The heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force have been giving evidences on the impact of last year's defense review to the parliamentary defense committee, and in particular the RN and RAF heads have been providing some interesting considerations. They make for an interesting comparison exercise.
Naturally, admiral Stanhope expressed all his concern for the long gap in carrier strike capability and said that retaining HMS Ark Royal and its fleet of Harrier strike aircraft would have been his top priority if the government's strategic defense review and associated four-year defense spending plan could be revisited.
Admiral Stanhope and Air Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the chief of the Air Staff, were asked by the parliamentary defense committee member whether returning the Harrier force to service had gone beyond the point of no return.
Dalton said it had. No hesitation. The RAF does not want the Harrier, but the Tornado, and the rest does not matter.
But Stanhope responded that while Dalton's statement was correct, he would "like to think that should a decision [be made to reassess the Harrier force, we could], look again. It all comes down to money." Stanhope indicated he would not oppose resurrecting the Harrier force if possible and if money was made available to support the aircraft.
Rumors have often come out in the last month about a plan (apparently backed by Liam Fox as well) to pull back out of the mothballing around 20 Harriers GR9, from which to sustain a single squadron, available for deployment from HMS Illustrious, that while officially roled as LPH remains Harrier capable. This would preserve the UK's ability to answer to the unexpected and mitigate the effects of the long gap in jet operations at sea.
40% of the RN Harrier pilots community has been shelved, and a part of the RAF own personnel has also been made redundant, but a single squadron should be perfectly sustainable (if money was provided, of course). Spare parts could come from cannibalization of the around 67 GR9 airframes that still exist.
But while the Navy is eager to offer its support, the RAF is not. One has to wonder WHY? Fear of competition? Are cost-comparisons between Carrier ops and Tornado ops from Gioia del Colle true, and are they seen as a menace by the RAF?
"Black Buck"-like raids coming from afar and at the cost of hundred thousands gallons of fuel against Harriers going back and forth from close to the shore, is this the nightmare of Dalton?
It is cruel to even think about it. Yet, one truly can't avoid thinking it.
I do not have evidence of the cost of Libya's ops, but the MOD has released a couple of articles that, while praising the exceptional work of the personnel working on the logistics of operation Ellamy to make the whole campaign possible, provides food for thought:
To date (May 10, 2011) , in support of Operation ELLAMY, 2 Mechanical Transport (MT) RAF Squadron personnel, based at RAF Wittering, have travelled the equivalent distance of eight times around the world and transported 1,680 tonnes of kit down to the airfield at Gioia del Colle to support 906 Expeditionary Air Wing.
In the hours following the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, 2 MT Squadron personnel who had been deployed to support Operation Southern Mistral (a flying exercise in Nancy, France, involving Tornados and French Mirage fighter jets) were rerouted, and the equipment, carried in a 20-vehicle convoy, taken south.
A second convoy of 21 articulated lorries was rapidly readied back in the UK with kit collected from RAF Coningsby and RAF Marham, and the convoy left from 2 MT Squadron's base of RAF Wittering on 20 March 2011, six days after the first convoy left Nancy.
I do not know how much it can cost to drive trucks across Europe for the equivalent of eight times the travel around the world, but i think it must cost. A lot.
Besides, it is not enough. It is evident that trucks are slow. And the requirements of an air strike campaign are massive and continuous. And in fact there's more to Ellamy than just trucks, as the official pubblication of the Defence Equipment and Support DES reports (page 20 of the linked page): 726 tons of kit and 848 personnel had to be airlifted urgently to Gioia in the opening phases of the redeployment, and regular airlift flights continue, with personnel trying to work on a schedule to allows the already overstretched cargo fleet to comply with both Libya and Afghanistan at once. There's no telling how many planes are being chartered, but many were already required for Afghanistan in itself, notoriously.
But this is not enough, as the Defence Fuel Group has been called in, too, to deal with the need of buying fuel for the operation and ensure it arrives in Gioia del Colle.
