Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


71. Joint Force Harrier, combining Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA2 and RAF Harrier GR7 aircraft, was established following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. This reflected a degree of interchangeability in these aircraft, and a common capability of being able to operate both off carriers and from airfields. When the previous Committee took evidence on the SDR, our predecessors were told that commonality of the two aircraft types was about 10%[163] although more recently a figure of 20% has been reported.[164] The Harrier GR7s are due to be stood-down in 2015 when they will be replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is to be introduced into service from 2012 on current plans.[165] The Sea Harrier had been programmed to leave operational service in 2012, again to be replaced by the JSF.[166] But on 28 February 2002 the MoD announced that the Sea Harrier would be withdrawn from service between 2004 and 2006,[167] 6-8 years earlier than its previously planned out-of-service date.

72. Although the Sea Harrier entered service in 1979, it was given a major upgrade in 1993 (paragraph 75), and an attrition purchase of 18 new aircraft was approved in 1993 and delivered between 1994 and 1997.[168] A significant proportion of the Sea Harrier fleet will therefore be less than 10 years old when withdrawn. Whatever the rationale for withdrawing the Sea Harriers early, which we discuss below, it is regrettable that the MoD was taking delivery of new Sea Harriers only a very few years before making that decision. At the very least, we are presented with a poor impression of long term planning in the MoD.

73. Defence Committees' equipment procurement inquiries have invariably focussed on acquisition matters, rather than equipment decommissioning. However, the Sea Harrier withdrawal was not only an important matter in itself, but also gave us a good case study for examining the role of the Equipment Capability Customer—Sir Jock Stirrup's organisation—which had indeed had a significant role in the decision.[169] This is because at the heart of efforts to minimise the impact of withdrawn capability is the question of how that might be done by changing the mix of other weapon platforms and equipments.

74. Whether the early Sea Harrier withdrawal represents a significant gap in operational effectiveness hinges on a number of factors, which we address below, including:

  • What capabilities will be lost with the Sea Harrier's early decommissioning?
  • To what extent will such capabilities be provided by other means?
  • Have the threats that the Sea Harrier was designed to face changed, or are these to be covered by other countries' forces in coalition operations?

What capabilities will be lost: The diverging paths of the Harrier variants

75. Although the Royal Navy's website declares that the Sea Harrier is the UK's "only true multi-role aircraft," the MoD told us that it is optimised to provide air defence of the Fleet.[170] Indeed, we noted in our report on the lessons of Kosovo that the Sea Harrier was not given any ground-attack duties, but rather provided air-defence patrols to allow other aircraft to concentrate on bombing sorties.[171] First in-service in 1979, the Sea Harrier was upgraded in 1993 with the Blue Vixen multi-target tracking radar[172] and two years later with the AMRAAM medium-range missile for its primary air-defence role.[173] A dozen years ago, a report by a previous Defence Committee on this upgrade programme described how these "air-defence and anti-ship"capability improvements (running four years late) pre-dated the Falklands conflict but were given added impetus by that experience.[174]

76. The withdrawal of the Sea Harrier appears then to leave the Royal Navy without an air-defence aircraft until the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter from 2012 (and the JSF itself is primarily a ground-attack aircraft) . Filling such a capability gap would fall in part to the anti-air destroyers, including from 2007 the Type-45 destroyer and its PAAMS missiles, and this is explored further below.

77. The Harrier GR7 is an offensive support aircraft, optimised for low-level operations, and capable of such operations at night through its forward-looking infra-red sensors and night vision equipment.[175] It will continue to be equipped with Sidewinder missiles for air-to-air operations, since the Minister for the Armed Forces confirmed that these will no longer be replaced later on by ASRAAM missiles.[176] Thirty Harrier GR7s will be upgraded to 'GR7a' standard by 2005, by being fitted with new Mk-107 Pegasus engines to give improved performance over their existing Pegasus engines when operating in hot conditions, particularly from carriers. Then, all GR7 and GR7a aircraft will be upgraded to GR9 and GR9a standard through the integration of new avionics and weapon systems,[177] including a better air-to-ground strike capability (eg Brimstone missiles). Sixty-eight aircraft are already being upgraded to GR9/9a standard, and this will be completed in 2008.[178]

