I've been engaged in a few very ferocious battles over the financially absurd decision of retaining Tornado GR4 over the Harrier lately, and while i totally agree that the Tornado GR4 has quite a good margin of performances advantages and more weapons integrated on it, i simply cannot avoid to point out that financially, retaining it was nothing short of a suicide. While more capable than Harrier, the Tornado decision negated savings from 5 to 7 times higher than those obtained with the early retirement of Harrier and Ark Royal.
Savings that remain necessary and that will have to be realized in a way or another.
The true, final size of the cuts to the armed forces is not yet clear. Tornado GR4 itself "won" in October 2010, but it looks more and more unlikely that it will last very long before more more squadrons are cut. In the best case, after the next (and last) two Typhoon squadrons begin to operate, in the worst case, even before that, depending on how bad the next planning round look.
In the meanwhile, the Harrier GR9s are about to accomplish their last mission: gaining some money to use for filling some of the holes in PR12. The whole Harrier fleet, of 74 airplanes, is about to be sold to the US Marines, along with engines and spare parts: the USMC plans to use the Harrier GR9 as a low-cost, readily available solution for filling a hole in their fast jet fleet as aging Harriers and F-18 are retired while the F35B takes much longer than planned to arrive and replace them.
The F35B should have hit service next year, but now it is expected that the USMC will be using Harriers and F/A-18 well into the 2020s, up to 2025, when their replacement with F35B should be completed.
Rear Adm. Mark Heinrich, chief of the U.S. Navy's Supply Corps, confirmed the two-part deal Nov. 10 during a conference in New York sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in association with Defense News.
A deal for the spare parts is already agreed over. The US will pay the UK around 50 million dollars to acquire all the spares of the Harrier GR9 fleet. A second deal, the value of which should of course be quite a lot higher, will cover the acquisition of the 74 Harriers and all of their engines. The GR9s have been undergoing minimum fleet maintenance, including anti-deterioration measures, in order to keep them airworthy, and are stored in hangars at RAF Cottersmore.
The americans say they are confident for the final deals to be signed within one or two weeks.
The GR 9 and 9As are similar in configuration to the Marines' AV-8B night attack version, which make up about a third of U.S. Harriers, with the rest being AV-8B+ variant, more advanced and with better multirole capabilities, thanks to the APG-65 radar, which enables the use even of AMRAAM missiles, in the air defence role.
The GR9 planes are notoriously without a radar and AMRAAM capability (migrating the Sea Harrier FA2 radar onto them was expected to cost up to 600 million pounds, and was deemed too expensive) only carries the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensors in the nose, like the AV-8B.
There are little to no problems of compatibility in terms of engines, too: the GR9 uses the Rolls-Royce Mark 105 Pegasus engine, while the GR 9As have the more powerful Mark 107, which is similar to the Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408s that powers the USMC AV-8Bs.
Lon Nordeen, author of several books on the Harrier, noted that the british Harriers were built between 1980 and 1995, and "are still quite serviceable," he said. "The aircraft are not that far apart. We're taking advantage of all the money the Brits have spent on them. It's like we're buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it."
Operationally, Nordeen said, "these are very good platforms. They need upgrades, but on bombing missions they have the ability to incorporate the Litening II targeting pod [used by U.S. aircraft]. They're good platforms. And we've already got trained pilots."
At least initially, the british Harrier will not replace USMC Harriers, but F18D Hornets, which are actually older, in worst conditions, and need most urgently replacement, so much so that the first USMC squadron getting the F35B is also planned to be a F18D squadron.
The money coming from these deals, normally would be clawed back by the Treasury, not by the MOD, but as part of emergency measures taken months ago to fill, without imposing further big cuts in the immediate, a one-billion pound hole in PR11, the money obtained from selling retired kit, such as Largs Bay, but also ships sold for scrap such as Ark Royal, and now the Harriers, will now go to the MOD.
Thankfully, because it appears to be desperately needed.
The problem is that it is just not enough.
As a consequence, the Army continues to get the chop: 7000 posts had to be lost in the British Army by 2015 according to the SDSR, but in July this increased to 12.000 as the long term strength of the regular army was modified from 94.000 to 82.000 in 2020.
