A group of senior retired military experts and academics have written a letter to the UK government to oppose the scrapping of the country’s Harrier fast jet carrier aircraft under the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) announced last year.
The letter to prime minister David Cameron criticises the retirement Joint Royal Navy / Royal Air Force Harrier Force of 70 aircraft, which has operated from the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Illustrious. The two ships are scheduled for retirement this year and 2014 respectively.
The grouping’s letter criticises the effect the loss of a fast jet carrier air group could have on UK national security until the arrival of the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, currently under construction, and the Harrier’s replacement, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
“Continuity of operations is highly desirable if the new carriers are to be brought into operational service quickly, with the right experience and supporting elements such as flight deck crews, command and staff officers at all levels,” says the petition.
“The first is the deprivation of fixed wing carrier-borne air capability for at least a decade. This not only removes a very important component of the offensive and defensive capabilities of the Fleet but also undermines support of the Army and of the Royal Marines in their amphibious role. This valuable operation can no longer be attempted even against a lightly armed aggressor without considerable risk,” adds the letter.
The letter was signed by several veteran Falklands War commanders, including admiral Sir John ‘Sandy’ Woodward, major general Julian Thompson and admiral Sir Jeremy Black. Academics listed as signatories include naval historians Nicholas Rodger, from Oxford university, and King’s College London’s Andrew Lambert.
The letter provides three alternatives to scrapping the Harrier force, including the retainment of a smaller amount of the aircraft alongside the RAF’s Tornado fighter aircraft, which was retained over the Harrier force in the SDSR.
The letter notes that the Tornado is more expensive to operate than the Harrier and has been itself partially replaced in RAF service by the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The letter highlights the increased operational flexibility provided by the Harrier over the Tornado, and says keeping on 40 Harriers and 40 Tornadoes would save £5bn over 15 years.
As a further option, the experts suggest maintaining 48 Tornados, 30 harriers and buying or leasing 18 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet multirole carrier-borne combat aircraft.
“It should be noted that the F/A-18 Super Hornet is better at air defence than the Typhoon, better at ground attack than Tornado and Typhoon and around one third to one fifth of the cost of the Typhoon,” says the letter.
“This F-18 squadron would not be difficult to form due to existing partnerships and training which the Royal Navy has, and is expected to continue to have, with the United States Navy. Furthermore, Britain would not be buying a substandard aircraft, as the Super Hornet is a very capable aircraft now being procured by the US Navy and the Australian Armed Forces,” adds the letter.