78. Four GR9/9a squadrons (two Royal Navy and two RAF) will be available by 2007, replacing five current Harrier squadrons. The 'required operating fleet' of Harriers, once the Sea Harriers have been withdrawn from service, will be 51 aircraft. This compares with 83 currently in the operating fleet—54 GR7s and 29 Sea Harriers.[179] Taking a third of the aircraft out of the Joint Force Harrier operating fleet represents a significant diminution of carrier-capable fixed-wing maritime aviation. We therefore explored what technical risks there were that appear to have prevented the Sea Harrier being upgraded to extend its useful life beyond 2006 for continued carrier-based operations.[180] The MoD told us that:

    The current engine of the Sea Harrier does not provide adequate thrust to enable operations to be conducted year around in hot climates, such as those encountered in the Gulf. There would be a very high level of technical risk in fitting new engines, since the Sea Harrier was not designed to take the more powerful engine which is being fitted to some of the Harrier GR9s. (The Sea Harrier is an early generation Harrier I—similar to the RAF's previous Harrier GR3s—whilst the only Harriers operating world-wide with the upgraded engines are the extensively modified Harrier IIs, such as Harrier GR7/9s). Specifically, the main technical risks are associated with the extensive airframe modifications that would be required and the adverse effects on the engine due to different intakes.[181]

An MoD study in 2000 found that (even if feasible) it would cost £230 million to integrate Mk-107 engines on just 11 Sea Harriers.[182] Sir Jock Stirrup considered that the necessary improvements to the Sea Harrier would have been "extremely expensive," and perhaps impossible.[183]

79. If, in the light of such technical risks, the Sea Harrier could not be made to keep up with the technical development of the offensive-support GR7, could the Sea Harrier's air-defence capabilities at least be transferred to the GR7? We explored, specifically, the feasibility of putting the Blue Vixen radar and the AMRAAM air-to-air missile on that aircraft. The MoD told us that this would involve—

    ... significant modifications to the forward fuselage structure in order that existing capability (such as the Forward-Looking Infra-Red, Angle Rate Bombing System, and Zeus electronic warfare equipment) could be relocated. Additionally, the electrical and avionic cooling systems, and cockpit displays of the Harrier GR would need to be enhanced. A trials period would then follow to develop and test the new capability, before it could be employed operationally. This work would be in addition to the existing and extensive Harrier GR7 to GR9 upgrade programme. In addition, there are insufficient Blue Vixen radars to fit the full Harrier GR9/9a fleet.[184]

And that—

    ... any delay to the GR9 programme would not only delay the introduction of smart weapons to the front-line aircraft of Joint Force Harrier, but would also call into question the overall cost effectiveness and practicality of any form of significant upgrade, given the Harrier's out-of-service date of 2015.[185]

Summing up the position, Sir Robert Walmsley told us that upgrading the GR7/GR9 for air defence capabilities—

    ... would cost an immense amount of money, take an enormous amount of time, and would result in an aircraft that is not as good at its primary role as it is today.[186]

Capabilities provided by other means: Anti-air warfare destroyers

80. The MoD's announcement on the Sea Harrier withdrawal stated that the decision reflected the fact that the Type-45 destroyer will be in-service later in the decade.[187] The first Type-45 anti-air warfare destroyer is planned to be in-service in November 2007, with the last of up to 12 vessels in 2014.[188] The new destroyer and its Principle Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS) will replace the currently in-service Type-42 destroyer and its Sea Dart anti-air missile.

