LIBYA: Harrier retirement was unavoidable, says RAF chief

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Debate has escalated over the UK government's controversial decision to retire its last BAE Systems Harrier GR9 ground-attack aircraft late last year, with the Royal Air Force's current involvement in action over Libya having focused attention on the issue.

Interest in the topic mounted on 18 April, when UK newspaper The Sun ran a front-page image showing mothballed Harriers in storage at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland under the headline "Harrier dump jets".

 
© The Sun

The article says that the UK's contribution to the NATO-led campaign to protect Libyan civilians from attack by forces loyal to leader Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime could be delivered more cheaply by using Harriers from a Royal Navy CVS-class aircraft carrier.

The offensive element of the UK's Operation Ellamy is being provided using RAF Panavia Tornado GR4s and Eurofighter Typhoons flying combined missions out of Gioia del Colle air base in Italy, with tanker support coming from the service's Vickers VC10s.

Speaking before the article's publication, chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton has defended the Ministry of Defence's decision to retire the Harrier in favour of safeguarding the bulk of the Tornado GR4 fleet, describing it as "in cold logic, unavoidable".

With reference to the Libyan operation, Dalton said: "The Tornados have delivered [MBDA] Storm Shadows to penetrate hardened buildings and the dual-mode Brimstone, neither of which could have been delivered by the Harrier."

 
© Albanpix/Rex Features
The Tornado GR4's Storm Shadow cruise missiles were used against Libyan targets

"I am not knocking the Harrier, just those who have, often willfully, overstated its relative utility in this scenario," he told the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace 2011 conference in London on 13 April.

"In operations such as Ellamy, on the periphery of Europe, the access, basing and over-flight restrictions that would necessitate carrier strike do not apply. There is simply no comparison in terms of platform capability, time on station or versatility between Tornado GR4s operating from a well-found NATO airfield in Italy and Harriers operating from a CVS."

Outlined last October, the UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review also included a decision to retire the Royal Navy's last operational aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal.