I've been subject, more than once, to heavy criticism for my position on the Tornado and Harrier issue, harmony guidelines considerations, and general wisdom of maintaining the Tornado fleet over the Harrier, despite the much larger savings on the same five years period that retiring the GR4 would have made possible.
Without going back on the whole matter of the Tornado savings and without re-presenting the whole story of the duel which the Jump Jet eventually lost, i'll link an interesting 2010 written answer which helps giving an idea of the differences at play: Harrier and Ark Royal combined will have saved, by 2015, 1.1 billion pound, 1.3 in the most optimistic projections.
In the same time we have:
The Tornado aircraft fleet, consisting of the GR4 ground attack and F3 air defence variants, is supported by two availability based maintenance contracts. The Availability Transformation: Tornado Aircraft Contract (ATTAC), for which BAE Systems is the prime contractor, provides Depth Support until 2016 and has a total value of £1.5 billion. The Turbo-Union RB199 engine which powers the Tornado aircraft is supported by the RB199 Operational Contract for Engine Transformation 2 (ROCET 2) awarded to Rolls-Royce until 2025. The contract has a total value of £690 million. There are no penalty clauses in either contract. However, both contracts include a number of conditions that allow for early termination. Any costs associated with the implementation of these conditions following the SDSR outcome are being negotiated with the contractor.Under the Capability Upgrade Strategy (Pilot) programme approved in December 2007, 96 Tornado GR4 aircraft will receive capability upgrades between 2011 and 2014 at an estimated cost of around £300 million. This number of aircraft is sufficient to maintain the operational capability of the Tornado GR4 Forward Available Fleet until OSD.
That makes 2490 million pounds already, with cancellation of an upgrade programme and early termination of just two contracts. Even assuming some costs for contract termination, we have already far overcome any Harrier related saving by a good margin, and the list of voices is still long.
Not so hard, now, to see why the Tornado retirement was projected at some 7 billions of total savings.
It is also worth summarizing some other facts as well, to make it further clear what is the source of my doubts:
The 96 Tornado GR4 remaining, projected to be retired by 2021 after the SDSR changed the previous 2025 date, will provide 18 Force Elements at readiness (airplanes deployable/usable to support an operation) by 2015, going down from previous target of 40 with a fleet of 132 - 140.
Other answers and documents disclose that only 17 Tornado GR4 have been kitted, by UOR, for ops in Afghanistan, with an increase in their number due to the increase from 8 to 10 deployed planes.
Before, 15 UORed Tornado has sustained Afghan ops, just as 15 Harrier had been UORed before to do the same job. The addition of two more UORed airframes costed some half a million pound.
This is another blow in the face of the argument that the Harrier fleet was too small to support ongoing Afghan ops.
18 Force Elements at readiness, interestingly, were those that the Harrier GR9/9A fleet used to provide, until 2009, with a fleet of 75 – 79 airplanes. This was reduced to 10 elements at readiness with the cuts delivered to the Joint Force Harrier in 2009, however: in December 2009, minister Bob Ainsworth announced that RAF Cottersmore would close, and one of the squadrons of the 4-strong JFH was to be disbanded. IV(AC) Squadron indeed disbanded following the announcement, even if its colors passed to the Harrier OCU, which had before had the colors of 20 Squadron. The fleet was reduced to as few as 32 frontline planes strong. This very cut has subsequently been used, post SDSR publishing, to justify the early retirement of the Harrier.
How was the 2009 cut reached?
Early 2000s. The Sea Harrier future is sealed by the upgrade to its engine being judged too expensive. The upgrades that were deemed too expensive for recent SHAR FA.2 were made onto GR7 airframes: this included even the MK 107 improved, more powerful engine, which had been dreamed for the Sea Harrier by the Navy, with 40 engines having been ordered in 1999 for 150 million pounds of value. It took 112 million pounds in modifications to the airframe of the GR7 in order to install it, and 150 millions to acquire engines and support, for a total of 262 millions.
For the SHAR, the cost had been calculated in 230.
For the SHAR, the cost had been calculated in 230.
The justifications are that the GR9 is better suited to strike missions, the “hot thing” of the day, and by a study which promises that, once updated to GR9 standard, the Harrier will be able to use ASRAAM, Brimstone, Paveway IV, and even Storm Shadow.
Attractive, isn’t it…? Awesome, I’d dare saying. It is all backed up by a study, the BRCP 821, aimed at increasing the all-up mass of the Harrier GR7 to 34,000 lb, and perhaps beyond, to cover heavyweight roles such as Storm Shadow. The study dates 2002 – 2003, and gains the go-ahead. The GR9 upgrade is the way.
