Coffee House

Britain’s threadbare defence establishment

10 November 2010

A mutiny is brewing. Several former admirals, led by Lord West, have written a seething
letter to the Times (£), condemning the decision to decommission the Harrier and Ark Royal. Their argument is
that the Harrier is versatile and cheap and that the Falklands are more vulnerable without it:

‘In respect of Afghanistan: Harrier could still use Kandahar runway if half of it were blocked by Taleban action; can use any make-shift landing site; has a response time of less than
10 minutes, as against 30; performs better in hot weather; requires fewer ground crew; and has better availability.

Harrier can deliver close air support of ground forces anywhere from the existing carriers; can destroy surface units with Maverick, rockets and smart bombs; has nearly twice as many
airframes provided with precision-guided ground attack capability; will not require a further £1.4 billion to re-engine in 2014 and can remain in service until 2023 without significant

The existing Tornado force will cost, over ten years, seven times as much to keep in service as Harrier. Was the recent exercise not supposed to save money?’

All true, but being cheap and versatile comes at a cost: the Harrier is less reliable than the Tornado. Back in 2007, the MoD commissioned the "">National Audit Office to compare the two aircraft (Harrier already doomed, it seems, by a government in
which Lord West was serving). It found that:

‘The operational availability of Harrier aircraft to frontline squadrons has been below target since 2001…Operational availability dropped further in April 2003, with the start of the
Harrier upgrade programme at BAE Systems site at Warton, but improved as work was transferred to the new depth repair hub at RAF Cottesmore. In the last half of 2006 aircraft availability has
been at or close to 100 per cent against a
revised target.’ 

Against that, the Tornado operated ‘at or near 100 per cent’ of its original target.

Aircraft and Argentina aside, Britain has pioneered a new line in deploying military hardware. We are at an impecunious juncture where we have either aircraft-less carriers or grounded jets to
defend our overseas possessions.   

PS: As I’ve written before, the Falklands are well defended in any event. Besides, if we’re
a basket case, God knows what Argentina is…

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  • El Sid

    @Rhoda – sure the F3 would lose a dogfight against a Mig-29. It was no more intended for dogfighting than a jumbo jet, although 8 missiles gives it a chance of knocking the Mig down before they got into dogfighting range.

    But there was never any chance of it getting into contact with a Mig-29 in Iraq, why send it in harm’s way when you’ve got 96 F-15C’s, 48 F-15E’s and over 200 F-16’s to do the job for you? Especially when the Iraqis never managed more than 50 combat sorties in a day, and even that soon dropped off. The coalition had way more fighter planes than was needed, even without the F3’s. But it looked good politically to have them there.

    We could have given them new IFF if we really wanted, it happened for the Buccaneers, but it just wasn’t worth it for the F3’s. They got new IFF after GW1, and were allowed further forward during GW2.

    Nothing wrong with the Defiant, another plane that was excellent at its intended job, shooting down bombers. It had more kills during the Blitz than any other type, but you wouldn’t want to send it against 109’s.

    FTR most of the points in this article have been discussed over at with Sharkey Ward of Falklands fame chipping in.

    On response times – a recent question in the House established that both Harrier and Tornado had similar reaction time targets, and this Jane’s article says the Tornados are getting airborne within 6 minutes and can be on station within 25 minutes. Given that the Harriers are slower in the air, I find it hard to believe that the Harriers were getting where they needed to be, any quicker.

    The damaged runway aspect can be overstated – West relies on Kandahar being damaged just 50%, rather than 80% or whatever. He also assumes that insurgents go for the runway rather than the aircraft shelters or fuel dump. The US Navy Undersecretary has suggested recently that the whole idea of austere forward bases for Harriers may become untenable as insurgents gain access to better weapons. Drones are the long-term solution for air support from forward positions – already our Reapers are dropping as many bombs/missiles as the Tornados in Afghanistan, although they can’t strafe and can’t deter the bad guys with a simple flypast.

    A recent question in the Lords has established that Harriers needed 11 ground crew each in Afghanistan, the Tornados 12-13, but the Tornado was getting 12% better availability so the ground crew needed per hours flown was similar.

