The UK Ministry of Defence has declined to confirm that the nation's fleet of Harrier jumpjets will stay in service until their replacements arrive, fuelling speculation that the Harrier force will be the latest victim of ongoing defence budget problems.
The Sunday Times reported again at the weekend that the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, wants to scrap the 75-jet Harrier force. The Harriers are operated by both RAF and Royal Navy units, but the combined force comes under the RAF chain of command.
According to the Sunday Times, "the navy clashed with the air force at a meeting of senior officials last week... Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the first sea lord, has threatened to resign."
Getting rid of the Harriers would mean the end of fixed-wing aviation in the navy's Fleet Air Arm, reducing it to a small force of anti-submarine helicopters. The other main naval aviation capability, utility troop transport in support of Royal Marine Commando forces, also faces an uncertain future. The current Sea King helicopters are very old, yet there are no firm plans for their replacement. Like the Harriers, the "Junglies" of the Commando Helicopter Force now work for new management - in their case the Joint Helicopter Command, which comes under the Army.
By the time the navy's new carriers arrive at the end of the next decade, and new F-35 stealth jumpjets appear to fly from them, the RAF might well argue that it should operate the new planes. The Sunday Times says "RAF chiefs want their pilots to fly the new aircraft from the carriers". The paper suggested that the RAF were also eyeing the Army Air Corps hungrily, planning to swallow up its Apache attack choppers and planned Future Lynx light-utility aircraft.
The MoD has denied almost all of this firmly, saying that Admiral Band's and Air Marshal Torpy's comments had been "misrepresented", and issuing a statement saying:
To clarify once again, there are no RAF plans to take over the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, nor is there any RAF campaign under the slogan "one nation, one air force". As for the comments on helicopters, there is already a single Joint Helicopter Command, which involves all three Services. There are no plans to put all helicopters under a single Service.
Readers will note that there is no clear-cut denial of the proposal to close the Harrier force early. We asked the MoD for confirmation on this point, and were told that "it's all in the statement" - which it isn't, not quite. No further comment was offered.
It would seem that the Fleet Air Arm may indeed continue to exist, but without its jets. The next logical step by the RAF would be to say that it didn't actually fancy any new jumpjets in future after all. At the moment the UK plans to buy just three, for evaluation purposes.
If this was said perhaps in 2010, just as a new government without close ties to the Scottish shipyard towns came in, that might be the end of the navy's new carriers. Serious spending on them has now been pushed back until that point, so the costs of cancellation might not be unbearable.
With its carriers killed off, the mere fact that the Fleet Air Arm continued to exist would be cold comfort indeed to the navy.
It'll be interesting to see how the story unfolds over the next few years. ®