The Libyan conflict has exposed the gaping hole left by Government cuts to Britain’s sea-based air power, former senior Navy officers tell Channel 4 News.
The Government is facing renewed calls from former senior military personnel to rethink its programme of defence cuts as operations in Libya threaten to expose Britain’s weaknesses.
The decision to scrap the UK’s last aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, along with the Harrier jump jet – the last plane capable of flying from the decks of ships – has been strongly criticised by ex-RAF and Navy commanders.
The lack of a sea-based strike option initially left the RAF with no choice but to fly sorties from bases in the UK, sending Tornado jets on 3,000-mile round trips at a cost of £200,000 per aircraft, according to estimates from analysts.
The RAF bombing raid from RAF Marham in Norfolk on Saturday night is thought to be the longest single sortie since the Falklands War, entailing an eight-hour round trip.
David Cameron has told the House of Commons that two Typhoon jets have now been sent to a military base in southern Italy, 25 minutes flying time from the Libyan coast.
Commodore Steven Jermy, who flew Harriers from HMS Invincible during the Falklands war and was later Strategy Director in the British Embassy in Kabul, said the 600-mile trip from Italy to eastern Libya will make it impossible for the fighters to respond quickly enough to the changing situation.
He told Channel 4 News: “You can’t do it like that. It’s a ridiculous idea. Speaking as a naval aviator, it is a technical triumph, because it is such a long way.
“But what they are calling a tactical triumph is a reflection of a strategic shortfall.
“The advantage of being 40 miles off the coast is that the aircraft will be on deck alert in ten minutes.”
“What we are seeing is that the Americans have got what is essentially an aircraft carrier off the coast. The French will have one in a short time. The best we can do is operate 600 miles away.
“You just can’t do it. You can’t manage a combat air patrol from that distance. We struggled in the Falklands when we were 150 miles off the coast.”
Those who opposed the axing of the Harrier fleet say the fact that the US Marine Corp used its Harriers to fly missions from an amphibious assault ship in the Mediterranean against Colonel Gaddafi‘s forces on Sunday proves they were right about the usefulness of sea-based aircraft.
Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward, who was the most senior Sea Harrier commander during the Falklands War and went on to advise the Government on air tactics, said deploying the Ark Royal and Harriers in Libya instead of relying on land-based Tornados could have saved lives.
He told Channel 4 News: “The USMC Harrier is almost identical to the RAF Harrier in capability. Its flexibility is perfectly clear. They are they now on-site doing a job.
“Wherever there is a troublespot in the world, it’s so easy to put a carrier there and provide a deterrent.
“When Cumberland went in to rescue Britons from Benghazi, you could have had Ark Royal with harriers on board just sitting there, saying: ‘Okay, we’re watching you.’ It would have been a significant deterrent to Gaddafi escalating his actions, and then when the UN resolution came through, we would have been ready to move.”
In terms of attacking tanks and army units the Harrier is just as capable as the Tornado, and the Harrier has indeed got a better capability for ensuring no casualties for civilians… Cmdr Nigel Ward
He added: “In terms of attacking tanks and army units the Harrier is just as capable as the Tornado, and the Harrier has indeed got a better capability for ensuring no casualties for civilians, because is system is more accurate for the delivery of precision guided bombs.
“Quite clearly, it is a better aircraft. We’re getting a lot of spin to denigrate the capability of the Harrier to justify a bad decision, and that is an appalling record for this Government.
“The Tornado is very old. It is suffering from heavy fatigue problems. It’s being held together by a lot of engineering work. In terms of airworthiness, serviceability and maintainability, it’s awful.
“David Cameron should say: ‘I was misled terribly, it’s just not right, we should look at this again.”
The Chancellor, George Osborne, repeated in an interview on Sunday that he would not reopen the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), but military sources think the Government may be forced to postpone some of its proposed cuts due to operational pressures.
Earlier this month, the MoD refused to comment on reports that the decision to axe two Nimrod spy planes had been reversed.
The MoD insists that plans to scrap HMS Cumberland will still go ahead, with a provisional decommissioning date at the end of May, despite the frigate’s recent high-profile role in evacuating Britons from Libya.
Another former naval officer, Rear Admiral Chris Parry, said in an interview he also wants to see a review of the cuts, after issuing a warning that British forces could be involved in Libya for a long time.
He said: “I am one of the people that thinks the SDSR should be reviewed in light of not only current circumstances, but also what is likely to happen in the future,” he told the BBC. “I am concerned about the time it will take to move operations forward from here, such that we wrest the initiative away from Colonel Gaddafi.”
Cmdr Sharkey estimates that the fuel needed to fly one Tornado from RAF Marham to Libya and back would cost the taxpayer £200,000 – about 35 times what it would have cost to get a Harrier from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
He calculates that it will cost £22,500 per jet to fly from Italy rather than £5,750 from a carrier near the coast of Libya.
The MoD said some US planes have been flying sorties from American bases, despite having aircraft carriers at their disposal.
A spokesman said: “As we are proving in Libya, Britain’s Armed Forces has the capability to project air power abroad and protect our nation’s interests at very short notice.
“The Strategic Defence and Security Review was developed to give an adaptive posture which would allow greater flexibility and agility enabling us to adapt to the changing nature of threats and react to the challenges of today.
“Our extensive basing and overflight rights mean that we do not need to rely on an aircraft carrier for this operation.
“We remain the world’s fifth biggest economy with the world’s fourth biggest defence budget.”