    The figures of £7.5bn to keep Tornado flying and £1.1bn for Harrier appear to come from the MoD audit leaked to the Times in May, but we still don’t have full details. It’s not surprising though that the Tornado number comes out so much bigger, since pre-SDSR we were talking about 45 Harriers retiring within the next 7 years, versus 140 Tornado GR4’s (and the handful of remaining F3’s that shared eg the engine maintenance contract) that would be retired within 15 years. Adjust for the size of the fleets and the cost/year comes out about the same – and that’s without the flexibility that comes from the greater Tornado fleet in terms of cannibalising for spares and spreading wear across the fleet. And of course if you retire the Harriers you also get cost savings from retiring Ark Royal, and some escort ships.

    Comparison between the two types is moot though – the effect of the SDSR is to say that we’re getting rid of all our Cold War aircraft ASAP, except for what’s needed to support the troops in Afghanistan until ?2015. There are good strategic reasons for keeping a squadron of Harriers to retain skills in the FAA, but AIUI our current fleet of Harriers would be worn out by another 5 years in Afghanistan.The Tornado is the only option for air support there – although Harriers plus buying more Reapers might be an option?

  • former naval person

    dear oh dear.

  • Yam Yam

    I suppose it doesn’t help that the Harrier has only one engine whilst the Tornado had two.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    El Sid, your appreciation of the F3 is accurate. But you can’t always pick and choose your opponent, and the F3 might have had a hard time against Mig-29 in Iraq. Isn’t that why they weren’t tasked to go north? IFF? Why not the same as the GR1?

    Looks to me like the Boulton-Paul Defiant of the 90s. Intercept only, no air superiority.

  • AndyinBrum

    The tonkers carry cruise missiles, harriers don’t. Tonkers have longer legs & Argentina have nothing to stop them, Typhon is a 4th generation Fighter, it’s manoeuvrability, stealthiness & computing systems means 3 could probably hold off the majority of the Argentinian airforce.

    The subs all have tomahawks and are near impossible to find, so can strike Argentina from wherever they feel like.


    The states owes us big time for Iraq & Afghanistan I don’t think they’d sit on the fence anywhere near as much this time

  • Victor Southern

    I am on the side of Yank against Nicholas. If the Americans came in on our side against an Argentinian invasion we could rely upon them to bomb the islands from 30,000 feet. That is sufficient deterrent.


    El Sid, my thanks for that correction.

  • El Sid


    British Tornadoes have been in Afghanistan since last year :

    German ones have been there for a couple of years now.

    The F3 never suffered from lack of range, that was one of its strong points. However in 1991 it had the wrong sort of IFF, and there was no real need to risk it on the front lines when the US had queues of F-15’s lining up to go against the remains of the Iraqi air force.

    Dogfighting was never what the F3 was intended for, but arguably it was the best plane in the world for the job it was built for – loitering for hours over the Norwegian Sea with a big load of missiles, waiting for Russian bombers and cruise missiles to attack Britain during the Cold War. It didn’t need dogfighting ability, it just needed endurance. So that’s what it was given – the RB199 engine was optimised for that task, and the airframe of the mud-mover version was quite adequate for the job. We just didn’t really need something as fancy as the F-15 back in the early 1980s.

    Sure, the interceptor mission disappeared with the end of the Cold War, but that’s an argument about how things change over the lifetime of a weapon system, and how there’s something to be said for having the most flexible systems we can.

  • HO Lim-peng

    The Falklands are certainly better defended than in 1982, and hopefully, the intelligence is better as well. If, though, Mount Pleasant air base, and/or its vestigial Typhoon force, were to be taken out by Argentine special forces, the islands would, in the absence of an RN fixed-wing carrier, become indefensible. Diplomatic developments in South America in recent years mean that none of Argentina’s neighbours would permit the use of their airfields by British military planes in the event of a confict over the Falklands. Also, the planned early decommissioning of the Harrier force, which has astonished, and dismayed, our allies, will have a hugely disproportionate effect upon the RN, at the very time when so many other nations (China, Russia, Japan,South Korea,Italy, Spain, Australia), seeing the versatility and value, of offshore air power,are building up their carrier forces. A truly disastrous decision which I fear will have very serious consequences.

  • yank

    Now, there’s a solution to all your troubles down in The Falklands.

    Grease up the tubes, and light up the wasteland Antarctic skies down there with one of HM’s sub-launched nukes.

    “In the interests of safety and full compliance with imperatives for operational surety, our modernization program requires we engage in actual BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH….”

