Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from C J A Cope, Political Editor, Warship World Magazine

Towards the end of June, the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, gave a speech to the Royal United Services Institute. In that speech, he made a number of claims which, on examination, do not appear to be accurate. This is what he said:

“Let me take head-on the persistent claim that the nature of our operations in Libya, and the cost of them, would be different had we an aircraft carrier and the Harrier in service.”

“The truth is that we still would have based RAF Tornadoes and Typhoons in Italy for the air-to-air role and to carry the precision weaponry such as Stormshadow or Brimstone that Harrier cannot carry.”

“So it would not have been cheaper—in fact, it would have been much more expensive.”

Costs

According to a parliamentary reply by Peter Luff dated 14 September 2010, the cost per flight hour of operating the Tornado GR4 was £35,000, the Harrier GR9 £37,000 and the Typhoon FGR4 £70,000.

Nevertheless, as to why the GR9 should cost more to operate per flight hour than the Tornado has not been explained and should be questioned. These figures must be independently verified by the National Audit Office.

Elsewhere in his speech, Dr Fox said that Labour had already reduced the Harrier fleet in 2009, leaving the remaining aircraft being unable to sustain operations in Afghanistan, let alone undertake contingencies such as Libya. He also said that only Tornado had the capacity to do both.

Nevertheless, in a parliamentary reply dating from this spring, the MoD stated that the number of Harrier GR9s withdrawn in December 2010 was 62. This is far in excess of the numbers of Tornadoes and Typhoons operated by the RAF either in Afghanistan or Libya. 40 of these Harriers were fully fitted for and capable of frontline combat or ground support operations. In spite of the Tornado fleet numbering 107 aircraft, only 28 were fully fitted for and capable of conducting the Afghanistan close air support task. In other words, there was much more capacity within the Harrier GR9 fleet to support Afghanistan and Libyan operations. The Tornado Force Elements at Readiness (FE@R) was therefore significantly less than that of the Harrier.

A further parliamentary reply indicated that savings from the withdrawal from service of Ark Royal in December 2010 are estimated at £105 million between 2011–12 and 2014–15. Prior to SDSR, the MoD had disclosed that Ark Royal would be taken out of service in the third quarter of 2014.

Accordingly, the average annual savings following the withdrawal from service of Ark Royal during that three-year period are £35 million. That equates with the savings from the withdrawal from service of Illustrious which have also been estimated by the MoD at £35 million per annum.

It must follow, therefore, that to have maintained Ark Royal in service throughout 2011, enabling the ship to operate in the Mediterranean during Operation Ellamy would have cost the MoD about £35 million.

Dr Fox appears to be suggesting that it is cheaper to be operating RAF Tornadoes and Typhoons from Gioia del Colle in Italy than GR9s operating from Ark Royal in the Mediterranean.

It does not take a mathematical genius to realise that operating GR9s from a carrier lying just outside Libyan territorial waters has simply got to be substantially cheaper than flying Tornadoes and Typhoons from their base in Italy the 600 or so nautical miles to Libya and then back again, with VC10/ Tristar refuelling en route—not to mention the massive logistical support train by air and overland.

It is high time that the MoD disclosed the actual cost of basing Tornadoes and Typhoons in Italy, particularly following the report in the Sunday Times in June that the RAF was spending an estimated £40,000 a night for pilots and support staff to stay at 4* hotels in southern Italy.

There have been reports that land-based operations in Libya over a six months period are likely to be costing £900 million, compared with £150 million (just 17%) for sea-based operations. Moreover, if one includes infrastructure costs, the RAF figure could rise to £1.35 billion.

In any event, independent verification is essential and again I would urge you to invite the NAO to conduct an inquiry.

Launched from a carrier, a GR9 can be on task delivering weapons within 30 minutes of, for example, a call for urgent support from ground forces. In contrast, a Tornado/Typhoon operating from Gioia del Colle has a transit time of 1.5 hours to reach its target and, of course, requires air-to-air refuelling. In addition, the RAF insists on having 24 hours’ notice of close air support missions in order to support ground forces.

And finally, on the cost of operating aircraft, it has been disclosed that the Army Apache (of which four have been deployed with Ocean) are costing some £15,000 an hour—less than half that of Tornado.

Weaponry

1. ALARM (air-to-ground missile)

Is used to take out hostile radar systems. Can be operated by Tornado, but not by the GR9. However, not deployed in Libya/Afghanistan.

2. AMRAAM/ASRAAM/AIM9 Sidewinder (air-to-air missiles)

AMRAAM is a BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile and carried by Typhoon. ASRAAM can be carried by some, but not all, Tornado aircraft. The GR9 is fully configured/fitted for the carriage and use of the well-proven Sidewinder missile. Accordingly, all three aircraft types have an air-to-air capability. However, the Tornado is notoriously deficient when conducting air combat within visual range. In contrast, the Harrier is highly agile and has a proven track record in aerial combat. Nevertheless, it has to be conceded that, without radar or a BVR system, the GR9 simply cannot fulfil an area interceptor role. But the GR9 armed with the latest Sidewinder missile and controlled in-flight by carrier-borne radar controllers/ direction officers, could defend itself in close combat against any third world fighter threat. I need hardly remind you of the astonishing success rate of the Sea Harrier during the Falklands War, when operating within visual range and with superior pilot expertise. And, of course, with the new Type-45 destroyers equipped with Aster missiles and the Sampson radar system, hostile aircraft BVR would be eliminated using Sea Viper. The Aster 30 has a range of 50 miles.

