Wrong end to the right era?

by Chris Chant on 20/12/2010

The end of the UK’s Harrier capability is a sad moment for all concerned with effective support of the British ground forces in limited-war operations of the type in which they are currently committed. With its STOVL capability carrying a limited but nonetheless useful weapons load, and its ability to operate from extemporised landing pads as well as ‘austere’ airfields, the BAE Harrier was the ideal close air support and ground-attack warplane for the warfare of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Its sensors were adequate for the tasks demanded of the aeroplane, its cockpit was well located to provide the pilot with the good forward and downward fields of vision essential for locating and attacking targets on the ground, its weapons were nicely optimised for their task, and its performance included the right combination of high speed to reach the target area swiftly, and modest speed and agility to find and attack a slow-moving target on the ground close to friendly forces.

Following that of the SEPECAT Jaguar, which was another excellent warplane retired early for financial rather than military reasons, the forced demise of the Harrier leaves the British ground forces reliant for support on two excellent but unoptimised types in the form of the now elderly Panavia Tornado and modern Eurofighter Typhoon. Both of these were designed for high-end capability in an altogether more advanced form of warfare against a technically advanced opponent. The former was designed for deep strike and interdiction at high ingress and egress speeds in single-pass attacks with advanced rather than ‘mud-moving’ weapons, and the latter was created primarily for the air combat role. Given the fact that modern warplanes are designed with a large number of external hardpoints and avionics integrated via a digital databus that also allows the addition of other equipment, it is a comparatively straightforward task to give warplanes of this time a measure of ground attack and close air support capability. Specialised navigation, reconnaissance and targeting pods can be installed on one or two of the inner hardpoints, and this leaves the outer hardpoints free for the carriage of a significant weight of weapons and, where necessary, podded countermeasures.

Such a process has added an attack capability to the Tornado and Typhoon, but cannot disguise the fact that both of these warplanes were in fact created for other tasks and cannot therefore be fully optimised for the attack role. Moreover, both types were expensive to design and manufacture, and remain costly to maintain and operate. So can they be cost-effective in the attack role? I would argue that they cannot be so in terms of the results they can achieve relative to their overall costs. And where the primary threat in ground-attack operations comes from small arms, machine gun and cannon fire, it seems senseless to send into such an arena a comparatively lightly protected warplane carrying advanced and decidedly vulnerable and enormously expensive avionics that are, in the attack role, so much dead weight.

It is hard to escape the suggestion that, in the face of governmental demands that the RAF cut its costs, the senior levels of the Ministry of Defence and RAF decided that the budgetary axe should sever the neck of the Harrier, which was service’s oldest fixed-wing warplane type, despite the fact that the Harrier was currently playing a more important part in current operations than either the Tornado or Typhoon. There has always been a feeling that the latest type must somehow be better than older types, possibly because it is faster or carries more advanced avionics and weapons, but also because ‘newness’ is attractive in its own right.

So what is the answer? It is pointless now to talk about the possibility of bringing back the Harrier (and even less so the Jaguar), for neither type is still in production and stocks of essential spares have been run down or scrapped. In the shorter term, therefore, reliance will have to be placed on the existing Tornado and Typhoon, and in the slightly longer term on the forthcoming Lockheed Martin Lightning II. Given the low-intensity nature of the type of warfare to which the British forces are committed now and in the foreseeable future, however, surely there is a pressing operational need for a dedicated ground attack and close air support warplane.

Here, I believe, the British should be looking right now to start the process of creating a capable but by no means ‘gold-plated’ type that could enter service in about 10 years time. This should be a basic platform offering moderately good performance (high transit speed and lengthy loiter time); a sturdy long-life structure incorporating good physical protection for the pilot, avionics, powerplant and fuel; and the ability to carry a large and diverse load of weapons and/or sensors on external hardpoints. It should also be well equipped in terms of its internal tactical sensors and displays but, as perhaps the most important single feature, be fully optimised for the ready upgrade of all its electronic elements (as and when these become necessary and available in the form of ‘plug and play’ packages based on commercial off-the-shelf items) without the need for major internal changes.

Such a warplane should be seen as a genuinely long-term asset that can be upgraded, though only when there is a real operational necessity. Initial procurement should be based on equipping the required number of operational and training units, and creating a stock of attrition replacements. But the type should not then be taken out of production: the dedicated manufacturing facility should be maintained on the basis of low-rate production to ensure that the operational and training fleets are not degraded over a period of many decades.

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