What happens after that is the well known Joint Force Harrier. The last 3 fixed wing squadrons of the Navy, flying SHARs, are disbanded, with two planned to reform, on RAF structures, manning and under RAF control, as part of Joint Force Harrier. Only 800 NAS will be able to stand up again, however, with 801 failing to raise enough officers to fill the new, additional posts imposed by the RAF structure. Elements of 800 NAS and 801 fuse into the Naval Strike Wing, which only in 2010, shortly before being killed, reverts to the identity of 800 NAS.
As late as 2006, Parliamentary documents about the GR9 upgrade still talk about Storm Shadow. The evidence is in the Parliamentary report "Delivering Front Line Capability to the RAF", dated 2006, at upgrade already undergoing (indeed, the upgrade was contracted for in 2003, physically began in 2004 and had to be finished by 2007). Everyone with enough patience to do so, can scroll down to Page 15 of the report and read it here.
Later, this would have proven to be bullshit, as part of the wing was apparently found to have to be removed (!) in order to install the Storm Shadow, which continued to present problems anyway as the Harrier had not enough power, even with the new Pegasus 107 engine, to bring eventually not-launched Storm Shadows back on the deck of the carrier at the end of a mission. To land, the plane would have had to ditch the 800.000 + pounds missile!
Storm Shadow integration is promptly abandoned, but the study (who the hell did it? How could they not see such two massively evident issues??? What have they looked at? Didn’t they see how the wing and missile were shaped? Did they massively overvalue the power that the MK107 would be able to provide??? How can it even happen?) in the meanwhile had done its job.
By the time the Harrier GR9 upgrade had reached Capability E (including a Link 16 communications link and other improvements), the GR9 upgrade had cost 728 millions.
By November 2008, the Harrier GR9 had swallowed a total of 860 million pounds from Opposition-supplied figures, but was finally “complete” (save for the Brimstone, the integration of which somehow ran aground after even some flight tests had already been successfully done, with the full integration pushed to the right “to 2012”) and arguably at its absolute best.
Meanwhile, in June 2008 it had been confirmed that, early into 2009, the Harrier Force would have been replaced in Afghanistan by a force of Tornado GR4.
December 2008. The RAF, asked to make cuts in their budget, “offer” the Joint Force Harrier for the chop. First Sea Lord Sir Jonathon Band is forced to threaten to resign in order to save the “Joint” force he was supposed to be co-leading. A struggle which was still going on well into 2009. It was more than the short term provision of air power at sea: at the time, the proposal of the RAF meant that the Fleet Air Arm fixed wing branch would be killed off, with RAF-only crews filling the decks (eventually) of the new carriers after 2016, making the attempt even more poisonous, for obvious reasons, for the Navy.
In 2009, the famous “scrap for buying” announcement was in the end made. Cottersmore was to close, the JFH was to lose IV(AC) squadron, Nimrod MR2 would be retired early, leaving a gap of at least one year before Nimrod MRA4 came online, and a further jet squadron “Harrier or Tornado” squadron would also be cut, but only prior to confirmation in the SDSR 2010, to pay for 22 (+ two losses replacements) new Chinooks and the 7th C17. The Chinooks, in the meanwhile, went down to 12 + 2 as we all know. The Tornado squadron, in the end, was not cut, but SDSR 2010 had to cut two as we know.
In the words of the BBC:
Plan to reduce the RAF Tornado and Harrier force by a further one or two squadrons, with final decisions to be taken in the defence review due next year.
SDSR, October 2010: reportedly, the plan agreed by the NSC is, initially, to retire the Tornado fleet, but this changes “at the last moment”, according to some sources after dialogues of RAF top brass directly with David Cameron. The official mantra becomes that the Harrier force is too small – funnily enough, due to the latest, 2009 cut stemming from a 2008 RAF “offer” of scrapping the whole force – to sustain ops in Afghanistan. To try and compensate for the ridiculously small saving, 2 Tornado squadrons are also closed (June 2011), but with most of the personnel moving out to the 5 remaining frontline squadrons, which are to have an uplift in crew numbers.
The MR2 gap also becomes a permanent hole with cancellation of its successor.
How can I not suspect…? It just seems like the SDSR10 cuts were piloted, at least from 2009, with roots of the sad story going far further back in time.
Even without making theories about the infamous “Tornado Mafia”, the numbers make for a sore reality. And tell a sad story in which lots of things did not work.