81. The Type-45 is intended to protect a naval task force from the threat of fast and agile missiles and aircraft.[189] A major area of trade-off in its development has involved balancing cost against capability, and as a result its PAAMS missile will seek to meet a level of threat projected for 2007 (rather than later), though with the capability to be further developed and progressively upgraded once in-service.[190] Nevertheless, the Type-45 will provide, in Sir Jock Stirrup's words, "a substantial range of effective surface-to-air defences, a world beating radar, world beating missiles to go with it and a command and control system."[191]

82. The Type-45 will not fully replicate the capabilities lost with the decommissioning of the Sea Harrier.[192] The Sea Harrier can maintain air patrols hundreds of miles from its carrier. Its combination of altitude and distance from the ships enables it to detect aircraft flying below the ships' radar horizon, so that it can intercept them before they launch anti-ship missiles or bombs. It cannot, however, deal with very fast, low-flying missiles, which the Type-45 is designed to tackle.[193] The Sea Harriers and the anti-air destroyers are not envisaged so much as substitutes, however, but as different layers of air defence for the fleet. Such layers could include a range of other aircraft and ships. Airborne early warning aircraft might be flown from airfields (eg Sentry E-3s) or carriers (eg Sea King Mk7 helicopters). Frigates or destroyers can provide air-defence pickets for the force. A Type-42 destroyer holding a position 100 miles up-threat from a carrier has a radar (to direct its Sea Dart missiles) able to identify hostile aircraft up to another 200 miles away,[194] provided that they are not flying under the ships' radar horizon. And closer in, ships have point-defence missiles and guns such as Sea Wolf, Goal Keeper and Phalanx.[195] As CDP put it—

    I just want to give the impression that when you are defending a carrier, you do not do it by putting all the assets around the carrier like six-year-old schoolboys playing football, but you spread ships out across the ocean so that actually the destroyer can provide, with the Sea Dart missile system, real defence.[196]

Sir Jock Stirrup noted that, depending upon the scenario, the MoD "envisages mostly operating with allies and partners in intensive combat operations. So, it may well be that we are being provided with air cover from other ships. We also may be able to provide air cover by aircraft operating from ashore."[197] Nevertheless, Sir Jock was clear that he would have preferred to have retained a viable Sea Harrier in service "because we will be without one of the layers of air defence—the aircraft layer."[198]

83. All current air-defence layers, however—whether carrier-borne aircraft or destroyer-borne missiles—have weaknesses in tackling sea-skimming missiles. Lord Bach told us that while the Sea Harrier provided a useful defence against attacking aircraft, it offers no protection against sea-skimming missiles—"now assessed to be the primary threat to maritime assets."[199] Similarly, while the Type-45 and its PAAMS missile will be able to tackle such missiles, the currently in-service Sea Dart was designed, and is optimised, for attacking aircraft.[200] The Sea Dart, we were told, "has weaknesses particularly against the most modern systems and particularly when faced with a high-density threat environment where a great many threats are coming in at the same time".[201]

84. The MoD is therefore making improvements to the existing Type-42 destroyers, and its Sea Dart missile.[202] The missile's capability is being enhanced by upgrading its fuse to an infra-red version, which would be triggered by the heat source from a hostile missile or aircraft. This, the MoD told us, increases the probability of a kill against modern sea- skimming threats, whilst retaining the original capability against higher altitude targets.[203] The Public Accounts Committee last year heard how this upgrade of the missile has incurred delays of 8 years, because of the technical difficulties of applying infra-red technology to such a supersonic missile.[204] Work on the ship itself will improve its detection, identifications and tracking—or its 'situational awareness'— of air threats. There are four elements to this:

  • The 'ADAWS20' command system upgrade for the Type-42, fitted to the eight newest ships. To be completed this year.

  • 'Identification Friend or Foe' tracking of air contacts, to be fitted on the eight newest Type-42s. To enter service in September 2004.

  • The 'Command Support System', recently introduced on all Type-42s.

  • Improvements to the Type-42's 996 Radar, to give improved performance against fast sea-skimming and high-diving targets, to be made on the eight newest vessels by 2005. The Type-42's longer range 1022 Radar is also being improved on the same eight vessels, again by 2005.[205]

All Type-42s are also being fitted with the 'Off-board Active Decoy', by December 2003.[206]

Capability provided by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the Harrier's replacement

85. In January 2001, the MoD decided that Joint Force Harrier, including the Sea Harrier, would be replaced by the US/UK collaborative F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Before the recent adjustment to the Sea Harrier's retirement, the United Kingdom's JSFs had been intended to replace the Sea Harriers from 2012, and also (as a result of the SDR) the RAF Harriers from 2015. These two dates mirrored the in-service dates for the first and second new carriers, or to be more precise the planned in-service dates for the new carriers reflected when the Harriers would be expected to run out of 'fatigue life.'

