Following a ‘Strategic Defence & Security Review’ by the Coalition Government it was decided to decommission HMS Ark Royal and the Joint Force Harrier fleet. It was also decided to cancel the UK order for ASTOVL F-35B Lightning IIs and substitute a reduced number of the conventional USN F-35C version to operate from the RN’s second CVF carrier Prince of Wales which will now be fitted with catapults and arrester gear. The first ship, Queen Elizabeth, will be configured for helicopter operations only and then will be ‘mothballed’ after a few years. It is hoped to find a buyer. Both ships will still be built because the contract with BAE Systems is essentially unbreakable as cancellation would cost more than completing the build. There is also a political angle; cancellation would cause massive unemployment in the shipyards.

Harrier Valediction

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It is reported that the initial choice was to keep the Harriers and Ark Royal and decommission the Tornado bombers thus leaving the UK with a flexible tactical force that could be deployed world-wide. However, some Air Marshals persuaded the Government that it would be more economical to keep a (reduced) RAF fleet of swing-wing, twin engined, heavy, two seat supersonic bombers needing a 2.5 billion update than to retain a joint RAF-RN force of vectored thrust, single engined, single seat, subsonic light attack fighters which had recently been brought right up to date.

So, at last, the big-ship Admirals have got rid of the through-deck cruisers they never wanted, which operated subsonic fighters they had to have, and at last (may) have their beloved mega-expensive 65,000 ton catapult equipped carrier, operating real supersonic naval aeroplanes with tail hooks - but not for ten years. And the Air Marshals keep their big, supersonic bombers.

And, by the way, this will have the major benefit, never mentioned before, of allowing cross-operation with carriers of our allies. That would be the USA and France: one who has so many carriers that they don’t need to use ours, and the other who has in the past shown complete indifference to joint efforts unless, of course, they can be in charge.   

So until 2020, or later as programmes invariably slip, our Government had better make sure that any war zones our forces are ordered to operate in are within range of a friendly base with long enough runways for those Tornado bombers; like Afghanistan (where the Harriers’ quick reaction times were highly valued but where the Tornados are not shining and need to flight refuel immediately after take-off) which seems to be driving this country’s defence policy.

Should Argentina have another stab at taking the Falklands now that oil has been found there, let’s hope that the four Typhoons at Stanley can keep them at bay. If they can’t the UK has no response as Argentina is unlikely to grant over-flight rights for Tornados flying out of UK-friendly Chile.

All these arguments have been put and failed to convince so, it is farewell to the Harrier and jet V/STOL in the United Kingdom, home to the people who perfected the machine and the operating concepts. The good news is that the US Government and the USMC continue to have faith, and that BAE Systems and UK brains and industrial skills remain integral and essential parts of the Joint Strike Fighter programme.