The quest for answers
I try to be objective as much as possible, much as i'm accused of reasoning out of bias or even RAF-hate, or perhaps "Tornado-hate" (which never fails to amuse me, considering the number of books, reviews, posters, photo and models of Tornado that you can find in my room...). As the above shows, i've linked all the sources and provided evidence of what i'm saying.
I've always used official sources were possible, to explain my doubts and opposition to the path that's been chosen. An exercise that gives me no pleasure at all, as the last thing i'd want to do is to call for a premature demise of the "Europe's miracle", as Tornado was once fittingly nicknamed.
Due to the (obvious) difficulty at getting around to good information (that's usually restricted or classified), i've had to read into de-relato news, as exemplified by the rather heated-up exchange between PM Mark Lancaster (conservative, TA bomb disposal officer) and then Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence Kevan Jones (Labour MP). This 2008 discussion includes alarming observations about issues with Tornado availability, among other things, and MP Lancaster openly formulates the hypothesis that the switch in Afghanistan is meant to protect Tornado from the incoming financial slaughter.
The exchange contains several items of news: for example, a 31 million pounds cost per month for the Tornado detachment compared to 30 for an equally sized Harrier unit. It would appear that cost might actually have been closer to 40 millions, and this was before the number of deployed Tornadoes was increased. At least 42 million pounds also were expended in UORs (including early integration of Paveway IV - advanced from planned 2011 to 2009, plus a number of new IR self-defence and countermeasures pods) to prepare a number of Tornado for Afghan role. In the meanwhile, integration of Brimstone on the Harrier was delayed and effectively stopped.
The debate between the two MPs hints to documents released to Parliament, and other data that i've sadly been unable to see with my eyes, but contains several worrisome observations, if they are true.
I've been told informally that the document the Under-Secretary and MP talk about is "wrong" and overstates the Tornado problems, but i honestly struggle to see why the RAF (which would be heavily involved in the redaction of such a document, I’m assuming) would ever supply Parliament with wrong and self-damaging data, or even permit at all that such a damning report was released. It certainly would be grave if this had effectively been done, deliberately misguiding the Parliament. It must also be noted that the Under-Secretary never denies the data presented by Lancaster.
Perhaps he hadn't bothered reading the document. Perhaps he was fooled too by its wrong nature... But i must believe to what i read here until better evidence comes.
I've tried to get more information, to try and keep faith to my aspirations of objectivity and honesty, and noticed, all over the internet and in the already quoted dialogue of the MPs, several hints to a NAO report on the switch from Harrier to Tornado in Afghanistan ops, due for publication in Winter 2008.
An example of the several hints i found, talking of a report “in the making” and apparently on the way for release:
The MP, who is a major in the Royal Engineers, TA, is not the only person looking into this move. The National Audit Office is working on an investigation into spending on the Harriers and the decision to withdraw them from Afghanistan. The report is due out in late winter. Lancaster remarked that it stands to be "pretty damning" for the RAF.
Such report, knowing the NAO documents, would probably provide good answers, so i've immediately tried to locate said report.
And here is the problem. Said report apparently was never actually completed and released. I checked the Publications lists of the NAO reports from 2007 to 2011 included, for good prudence, and no such specialized report came out. I tried seeking the data as part of other reports related to Afghanistan ops, maybe the study ended up in a larger report. But again found nothing, other than a 2007 report in the progress of mainteinance process on Tornado and Harrier, which does not, however, provide any answer to the current questions.
Ultimately, i surrendered last Friday, and decided to send a mail to the NAO asking for indications about the report.
Today, i received the answer, which sent me to this report: http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/0809/high_intensity_operations.aspx, dated May 2009 and not Winter 2008.
I had already checked it over rapidly, and found nothing, so it left me puzzled, but since the NAO itself indicated it to me, i tried again, going through the pages with more patience and attention.
Lots of good info about Chartered flights, logistical issues, waiting times for spare parts, harmony guidelines, Mastiff availability, helicopter support, every aspect of the UK operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Definitely worth a read... But. There's a big but.
Close Air Support, for some reason, is totally absent from the report.
The word "Tornado" recurs exactly ZERO times in the whole report.
The word "Harrier", only appears in this paragraph:
The current high level of operational commitments is affecting the ability of the Royal Air Force to train for general warfare. In order to focus on current operations, the Royal Air Force has had to “hibernate” certain skills by minimising the number of personnel trained and is therefore carrying an element of risk until they have time to regenerate capabilities. Examples include Harrier pilots landing on aircraft carriers at night and helicopter pilots training for fighter aircraft evasion.
Which tells me nothing new, of course. I can't even understand why i was linked to this report, which clearly has little to do with my question.
The mystery continues. The sad story remains.