86. The UK is the only full ('level-one') collaborative partner on the US-led JSF programme, having contributed $200 million (10%) towards the Concept Demonstration stage. This allowed it to shape the requirement and influence the source selection, including the down-selection to a preferred prime contractor (Lockheed Martin) in October 2001.[207] The MoD remains a full partner on the subsequent 'System Design and Development' stage which will run until 2012, for which the UK will contribute a further $1.3 billion, plus £600 million for UK national requirements.[208] The overall procurement cost of the JSF programme for the UK is expected to be £7-10 billion,[209] but will depend on the variant chosen and the number of aircraft ordered. That may depend, however, on the affordability of the aircraft. There remains some uncertainty about the number of each JSF variant that the US will require,[210] which will inevitably influence their respective unit price.

87. The UK's Joint Combat Aircraft requirement (which the JSF will fill) is for a 'multi-role fighter/attack aircraft', capable of being deployed in both land and sea based operations,[211] in strike, reconnaissance and air-defence roles.[212] But Sir Jock Stirrup made it clear that the F-35 "is primarily about offensive power. It will have an air defence capability, but it is not an air defence aircraft."[213] In similar vein, the requirement for the two new carriers, established in the SDR, was to allow operational flexibility in the deployment of 'offensive air power' in future 'force projection operations', when for example host-nation airfields are not available.[214] (The three existing smaller carriers were designed primarily for anti-submarine operations in the Cold War.[215])

88. The MoD is of course procuring a dedicated air-defence, or air-superiority, fighter—the Eurofighter. Eurofighter, together with its missiles and other systems, will have an air-to-air capability that will not be matched by the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.[216] We were told that the balance of JSF and Eurofighter fleets was being evaluated.[217] With some overlap at least in their respective capabilities, it is of course right that a holistic approach is taken to balancing our investment in future fighters. Such assessments must also fully recognise, however, that a carrier-based fighter will be an essential component of our expeditionary capability—we cannot assume host nation support for land based operations—even if that means deploying an aircraft not optimised for air defence. Questions of which version of JSF will be affordable for the UK are of secondary importance.

Changes in the requirement for the Sea Harrier's air-defence role

89. The discussion above has focussed on the changes in air-defence capabilities consequent on the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier. But underlying that, is the wider question of how the maritime air threat has changed, and what weapons platforms and equipments would be effective in countering it.

90. The Minister for Armed Forces announced in April 2002 that "the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier force from service is one part of the new investment strategy for Joint Force Harrier. The upgrade of the Harrier GR force will see the enhancement of our expeditionary offensive air capability, in particular from the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers. This is a capability driven initiative ..."[218] Sir Jock Stirrup told us that—

    the most substantial change [for anti-air maritime warfare since the end of the Cold War] is the need for air defence in the littoral environment as opposed to air defence in the open ocean. This is a reflection of the change in the employment pattern of sea power in the round. Sea power operations are much more about littoral operations than open ocean fighting. The consequences of that are ... operating in a cluttered environment, close to shore and the inability always to see out to the range one would wish and, therefore, the need to be able to react at very short notice to incoming threats.[219]

And he maintained that to such a challenging environment "the Type-45 is admirably suited".[220]

91. Our witnesses translated that declining focus on open-ocean air-defence into a reduced reliance on the particular capabilities of the Sea Harrier. Sir Jock told us that —

    The carriers are about the projection of offensive power in which the Sea Harrier plays a very small part and a reducing part as the technology, in terms of offensive power, moves on. ...It is true of the carriers that we have now, as it will be of the carriers that we will have in 2012. That is the primary role. We have for a number of years now embarked GR7s, and we will be embarking GR9s, on carriers to carry out that role ... Why we have carriers in the first place ... is not to provide air defence for the Fleet; it is to provide projection of offensive power.[221]

