engines to allow it to perform in the Arabian Gulf. At the same time the GR7 needed the funding required to upgrade the fleet to the GR9 standard, which would be used later in Afghanistan.

These challenges, coupled with a renewed challenge on the defence budget meant that something had to give. Ultimately the decision was taken to withdraw the FA2 from service in 2006, and instead transfer the entire force to the upgraded GR9 fleet standard. This decision remains controversial, with supporters of the FA2 force claiming that the RN remains unable to deliver fleet air defence, and that the GR9 would be unable to deliver this requirement.

By 2006 then the UK possessed a force of some 70 Harrier airframes in the process of being upgraded to GR9 standard. The force, spread among two RAF squadrons, and the RN Naval Strike Wing, ostensibly 800 & 801 squadrons in a single identity, plus training units. This allowed the UK to deliver three squadrons of 9 aircraft into front line service, plus supporting units.

Although on paper a reasonably large force, several issues began to emerge which reduced the ability of the RN to deploy carrier groups. The deployment to Kandahar of six airframes immediately impacted on the wider ability to deploy – the resources needed to sustain a deployment of this nature effectively tied up an entire squadron. When one considers the need to maintain a 3:1 ratio to sustain a deployed squadron, it quickly became clear that the Kandahar harrier deployment would eat up the majority of Harrier airframes, resources and personnel.

By late 2006 it looked clear that the RN would struggle to deploy a carrier group of any meaningful size. The loss of the FA2 meant a loss of indigenous air defence capability, and the GR9 fleet was fully committed to the support of OP HERRICK. It is fair to say that the RN ability to deploy a worked up carrier group with credible fixed wing capability ended in 2006 – at this stage there was simply no spare capacity on the GR9 fleet to deploy to sea for sustained periods, and also support operational commitments elsewhere. The other challenge was with the use of a single fleet, the RN was reliant on RAF personnel and equipment to support detachments at sea, and these assets were already committed to Afghanistan.

If one reviews RN deployments from 2006 onwards, there is a clear change in publicity – no more shots of carriers at sea with large airwings, instead there was a shift to maintaining ‘seedcorn’ capability – training the bare minimum number of personnel to keep a maritime fixed wing ethos alive, but accepting that for the duration of the OP HERRICK commitment, there would be no large carrier deployment using Harriers.

The Harrier fleet was committed to Afghanistan until 2009, when it was replaced by Tornado GR4. Humphrey recalls some of the debates at the time around this, and it was an interesting period. There was a strong argument to be made for the keeping of Harrier in Afghanistan for the long haul, flying the fleet into HERRICK until withdrawal and running it into the ground. This made logical sense on the one hand, as the infrastructure and spares were in place, and it was a sustainable commitment – but equally such a move would all but delete the UK ability to deploy harriers at sea (HMS ILLUSTRIOUS completed a far east deployment with just four harriers embarked in this period). This ties into the wider debate about whether the MOD was required to plan to achieve success in Afghanistan at all costs, or whether it was required to try and regenerate capability to meet contingency planning. By keeping Harrier on HERRICK, the UK would have been able to keep a sustainable long term force in theatre at little fiscal cost, but would have probably destroyed our ability to operate fixed wing aviation, and also broken the harmony cycles of personnel, leading to an ever worsening situation where people left, and those left had to work harder to cover for those who had gone before.

Sea Harrier FA2

The decision to withdraw Harrier should be seen as being as much about the need to regenerate carrier currency and regenerating contingent capability as it was about meeting the military requirements in theatre. By withdrawing Harrier, the UK was able to ease the pressure on a force which had for five years sustained continuous operations, and which was tired and in need of maintenance.

The problem facing the Harrier fleet though was the next round of Defence cuts in the 2009 period, the so-called PR08 - PR09 process. At this point the MOD was once again having budget difficulties, as it tried to balance the books, support OP HERRICK and also try to meet SDR planning assumptions, all the while knowing that a new SDR was likely regardless of who won the 2010 election. With funding at a premium, plenty of decisions had to be taken to try and achieve short term balancing, often a cost of longer term cost increases – this was because of a marked political reluctance to allow cuts to force structures, and an unwillingness at the time to reopen the debate about wider strategic goals.

One example of this cut was the decision to reduce the Harrier force to 10 Force Elements At Readiness (FE@R). In other words, to make the books balance, the Defence Board made a conscious decision to reduce the number of Harriers that could be sustained on operations to an absolute minimum (10 FE@R was essentially the lowest you could go prior to the Harrier fleet becoming unsustainable). In simple terms then, funding for the 70 strong fleet was massively reduced, and it would in future only be required to be able to generate the personnel, equipment and resources to sustain 10 airframes for contingent operations. Astute readers will note that this is more than were deployed in Afghanistan, but in reality the force reportedly struggled to sustain six airframes for five years at a point when they were funded to generate significantly more aircraft.

