A Marine general famous as the leader of Britain's heroic commandos and paras during the Falklands War – joined by some retired admirals – has written an open letter to the nation arguing that Prime Minister Cameron's recent decision to scrap the UK's force of Harrier jumpjets and preserve the RAF Tornado bomber fleet was a huge mistake and should be reversed.
The letter to the Times, a model of brevity, makes the following unanswerable points:
Harrier could still use Kandahar runway if half of it were blocked by Taleban action; can use any make-shift landing site; has a response time of less than 10 minutes, as against 30 [for the Tornado]; performs better in hot weather; requires fewer ground crew; and has better availability.
Harrier can deliver close air support of ground forces anywhere from the existing carriers ... [it] has nearly twice as many airframes provided with precision-guided ground attack capability [as Tornado]; will not require a further £1.4 billion to re-engine in 2014; and can remain in service until 2023 without significant investment.
The existing Tornado force will cost, over 10 years, seven times as much to keep in service as Harrier ...
The decision to axe the entire Harrier force is strategically and financially perverse.
The letter is signed by former Royal Marine major-general Julian Thompson, who should be the best-known of the signatories. Thompson commanded the UK's Commando brigade, mostly made up of Marines (reinforced for the occasion by troops from the Parachute Regiment) during the Falklands campaign, when it acted as the primary unit in the victorious land fighting*.
Signing alongside Thompson is another Falklands veteran, Lord Alan West, who captained the frigate Ardent in 1982 (and was last man off when she sank) and later became head of the navy. The two are joined by another former First Sea Lord, Julian Oswald, and two retired vice-admirals, Jeremy Blackham and John Mcanally.
Thompson and the admirals' letter has been criticised on the grounds that it is merely special pleading by the Royal Navy. True, around half of today's Harrier force is operated by naval pilots and ground crews, and the Harriers are the only jet capable of flying from the deck of HMS Ark Royal, Britain's current designated strike carrier (now marked for the bin alongside her planes).
But one should note that the other half of the Harrier force is run by the RAF: Thompson and his dark-blue co-authors' argument is not wholly an anti-RAF, pro-navy one. Furthermore one might note that none of them are naval aviators by trade - Thompson, a normal Marine, is primarily an infantryman and the admirals all spent their careers in surface warships. Yet here they are, arguing themselves blue in the face in defence of the often rather disliked Fleet Air Arm - the "WAFUs"**, as they are known, are by no means universally popular in the Navy and Marines.
One time when the Fleet Air Arm - supplemented by RAF Harrier pilots, too - has been very popular with the rest of the fleet was during the Falklands War, of course. Land-based RAF aircraft couldn't reach the theatre of battle effectively*** and so it was left to carrier-borne Harriers to contest the Argentine air force for control of the skies. Lacking carrier-borne radar aircraft to direct them, the British jets could intercept incoming strike missions only by being fortunately in the right place at the right time - but they managed this surprisingly often. We don't need Thompson and West's firsthand testimony to tell us that without the Harrier carriers the war of 1982 would have been a bloody, disastrous defeat for the UK.
Thompson and the admirals are probably wrong when they say that closing down Blighty's carrier capability for the coming decade - as is the Coalition's plan - means that "Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation on the scale of the loss of Singapore". The fact is that we now have jets based ashore in the Falklands, which means that an Argentine invasion force ought to be gutted from above before it could land.
The suggestion isn't totally foolish, however. We here on the Reg defence desk recently spoke to a British infantry officer whose men had lately played the part of Argentine special forces in a security exercise at the UK airbase on the Falklands, RAF Mount Pleasant. He said that he and his troops had easily penetrated the base perimeter and had they really been hostile would have found it a simple matter to put Mount Pleasant and its aircraft out of play for some time - easily enough time for an Argentine main force to arrive and land, for instance.