More bluntly, Lord Bach added that—

    the role of the Royal Navy carriers is not primarily now to defend the fleet, but it is in line with the expeditionary doctrine that underpins our defence policy, much more about the ability to project power at a distance. ... The Sea Harrier makes little contribution to this, frankly. The GR7 makes a much more substantial one and will make an even greater one when it is upgraded to the GR9.[222]

92. Lord Bach also noted that while the UK might operate on its own, "it is much more likely, given where things stand now, that we are going to be part of a coalition force, and that there will be allies who will be able to assist us if we need assisting".[223] Sir Jock Stirrup put it more firmly; that "in most cases high intensity combat operations [will be] with allies and partners".[224] There are discussions underway it seems that may allow the NATO Prague summit in November to encourage further role-specialisation or burden sharing in the Alliance, in the face of the slow progress with the Defence Capabilities Initiative. We are forced to conclude that whatever the result of such discussions, the UK has already decided that in another five years it will rely on others for air-defence patrols for our naval task forces.

93. We recognise that there is a rationale for not upgrading the Sea Harrier, and withdrawing it early from service. It presumes that our future maritime operations will be conducted almost exclusively in littoral environments, where other air-defence weapons systems are likely to be more effective, and other aircraft of greater utility for supporting forces ashore. But it must come with caveats. The MoD must ensure that the air-defence capability improvements planned for the Type-42 destroyer and its Sea Dart missile are now delivered without further delays. The Type-45 and its next generation of anti-air missiles must also be delivered to time and to specification, and a sufficiently large fleet of these destroyers procured to give the required defensive cover for our naval forces. The rationale also depends critically on other navies and air forces providing air-defence cover for our forces, particularly when open-ocean operations are still required. For it is clear from the evidence we have taken in this inquiry that our ability to deploy and defend UK naval forces in open-ocean scenarios is not effective; or more accurately perhaps, that such a situation has long been the case but has now been addressed head-on. There are, then, a lot of pieces that must all fall into place before the Sea Harrier's demise can be regarded with at least some confidence. The MoD must ensure that none are missing. We will be following this process very closely.

Financial considerations

94. In contemplating the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier, the new Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability), Sir Jock Stirrup, told us that he would prefer not to lose this layer of air-defence for the carriers, but that the decision was made on "balance of investment" grounds.[225] This took account, he said, of the technical risks of upgrading the Sea Harrier, operating in future with allies, upgrading the existing Type-42 destroyers and their Sea Dart missiles, and the reducing importance of the air-defence role provided by the Sea Harrier. And we have discussed these issues above. He also cited, however, the "extremely expensive" nature of any upgrade of the Sea Harrier that might improve its operational effectiveness.[226]

95. But it is not just a question of avoiding apparently prohibitive extra expenditure. The decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier would also produce net financial savings for the Department—£109 million[227] over the period 2002-03 to 2005-06—even after making some extra investment on the GR7 to improve its carrier capability. Lord Bach told us that this broke down into a saving of about £135 million, arising principally from the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier (with a commensurate reduction in aircraft support costs, the avoidance of unnecessary infrastructure work at RAF bases, and the cancellation of previously planned Sea Harrier upgrade programmes), offset by extra expenditure of £26 million for modifications to the existing carriers and to the GR7 aircraft and logistic support for that aircraft to allow it to operate more readily from aircraft carriers.[228]

96. About £80 million of the savings from discontinued Sea Harrier support will go towards meeting the £330 million cost of the overall Harrier GR9 upgrade programme.[229] That programme will provide avionics and weapons upgrades to give the aircraft a much improved capability, in particular the ability to deliver the new generation of smart weapons that are about to enter service. These will include the Brimstone anti-armour weapon and the Precision Guided Bomb.[230]

97. Sir Jock Stirrup had other plans for the remainder of the savings (and the unquantified but significant avoided additional expenditure on upgrading all of the Sea Harriers' engines[231]). There were, he said, other programmes that required investment and "it was a question of balance of priorities."[232] Specifically, he told us that—

    We cannot mount any kind of air defence or, indeed, any operation without adequate information superiority, and we must make more investment in those areas.[233]

The decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier early will provide financial savings, but this does not appear to have been the main impetus behind the decision. That has been the practical difficulty in developing the aircraft with the capability improvements it would need. If, as the MoD maintains, this a question of 'balance of investment' we expect the MoD to set out clearly what additional, higher priority, investments it now expects to make with these savings.