The decision to move to 10 FE@R was the point at which Harrier really became a fleet in jeopardy, as it was now at the lowest possible level of funding. In reality the funding ascribed to it would not provide sufficient resources to bring the fleet up to standard post HERRICK, nor generate sufficient pilots to meet contingent capability and the requirements for carrier aviation. Arguably by 2009, the sole reason Harrier was being retained was as a so-called ‘seedcorn’ capability to keep RN STOVL fixed wing flying capability alive until JSF entered service.

The aircraft was always due to exit service no later than 2018 – given the drawdowns usually start 3-5 years earlier as training courses stop running, supplies start to be reduced and the fleet prepares for its successor, then by 2009, the UK was looking at running a bare minimum capability for about another 3-5 years, prior to really cutting back. In other words, Harrier was being kept alive simply to prepare for the JSF, and little else.
Twilight Days, GR9 in Oct 2009 -
Copyright Philip Dalglish taken from

What this meant in real terms was that limited funding existed to get pilots, most of whom had not done any credible sea time since 2004, or in the newer cases possibly not even been to sea, and try to use the period 2009-2016/17 to keep a small cadre of pilots intact who could lead the transition onto the CVF and the JSF. There appears to have been no intent of returning to big airgroup operations – the days of the RN sticking 16 harriers onto a CVS went forever long before, and at best it would have been a case of the odd deployment of 3-4 airframes to keep essential skills alive. The sole rationale for Harrier was the STOVL version of JSF.

So, to end part one of this article we need to be clear that the Harrier GR9 fleet was not in a healthy state in mid 2010 when the SDSR began. We also need to be clear that the UK had lost the ability to put large carrier air groups to sea, and that Harrier was looking vulnerable as funding for it reduced.

The next part of the article will focus on why SDSR chose to chop the Harrier fleet, and address the ‘so what’ implications of this decision. It will look at the lessons of ELLAMY and ask whether the operation could have been done if Harrier were in service, and try to show that no matter what happened, the SDSR would have resulted in the loss of fixed wing carrier aviation in the UK.


  1. Allow me to rush this in before you write Part 2.

    Can you explain (or link to something where you or someone else did) the 3:1 ratio part, or how it was possible that despite having SEVENTY airframes (even if not all were at full readiness), a mere SIX deployed fighters could be such a strain. We are talking 10:1 ratios here!

  2. I would presume a combination of 3 x Front Line GR7 squadrons*, an OCU, aircraft in depth maintenance plus a proportion of the GR7s unavailable because they were being sent away for upgrade to GR9 would quickly add up to around 70. Add in a couple destroyed/seriously damaged in Afg and Robert is your Brother's Brother.

    The transition to AOC 3 Gp wasn't quite as neat you outlined - MR2 and RAF SAR were also transferred to that group, leading in effect to a 'Maritime Command' of the RAF that was a true mix of Dark and Light Blue. In a particularly nifty bit of RAF Staff Work, they 'won' the funding for this 2* led organisation and within 36 months re-organised enough to force the RN out and replace them in toto with a pure Light Blue force organisation. It is shit like that that a) make the RN look stupid and b) make us not trust them!

    I have to say I'm very impressed that you are allowing comments on this post......

    *Remember, to produce a Sqn with 9 a/c ready you probably need 11 or so on the Sqn's books to allow for aircraft rotation and Sqn level maintenance.

    1. Further to ATGs comments - firstly, good point on the MR2/SAR transfer - I forgot about that. It was a very short lived experiment, and you are right in pointing out that it wasn't the RAFs finest hour.
      For Arch - the points to remember are that for any nation (and this isnt a case of the UK being useless), the majority of a fighter fleet will never be deployed at one time.
      From the fleet of 70 aircraft, we ran 3 x front line squadrons, initially of 12, and then 9 aircraft. There was an OCU of 12-15 aircraft and various others on trials establishments. So, roughly 40 aircraft were on the 'front line'. The remainder were allocated to either maintenance, storage, upgrades or other work. Part of the challenge is to even out airframe usage, so that you dont find your aircraft all running out of hours at once. The aim is to spread airframe use around a bit, so you have a long term fleet.
      More broadly, at the time, to sustain a det of 6 aircraft would need 3 rotations per year, each doing 4 month tours. So thats three sets of pilots, maintainers, ground crew and so on. When you realise you need more pilots than airframes to allow sleep and rest, you quickly realise that to sustain a single sub sqns worth of deployment, you need a sqns worth of crew to do it.
      Rotate that three times per year, and suddenly you've tied up the entire harrier force to deployment in Afghanistan in one year. If you want to put more than 6 into Afghanistan then watch as you run out of the ability to sustain that beyond a short haul.

  3. *Father's Brother. I thought that looked wrong when I wrote it!

  4. I think it was a tragic shame that Harrier got the chop. However it was the best of a bad set of decisions facing the MOD.
    As I understand it they were faced with either chopping the Tornado, or Harrier and Tornado had more useful capabilities.

    I'm quietly hopeful that in a few years that the F-35B will bring about a regeneration of RN fixed wing aviation.

    1. Quite correct - the Tornado issue will be touched on in the next part.

    2. I remember you mentioning it elsewhere.
      IMVHO if we had to lose one of them (and I'd have preferred to keep both) than Tornado wins.

