Could the Harrier Have Made a Difference?

Britain’s First Sea Lord argues that a carrier would have made the Libyan mission more effective. Chris Revell is skeptical.

In May 2011, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, told a parliamentary defense committee that the retention of Britain’s aircraft carrier capacity would be his top priority if the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) were rewritten. Had this been the case, the carrier would in all likelihood be participating in operations against the regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi right now.

Today in an interview with The Telegraph, Sir Mark argues that had HMS Ark Royal and her Harrier aircraft been available, they would have made the mission in Libya more effective, faster and cheaper and allowed Britain a more reactive force. But just how valid is his argument?

While the Harrier is a capable aircraft, it is unable to use the Royal Air Force’s latest air to surface munitions, the Storm Shadow and Brimstone, both of which are being used by the Tornado and in the case of Brimstone also by the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Harrier also lacks a standoff anti-radiation missile and even air to air radar. It would therefore have been forced to rely on American or French strikes against Libyan air defenses to permit any operations. The French and other NATO allies would have had to enforce the no-fly zone while Harrier craft carried out ground strikes.

The Harrier would have allowed a faster reaction time — twenty minutes as opposed to an hour and a half because the current aircraft operate from bases in Italy. The Harrier is slightly more expensive per hour to operate than the Tornado however and the deployment of an aircraft carrier with an escort and support vessels could cost a significant sum in fuel, supplies and wages at a time when the Treasury and Ministry of Defense are desperate to cut costs.

The Tornado and Eurofighter require the deployment of support personnel from Britain, the support of tanker aircraft en route to Libya, the leasing of Italy’s Gioia del Colle air base and the movement of munitions from Britain to Italy so operational costs are also high, especially when the use of Tornado aircraft based in Britain flying directly to strike targets in Libya is included.

Having Harrier available would have made little or no difference to the campaign itself. It would have been unable to participate in the opening strikes due to the threats posed by Libyan air defenses, unable to enforce a no-fly zone owing to its lack of anti-aircraft and air defense capability and its contribution to supporting Libyan rebels with ground strikes would rely on hitting tanks inside Misrata with Paveway bombs; a recipe for collateral damage!

Sir Mark is quite right that Britain cannot maintain its operational tempo in Libya. However this is as much due to the fact that after almost three months of sporadic bombing there are few targets that can be “justifiably” bombed to pressure Gaddafi as it is due to government cost cutting. No amount of aircraft carriers or strike aircraft would have altered this. As Sir Mark goes on to say, there is no going back and we have to look forward, presumably to next month when he tells us again of his desire for an aircraft carrier capability.

Perhaps if Sir Mark had been as determined to retain the Royal Navy’s carrier capability before the SDSR had taken effect, he might still have had it? As it is, Sir Mark joins a long list of British military chiefs who have failed to stand up to the government to the detriment of the service personnel they command.