Everyone can think about it, and pull conclusions. I have reached mine. Time will (hopefully) tell us a definitive cost for Ellamy, and that day we'll see.
Back to the Committee hearing: Stanhope said the Royal Navy is faced with the task of regenerating the carrier force in the latter half of the decade as a new aircraft carrier and the F-35C fighter become available. Rebuilding an aircraft carrier force around 2019 could only be done with the assistance of allied carrier operators France and the U.S., he said. Such a program is now being developed, Stanhope said.
Three Fleet Air Arm pilots are already flying F/A-18s with the U.S. military to help maintain British capabilities. A fourth is due to move to the U.S. soon, he said.
More will have to follow, and at some point, perhaps from next year, deck personnel will have to deploy as well: the UK is looking at sending personnel both on Charles De Gaulle and US carriers. The RAF will also have to start sending in pilots at some point.
Britain is building two 65,000-ton carriers, with the first entering service around 2017 and the second scheduled to be ready around 2019, with Carrier Strike capability restored in 2020. The F35C should hit RAF IOC in 2018/19.
The defense cuts saw the government commit to only operating the second of the warships as an aircraft carrier.
This phrase I evidenced: it comes from the article of DefenseNews, and while it is not clear to me if it indicates the current line of thinking of the MOD/government (officially, the decision on which carrier to refit, and if both are to be kitted, is expected next year) or if it is a deduction of the journalist, it finds me and many others totally agreeing. Kitting HMS Queen Elizabeth, as I have already explained in other posts, would require a delay in the whole CVF building timeline, and thus cost increases) and would require early beginning of the additional payments necessary to buy wires, catapults, redesign and other components. This would add considerable pressure on the MOD budget BEFORE 2015, the expected end-date of the budget crisis. It appears unlikely that money can be found in the next few years to fund the conversion unless someone is cut.
The most likely scenario is QE finished as LPH and Prince of Wales (or Ark Royal if it truly gets renamed) kitted as strike carrier, with QE kitted out at the first refit, six or so years after the entry in service. This, of course in the best case: the risk of QE staying only helicopter-capable is very high, and the mothballing option has not yet been completely ruled out either.
Stanhope of course made it clear that Britain would have to operate two carriers nonetheless (even if only one at a time would have planes on board and strike role) unless it wanted to follow the example of France, which could only get its single carrier, the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle, operational for five years in every eight. The remainder of the time is devoted to maintenance and workup, he said. And on this, too, i totally agree.
Besides, with HMS Ocean not going to be replaced and Illustrious going in 2014, the RN would go down to a single flat-top for both roles, which would result in long periods without carrier AND without LPH as well.
The Harriers were operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Air Force, and the plan is to do the same with the F-35s. In his evidence, Dalton denied the RAF had any ambitions to take over the role of the Fleet Air Arm on the Navy carriers (evidently someone in the Committee has my same feeling and has advanced the fateful question!), and said a 60-40 split in favor of the Air Force had already been agreed to between the two services.
60 – 40. Why it does not surprise me? Original plan was 50 : 50, as with the original plan for Joint Force Harrier, another plan in itself that was NEVER respected. My doubts, (and most likely those of many others inside and outside the Committee) just get stronger and stronger thanks to this kind of declarations of the RAF.
Only reassuring news, Dalton said the carrier would start operating with a single squadron of F-35s and eventually work up to three squadrons, its full carrier wing force. This seems to suggests that a 4 Squadrons F35 world is still the long term target, because there’s no way in hell that the whole fleet can be embarked without at least a Squadron/OCU staying back, unless another all-out Falklands effort is launched. (for the Falklands war, even the Sea Harrier OCU squadron took to the sea, in fact)
A fact remains: people wonders why so many have grown suspicious of the RAF’s moves. Well, this is the most recent answer to that question.
The RAF does not want things... but takes them all the same.
The whole hearing can be seen in a video here.
The whole hearing can be seen in a video here.