      I look forward to reading the next part.

  5. Very interesting Sir Humphrey. I will wait for part two before commenting.

  6. Interesting read and a good touch of reality to the Harrier crowd. Though FA2 was more at risk than you amentioned - wasn't just the engine issue - at the time of the 2006 decision.

    Looking forward to the next installment, though undoubtedly it'll attract some silly comments.

  7. As Walter from the Dude said

    'You are entering a world of pain'

  8. Fascinating insight. Certainly those low numbers (4 aircraft) to sustain capability does look like vanity flying. However, a concern for me now is that the JSF fleet from the new carriers is slated as 12 aircraft. Given that the Invincible/Illustrious/Indomitable "Through Deck Cruisers" (...) in the end were capable of carrying this number (or near it?), one wonders if the new carriers were over-sized in their design or whether we intend ultimately to fly the proposed 40 craft from them.

    I can't help but read the sub-text to this article: Operation Herrick seems to have cost us our carrier fleet and, dare I say it, our navy. The price we pay for fighting other people's wars appears to be the sacrifice of our own capability.

  9. Dear on dear Sir Hunphrey, I would not like to be at your next lodge meeting if Sharkey Ward turns up as a guest!

    You cannot possibly argue that having no organic air power over at least a 10 year period is a good thing. The skills for the F35 will have to be built up from scratch as those with the experience are likely to be at the 19th hole of the golf club by the time we ever see a British fixed wing aircraft at sea.

    Care to explain the great Harrier give away to the US recently? They seem to think the aircraft was far from the scrap heap.

    Sharkey's views on the role of the RAF do ring true, the Typhoon Tranche Three scandal is a case in point. As it appears Typhoon Tranche One is not up to the job, the RAF now needs 'Three'

    I know the well worn argument for keeping BAE shareholders in the gravy but this is becoming a bit of an expensive joke don't you think?

    A fraction of the of the money lavished on the Typhoon, could easily have kept the Harriers flaying. The Spanish recently (2010) signed an upgrade contact with EADS for their AV 8B's

  10. Can't see any logical explanation as to why the Spanish and Italians can still operate carrier capable a/c with smaller budgets where we cannot, except politics and incompetence of course.

    The whole episode highlights to me the need for seperate FAA squadrons with budgets directly from the RN.

    Also, I would like to know if the Tornado had been scrapped, could the money have been found to upgrade the Typhoon earlier?

  11. It is interesting that you characterise, probably correctly, that the removal of Harrier was the most contentious decision to come out of the SDSR instead of the loss of Nimrod, Sentinel, significant reduction in manpower etc all whilst trying to convince everyone there would be no strategic shrinkage.

    By moving to the JOINT force concept in preparation for the JOINT combat aircraft in a JOINT training and support function it allowed the creation of a homogeneous force that can operate either at sea or land, thus removing the distinction between the two.

    Operating from CVF with JCA is expressly designed to be no different than operating from Kandahar.

    This is the whole point of it, removal of differences through technology, organisation and logistics will then force the big question to be asked.

    That big question is...

    Why in the context of a reducing defence vote and increasing defence cost base do I as a nation need two providers of the same capability.

    It is basic organisational common sense to reduce duplication and done the world over.

    If there are differences between those two providers who provide near identical outputs they had better have a bloody good answer because the simple and hard nosed reality is we can't avoid empires built on slivers of 'but we are different'

  12. 'Care to explain the great Harrier give away to the US recently?'

    'Give away', why what's the going rate for 2nd hand Harriers?

    1. You tell me, but I'm sure the US would pay whatever the obsequious mandarins at the MOD think they can shift the stock at.

    2. Well (assuming it's the same Anonymous) you seem to know, otherwise you wouldn't be calling it a 'give away'.

      Exactly an agreement a price both parties are happy with, not sure where all this talk of a 'giveaway' comes from.

    3. Same anonymous - according to Reuters the asking price was $180 million for 72.

      I assumed anyone interested could use google. Again using google - lazy I know - one Eurofighter cost 90 million Euro, for a new one.

      But of course we can't afford the Harriers, mmmm

    4. If defence matters where so simple eh...?

    5. Seems reasonably simple to me. Keep some form of fixed wing air cover at sea till the new carriers are ready.

      Won't cost a vast amount and will retain skills etc. The Harrier is one of the very few world beating inventions that Britain has ever come up with - unlike the Eurofighter that is basically a twin engined F16

      BAE sets the agenda on what the UK CAN buy, they are not interested in developing the Harrier, so off into the sunset it goes.

      The MOD are masters at proving Black = White if it so suits them. Always note that politicians are rarely interested in the detail of defence issues, To them it's just a budget meeting.

      The mandarins say we can't do it minister in true Sir Humphrey style and as they are the experts, who is going to question that?

  13. Aye, ok chief. I'll leave you to it...

  14. This story reminds me of the A-10. How many times did they pull it and had to bring them back?
    If it works, KEEP IT! (specially when it is relatively cheap to keep them)