    Be sure to take some nice, sharp digital photographs, and post them up on the Argies’ Facebook page (might as well cross-post them to the mullahs’ page while you’re at it).

    Sure, the usuals will squawk and fuss, and we’ll have months and years of their blather, but any dozens of people will quietly approach for a firm handshake.

    That’s the kind of thing limeys used to do, back when we had real limeys about. 😉

    Sweet baby Jesus and the orphans… you’d beat down the whole shrieking socialist lot with one kaboom: the global warmingists, the Brussels twits, the UN and NWO bunch, the save the whales crowd, all of ’em. And if you took up a collection, you’d probably make money off the show.

    Why can’t things be just this easy ?

  • veryoldseadog

    The horny old remark about the number of admirals has come up again. The RN recruitment web describes officers as the managers of the Naval Service. Thats what admirals are, senior managers. What do you think they should be called? The Navy may be small but planning and operating modern warships with all their complexity reuires high calibre personnel. Why shouldn,t they be called admirals.

  • Marcher Baron

    “[T]he Falklands are well defended in any event.” By 4 Typhoons, about 500 troops and 2 nuclear subs? I’d hardly call that “well defended”. Reinforcements are a long way away and I doubt we have the logistical capability to move troops and materiel at short notice. It’s the 30s all over again.


    The GR1 variant of the Tornado may well have its good points but the F3 (fighter) version remains the best possible justification for buying off the shelf American aircraft.

    I stand to be corrected but neither Tornado variant is being used in Afghan and in the first Gulf War when the GR1 was used with J7 bombs for runway destruction on Iraqi airfields, it had to be accompanied by US F15s as the Tornado F3s had insufficient range capability. In short the F3 was, is and always will be a fucking awful aircraft. It did, however, enable Mrs T to make a great deal of money for her beloved son with the F3 sale to the Saudis.

    My most fervent hope is that his treasonable “Defence Review” with its Armed Forces cuts and re-allocation to the African Dictator Shopping Fund, does really come home to most embarrasingly bite Cameron in the arse in the Falklands or elsewhere. That might just wake up even the Stupid Party.

  • yank

    Oh you’ll be back to read it, Lord Nicholas, you can’t help yourself!

    Be interested to hear your analysis of this issue, however, if you can put aside the bitter bile, and whether you’ll be the first calling for the “ugly Americans” to bail you out if foolish Brit governance brings on another war in the S. Atlantic.

  • TrevorsDen

    ‘if we kept a few harriers …’

    The point is Labour reduced the harrier force and we do not have enough to make a viable force. You need squadrons in operations and training and rest and conversion units as well. Its not a question of just keeping 6 or 7.

    Plus the Tornado has a reconnaissance role.

    We cannot afford both Harrier and Tornado – leaving aside cuts we have a defence budget overcommitted to the tune of £38 billion.

    We are where we are because of the former administration and its ‘former’ chiefs who are now crying over spilt milk. Strapworld should realise that its the very mistakes of these former chiefs that leave us this problem.

    Our defences are a mess all because of Labour incompetence.

  • Nicholas

    Your last post sounds almost hopeful yank. Careful, you might just give too much of your Anglophobia away in your preachy, patronising, pompous “I’m the only one who can see it” lecturing. Better stick to thinking you can “twist tails” (ha ha!) and raging against the figureheads who made you so bitter.

    PS I’m not coming back to this thread so any ugly American parting shots (I know you like to have the last word) will whistle through thin air.

  • dorothy wilson

    Shouldn’t someone point out to Lord West the hypocrisy of his attitude. After all, he was a member of the Labour government that left the MoD with a black hole of some £38bn in his budget. And didn’t that government sign contracts for defence equipment knowing there was no money to pay for it?

  • Nick

    Six Trafalgar class subs in operation, one Astute class sub and three under construction. Seems a fairly formidable submarine defence to me.

  • yank

    When the Argies strike again, they will again move quickly onto the islands, and overwhelm ground opposition. They will undoubtedly have the support of one or more other SA nations, including their air forces.

    Nuclear submarines matter naught. No blockade can be made tight enough, because the civilians must be fed there. Firstly, the Argies will militarily resupply by air, and then over the months of negotiation, during which it will become clear that Argie Coalition air supremacy, nee dominance, cannot be overcome, they eventually will resupply by ship, and those islands will be permanently renamed Las Malvinas.