3. Paveway

There are three separate marks in service, namely Mark II (simple laser-guided bomb), Mark III (GPS precision guided “bunker-busting” 2000lb bomb), Mark IV (GPS precision guided bomb).

Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR9 have the capability to deliver all three variants accurately. Typhoon can only deliver the Mk II variant and then only when it has independent targeted help.

4. Brimstone/Hellfire

Both are anti-tank missiles. Whereas the RAF aircraft can deploy Brimstone, the GR9 cannot. However, Hellfire is as good as Brimstone (and cheaper) and is carried by Apache. Nevertheless, Apache can deliver Hellfire much more responsively and from shorter range, making it a better and much more cost-effective operational weapons system.

5. Stormshadow/Tomahawk (TLAM)

Whereas the RAF aircraft can carry Stormshadow, the GR9 cannot. Furthermore, the RAF has no Tomahawk capability.

Stormshadow has a history of misfires, not guiding to target and warhead failures on hitting a target. The RAF has substantial stocks of Stormshadow missiles (900 were ordered). Each cost $1.3 million, having a range of 400 miles.

On the other hand, Tomahawk, operated from Britain’s modified T-boats, together with the new Astute class SSN, has a range of up to 1,500 miles, can be re-programmed in flight (unlike Stormshadow) and is extremely reliable with a high probability of kill (unlike Stormshadow). Furthermore, Tomahawk is less than half the price of Stormshadow.

The only advantage of Stormshadow over Tomahawk is that it has a warhead specifically designed to penetrate and destroy hardened targets, which Tomahawk cannot do. Nevertheless, an operational commander would undoubtedly be using the Mark III Paveway with the Tornado or GR9, instead of calling up a Tomahawk cruise missile if needing to destroy a hardened target.

We know that on her first deployment, HMS Triumph (SSN) fired six Tomahawk cruise missiles. The number fired on the second deployment has yet to be disclosed (thought to be eight). Equally, the Navy has limited stocks of Tomahawk missiles. During the early stages of the campaign, the US Navy deployed USS Florida, an SSGN, which fired some 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Libyan targets. There was, of course, no guarantee that the USN would participate in Operation Ellamy. Please also note that no European navy apart from the RN can fire cruise missiles.

The new Astute class can carry up to 38 weapons and would be perfectly capable of deploying 24 Tomahawk cruise missiles in any deployment.

An SSN has strategic mobility whereas airfields are static and vulnerable.

6. Other systems

The GR9 can also operate Maverick, which is a close-air-support anti-tank weapon, having an excellent track record and the CRV7 rocket, a close-air-support weapon which also has a good track record. Neither is carried by Tornado.

In addition to being equipped with the Hellfire missile, the Apache helicopter has a highly accurate cannon with 500 rounds available (far more effective and flexible than the Tornado cannon which carries half the number of rounds).

Military Conclusion

Four Astute-class SSNs armed with Tomahawk would be capable of eliminating no less than 96 targets, thereby avoiding any need to use Tornado/Typhoons armed with Stormshadow missiles. One Astute is in service. The next three boats should be in service by 2016. Today, we have four TLAM-equipped T-boats, albeit with a reduced payload.

HMS Ocean, equipped with Apache helicopters, with support from Sea King AEW helicopters, has been deployed. Apache with Hellfire missiles and cannon is being utilised for anti-tank/anti-armour purposes. A full complement of 20 Apaches is feasible, bearing in mind that over 60 were delivered to the Army Air Corps.

In addition, the Navy could have been operating HMS Ark Royal equipped with GR9s and supported by Sea King AEWs. GR9s equipped with Sidewinder missiles would have been used in air-to-air combat if the Libyan air force had managed to operate.

The GR9 equipped with Paveway could have carried out bunker-busting operations and close-air-support (this is what it was designed to do) using also the Maverick close-air-support anti-tank weapon, together with the CRV7 rocket.

This naval combination would have been more effective and considerably cheaper than involving RAF Tornadoes and Typhoons and highly expensive air-to-air refuelling and logistics backup.

During Ellamy, the RAF has managed only one Tornado mission every two days, compared with the USMC flying two missions per Harrier every day.

In any event, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (CDG) has achieved no less than 40% of daily strike missions in Libya, compared with NATO aircraft and RN/USN SSNs/SSGNs making up the remaining 60%.

SDSR made it clear that in future, we would be increasingly dependent upon allies. Consider, therefore, the following situation in relation to Operation Ellamy:

1.USN—Carriers not involved.

2.French Navy—CDG returned to Toulon with a refit due at year-end.

3.Spanish Navy—Carrier not involved.

4.Italian Navy—Carrier withdrawn for economic reasons. Government contemplating withdrawal of air base facilities, with profound implications for future RAF operations.

5.RN—No fixed-wing carriers in service.

Political Conclusion

Contrary to what Dr Fox told the RUSI:

(a)The nature of our Libyan operations would have been greatly improved using a carrier/Harrier combination, together with Apache helicopters and TLAM-equipped SSNs.

(b)We could have dispensed with all land-based air operations from Italy.

(c)There is an effective naval alternative to Brimstone/Stormshadow.

(d)The Navy could have carried out the UK’s entire contribution to Operation Ellamy at a fraction of the cost incurred by the RAF.

19 July 2011

Prepared 7th February 2012