163   Eighth Report, Session 1997-98, The Strategic Defence Review, HC 138, para 218 Back

164   Eg Navint, 15 March 2002 Back

165   Ev 106, para 7 Back

166   ibid Back

167   MoD Press Notice 28 February 2002; HC Deb 28 February 2002, c145lw Back

168   Report from the C&AG, Major Projects Report 1996, Session 1997-98, HC 238, page 113 Back

169   Q 186 Back

170   Ev 142, para 7.5 Back

171   Fourteenth Report, Session 1999-2000, Lessons of Kosovo, HC 347, para 138 Back

172   Report from the C&AG, Major Projects Report 1994, Session 1994-95, HC 436, page 113 Back

173   Report from the C&AG, Major Projects Report 1995, Session 1995-96, HC 677, page 100 Back

174   Eleventh Report, Session 1989-90, Sea Harrier Mid-life Update, HC 445, para 1-3, and 53 Back

175   RAF website Back

176   HC Deb, 21 May 2002, c163w Back

177   HC Deb 13 March 2002, c 1166w Back

178   HC Deb, 15.3.02, c1252w Back

179   HC Deb 18 April 2002, cc 1075-7 Back

180   QQ 193-4 Back

181   Ev 142, para 7.1 Back

182   HC Deb, 21 May 2002, c169w Back

183   QQ 193-194 Back

184   Ev 142, para 7.3 Back

185   Ev 142, para 7.4 Back

186   Q 395 Back

187   MoD Press Notice, 28 February 2002 Back

188   Ev 99, para 7 Back

189   Ev 98, para 5 Back

190   Ev 98, para 2; Q 390 Back

191   Q 192 Back

192   QQ 219, 220, 231 Back

193   Q 232 Back

194   Q 394 Back

195   Q 385 Back

196   Q 394 Back

197   QQ 192, 385 Back

198   Q 220; see also QQ 192, 197, 200 and 203 Back

199   Q 385 Back

200   Q 394 Back

201   Q 386 Back

202   Q 205 Back

203   Ev 141, para 6.8 Back

204   Sixth Report from the Public Accounts Committee, Session 2001-02, Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2000-The Role of the Equipment Capability Customer, HC 369, Ev 5, 6, 18 and 36 (see also Major Projects Report 2000, op cit, para 3.13 Back

205   Ev 141, para 6.2-6.6 Back

206   Ev 141, para 6.9 Back

207   We were given a briefing on JSF by Lockheed Martin during its visit to Washington earlier this year. Back

208   Ev 107, para 10 Back

209   Ev 108, para 19 Back

210   Press reports suggest that in US budget planning for the 2004-09 period, the US requirement for JSF may be reduced by up to 500 aircraft, perhaps largely to be taken from those destined for the US Navy and Marine Corps (which together are currently expected to buy 1,637). Back

211   Ev 106, para 1 Back

212   Ev 106, para 6 Back

213   Q 209 Back

214   Ev 91, para 1 Back

215   ibid Back

216   Q 285 Back

217   Q 282 Back

218   HC Deb, 16 April 2002, c 823w Back

219   Q 234 Back

220   Q 226 Back

221   QQ 188-192 Back

222   Q 385 Back

223   Q 393 Back

224   Q 203 Back

225   QQ 192-3, 197 Back

226   Q 193 Back

227   HC Deb 29 April 2002, c531 w Back

228   Q 376 Back

229   Ev 144, paras 12.1-12.2 Back

230   ibid Back

231   To upgrade engines for 11 aircraft would have cost £230 million-see paragraph 78 Back

232   Q 186 Back

233   Q 205 Back

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