    Just need the right mix of SA warlords to come together… and another few rounds of foolish Brit governance … and it’s a done deal.

  • David Blackburn

    Yank, no it doesn’t… the key is the downwards revision of the target for Harrier – great aircraft though it was, it isn’t as good as Tornado (I can’t asnwer for Typhoon). However, I feel that ‘The Engineer’ makes the killer point for me.

  • Norman Dee

    I think that Afghanistan and the Falklands could fade into the background a little the way things are going, the Armed Forces are heading into disarray, we have a islamic threat from our own citizens, and the Communists/Labour party have sent out their junior battalion to attack London today, with more to come they say gleefully.
    But should we worry, we have the French behind us now.

  • El Sid

    I’ve posted much of this elsewhere, but I might as well repeat myself :

    It’s very much about fighting today’s war, it doesn’t really talk about future threats, nor about the good points of Tornado like its bomb load, range and ability to use sexy toys like Storm Shadow, dual-mode Brimstone and RAPTOR.

    Also it’s interesting to note this
    “Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of each flight hour of the (a) Tornado GR4, (b) Typhoon F2, (c) Harrier GR7, (d) Tornado F3 and (e) Harrier GR9. [13568]

    Peter Luff: The estimated average full cost per funded flying hour is provided in the following table:

    Aircraft Cost, financial year 2010-11 (£/hour)
    £35,000 Tornado GR4
    £37,000 Harrier GR7/GR9
    £43,000 Tornado F3
    £70,000 Typhoon FGR4 (previously known as F2)

    These figures include forward and depth servicing, fuel costs, crew costs, training costs, cost of capital charge, depreciation and amortisation. The Typhoon cost per flying hour reflects the build up of the fleet with smaller numbers of aircraft currently in service; this cost is expected to reduce significantly over the in-service life of the aircraft.”

    (I’ve rearranged the table a bit to make it more readable)

    Note that includes capitalisation of capital costs, so the actual cash costs will be much lower and could be quite different. In fact this seems to be the thrust of the generals’ arguments, the biggie is this £1.4bn re-engining of the Tornados in ?2013, a one-off cost which seems to be what tips the generals in favour of the Harriers on cost grounds.

    @The Engineer – we’re keeping the mud-moving Tornados, which aren’t much better than mud-moving Harriers for air defence. But that’s not what is down in the Falklands, we’ve currently got a flight of 4xTyphoon, which is our current front-line fighter.

    You wouldn’t use nukes on Argentina – couple of sub-launched Tomahawks on the BA water pumping stations would make a point, or go after power stations etc.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    You cannot prove anything with readiness figures which may easily be adapted to show whatever you like. The way to get readiness up is to not fly the aircraft, or give them a light set of tasks. The way to get it down is to keep them short of spares to save money. When the carrier is sailing with no aircraft, will the readiness be 0% or 100% of sod all? You choose.

    Oh, the Falklands are only really protected by one airfield. That is the exposure, that the very capable fighters will be vulnerable in terms of their bases. One hopes adequate plans are in place.

  • The Engineer

    During the last ‘turbulence’ in the South Atlantic, the Harriers on Ark Royal, Invincible etc., were FRS1 or FA2 Sea Harriers which were interceptors (designed to defend the fleet against enemy aircraft.
    Since the cancellation of Sea Harriers, the aircraft carriers have been GR7 or GR9 (ground attack) versions designed to support ground forces.
    It is not clear which version of the Tornado MRCA is being retained (either in general or in the Falklands) but as they were a replacement for the Phantom F4 it seems likely that they will have an air defence capability exceeding that of carrier-borne ground attack Harriers.

  • Norman Dee

    It would be interesting to know if any of the 6 people who posted before me has any knowledge of the military at all, or just another bunch of armchair pilots.

  • Insider

    A Squadron of Tornados???? Actually 4 Typhoons, you need to have 4 to guarantee to get one in the air.

    Half a dozen Hunter Killer subs in waiting??? Er, I think you’re deluding yourself there mate.

  • Yarnefromhorsham

    Come on – get real. “The MoD commissioned the NAO to compare the two aircraft” Yeah right and come up with the answer the MoD wanted.