And in these days we have assisted to the fuss caused by the famous leaked memo, sent by an unnamed officer to commanders in Afghanistan, outlining the possibility of a further speeding up of the cuts, with expansion in the redundancies tranches, pushing figures up to as many as 16500 posts to go by 2015. Included in that total, up to 2500 personnel recovering from wounds sustained on operations.
The MOD quickly denied the leak, saying that the report was incorrect. However, the 16500 posts lost figure has not been denied entirely: it seems to remain a very real possibility on the table as PR12 is discussed.
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, has said:
"No-one will be forced out of the Army. They won't leave until it's right for them. Of course the Army is a young man's business. Most people leave within about ten years. So it's inevitable that they are going to have to leave the Army at some point and we've got to focus on being very combat-ready and well-trained.
"There is undoubtedly a limit on the number of injured personnel we can employ, but no-one will be forced out. We've put a lot of effort into this. As part of the Defence Recovery Capability there are six Army Recovery Centres right round the country whose core task is preparing people for transition into civilian life, and I am pleased to say that lots of personnel have made a successful transition.
"All the experts say it is better that they bite this bullet early while they're still young rather than linger on beyond a time when it's not so easy."
The Telegraph today reports that in the worst case scenario half the Royal Armoured Corps (5 out of 11 regiments) and 10 infantry battalions could vanish in order to reach the 82.000 figure.
This would represent another kick in the crotch of an SDSR that becomes more and more indefensible, as effectively, despite claims of the opposite, it continues to live on and on to deliver more and more cuts.
Politicians calling for a "re-opening" of the SDSR are clearly incapable to understand the reality: the SDSR was never closed, and the document itself was never worth more than toilette paper.
The MOD, of course, promptly assured that:
A review of the future structure of the Army is ongoing and no conclusions have yet been reached. Idle speculation on the possible outcomes of that review only serves to bring about uncertainty for serving soldiers and their families.
However, despite what the MOD says, we can assume that, just like in pre-SDSR time, these leaks are actually quite accurate hints of the options on the table.
It is quite safe to assume that the 5 RAC and 10 Infantry cut is the current "worst case option" on the table as discussion continues to go on. Of course, it is not sure (yet) that it will happen. But it is a possibility, which is disclosed after a period in which no cuts to RAC were expected (a Tank Regiment and a Brigade RECCE Regiment are (were?) expected in each brigade), and after 6, then 8 battalions of infantry were candidates for the chop.
It just gets worse as time goes on, and this cannot possibly be a good sign.
The Telegraph also reports that:
'The Army is going to rely much more on the 30,000 soldiers in the Territorial Army to fill front-line roles and for the first time the reserves will come under the direct command of the regular Army.
Legislation will have to be introduced to allow TA units to be deployed on operations in order to bolster regular brigades. But there is a worry that the TA might not be able to “plug the gap”.'
Improving the deployability and readiness of the Territorial Army, to make it more comparable to the US National Guard, will indeed be fundamental to give a meaning to the "30% reserves" army plan, but such a change will not be without cost and challenges, and the outcome of the reform, in particular, again, because of the lack of budget, is far from an assured success.
It is becoming harder and harder to identify a SDSR passage that makes sense, or that can be trusted, other than those about the cuts.
Cuts always happen as planned. Or get increased.
Cutting 8, and even worse 10, battalions of infantry represents a tremendous, and hardly manageable cut. The loss of 5 RAC regiments is even more worrisome, as it potentially represents an even more marked shift away from SDSR assumptions.
The 227 Challenger II tanks retained after the cuts, and promised to be a part of the Multi Role Brigades, might:
A - End up in the Territorial Army
B - vanish...?
C - Get merged into 5 "super-regiments" combining Tank and Brigade Recce role.
Option C would be, potentially, the least damaging, and would deliver (i'm guessing) a Regimental structure similar to that of a US Armoured Squadron: the regiment could end up having three squadrons, each with N Challenger II tanks and N FRES Scout / Protected Mobility / Jackal vehicles.
But such an option would also be the one delivering the least savings and smallest manpower reduction.
B is hopefully inacceptable a planning option.
A, however, risks to give us 5 regiments of tanks with crews not adequately prepared and unable to actually deploy in regimental strength, making this option almost as bad, potentially, as option B.
Bad news, in other words. Lots of uncertainty, again, and clouds that seem to only get darker and darker instead of clearing.