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Britain’s threadbare defence establishment

10 November 2010

3:40 PM

10 November 2010

3:40 PM

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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