  • yank

    Your link specifically disproves the point you’re making, Mr. Blackburn.

    6. Performance has been broadly maintained throughout the transformation of support, with some shortfalls associated with the transition. The operational availability[Footnote 5] of Harrier aircraft to frontline squadrons has been below target since 2001, pre-dating transformation. Operational availability dropped further in April 2003, with the start of the Harrier upgrade programme at BAE Systems site at Warton, but improved as work was transferred to the new depth repair hub at RAF Cottesmore. In the last half of 2006 aircraft availability has been at or close to 100 per cent against a revised target, mainly because there were fewer aircraft in depth repair.


    Overall Value for Money
    10. The Department has made significant reductions in the cost of support to fast jets; the Tornado and Harrier Integrated Project Teams costs have reduced from a total of 711 million in 2001-02 to 328 million in 2006-07, providing a cumulative saving of some 1.4 billion over the six-year period. At the same time, although aircraft operational availability declined during the transition to the new depth repair hubs, the subsequent meeting of availability targets on Harrier over the last five months suggests that availability can be achieved consistently on Tornado once the pulse line achieves a similar level of maturity. The Department has continued to achieve broadly the same level of performance in terms of flying hours throughout the transformation. On this basis, the Departments transformation of logistics support represents good value for money to date and although there are risks, the Department is working to manage them.



    Harrier availability seems to have been an issue during transition of the program, as to be expected, and now the availability issue has disappeared, but is perhaps present with Tornado, contrary to your comparison drawn here.

    I enjoy taking a good slap at the retired brass hats as much as anybody, but you haven’t done anything here but prove their point to be (potentially) correct.

    Naked aircraft carriers. And with options available to clothe them. No escaping that fact, and your post explores the issue not at all. Best up your game.

  • strapworld

    When push comes to shove I think I would take the view of those that have actual battlefield/front line experience rather than penpushers!

    The National Audit Office do an excellent job but we are talking about effectiveness in battle situations and, therefore, men and women’s lives.

    I come from the school where money is no object when it comes to ensure the right equipment for our armed services.

    Frankly, the scrapping of Ark Royal and the Harriers, at this time, is quite ridiculous.

    But, I suppose, something has to pay for the growing army of Cameron’s movie/photographic/grooming/speech writing/clothing advisors/shoe makers/style consultants/magazine producers/marketing people!

    So what if some members of the armed services or that place called Falklands suffers. Cameron must look pretty!

    It is all quite surreal.

  • Mirtha Tidville

    Afraid to say this mess was created in a hurry, poorly thought through and the execution was even worse by a very inexperienced Chancellor (never even had a proper job)more keen for a headline than protecting the state.

    There were many more budgets that could have been slashed and pruned and defence left alone. Overseas aid ring any bells George??…Tory disgrace

  • Nick

    Are the Falklands really that vulnerable ? Are the Argentinians likely to sail 400 miles across the South Atlantic whilst the UK has half a dozen hunter killer submarines and a squadron of Tornadoes waiting ?

  • TomTom

    So why not ask the USMC about their Harrier experience. They might have better maintenance. We come down to the simple choice: scrap Tornados (MRCA) and rely upon US Navy air support in Afghanistan………or scrap the Harriers and rely upon French Naval Air Support on British aircraft carriers

  • DavidDP

    Oh and Lord West may be better recieved had he not scrapped the Sea Harrier while a Labour minister.

  • Timmo

    Don’t we have a nuclear deterrent ?
    If Argentina start getting any ideas just remind them that we have them, and will use them to protect our people and land.

  • DavidDP

    The Falklands has a permanent garrison, a sub and several Typhoons in situ.

    It’s not really defenceless.

  • whatawaste

    Aren’t these the same admirals who lobbied hard for the new aircraft carriers when most in the MoD wre dubious? By their current argument if the Ark Royal is so good why do we need the new carriers?

    Oh and can someone please explain why the MoD employs more admirals than it has ships? The Ark Royal only becomes an issue if the Falklands fell to the Argentines. The existing defence forces on the islands are deemed sufficient or are these admirals now saying that the Eurofighter Typhoon squadron out there is not fit for purpose?

  • Osred

    If we kept the Harriers, couldn’t they be used on the new aircraft carriers? Wouldn’t that pose a problem if we’ve already agreed to let the French use their planes on it?

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