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  • Sound And Fury
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:00 PM on Feb 06, 2009

    Ever since Sir Arthur Harris, WW2 leader of RAF Bomber Command and a keen yachtsman, remarked that the three least useful things on a boat were an umbrella, a wheelbarrow and a Naval officer, relationships between the two services have been frosty.

    But they have seldom hit the point described in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, with UK Defense Secretary John Hutton reportedly appointing an Army officer to mediate between RAF chief of staff Sir Glenn Torpy and his RN opposite number, First Sea Lord Sir Jonathon Band.

    At issue: Torpy's plan to save scarce money through the early retirement of Joint Force Harrier, which currently operates some 70 Harrier GR7s and GR9s - the latest versions of the first and (currently) only operational short take-off, vertical landing fighter - in a mixed RAF/Fleet Air Arm operation that flies from land bases and the Navy's Invincible-class carriers.

    Unlike last time, the MoD can no longer be bothered to deny that the dispute exists:

    During any planning round a number of options are considered to ensure our spending plans are matching our priorities and delivering value for money. But we do not provide a running commentary on this process. At this stage no decisions have been made.

    Thank you, Sir Humphrey.

    The Telegraph paints it as merely a turf fight, but it's not. The fact is that JFH is returning from a five-year deployment to Afghanistan - where it has been very effective - and now needs to regenerate and regain its sea-legs:  in that time, shipboard operations have stagnated. The RAF now has to make a substantial investment to deploy the Tornado GR4 to Afghanistan to replace the Harriers;  Typhoon would be next, so JFH would not be deploying again for several years.

    blog post photo

    RAF photo

    From an RAF point of view, retiring the Harrier is an easy, painless and quick money-saver. But the Navy has a different view:  the service already gave up its own Sea Harriers when JFH was formed, and retirement would leave a gap of several years before the two new carriers and the JSF arrive.

    On one level, the RN worries that the service will lose expertise in fixed-wing operations if the Harriers stop flying;  at another, they fear that if the UK gets used to operating without sea-based fighters again, there will be a move to scrap carriers, JSF and all.

    The RAF has longer-term considerations too. There have consistently been two UK JSF purchase numbers talked about:  the UK government's confirmed number is 85, but the program plan is 138. The lower number supports two carrier air wings;  the higher would maintain an operational land-based force at all times. The RAF - struggling to fund its third Typhoon batch - is understandably unenthusiastic about buying a fighter force that will be focused on sea-based missions.

    The Navy is apparently talking up a compromise with a smaller Harrier force, but the risk there is that it becomes a "self-licking lollipop", expending most of its resources in training and currency and unable to provide much military muscle.

    There are times when I am glad I am not the Minister of Defense and this is one of them.

    Doug Barrie adds:  “Closing Joint Force Harrier” and withdrawing the GR9 from service of course do not amount to the same thing. The aircraft, aircrew and ground support crew have performed well in Afghanistan for the past four years. The Ministry has suggested senior officials were misrepresented with regard to claims over withdrawing the GR9 from service as a savings measure.

    Perhaps another route being considered in air force circles would be to wind-up Joint Force Harrier and bring all of the GR9s back within the ambit of the air force. At present the JFH is ostensibly made up of two RAF and two Royal Navy squadrons, though in recent years the navy has struggled to provide adequate numbers of pilots.

    Ownership of the F-35 fleet when the Joint Combat Aircraft (as the F-35 is referred to by London) eventually enters service in the UK could also be providing added spice to any internal ministry debate.

    Tags: ar99, harrier, jsf, uk

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