Original URL: https://www.theregister.com/2011/03/25/libya_analysis/

Libya fighting shows just how idiotic the Defence Review was

Vast fleet of RAF planes delivers just 3 crap missiles

By Lewis Page

Posted in Legal, 25th March 2011 12:12 GMT

Comment Recent combat operations by British and allied forces in Libya are beginning to tell us a lot: not so much about the future of Libya, which remains up for grabs, but about the tools one actually needs for fighting real-world wars against real-world enemy armed forces.

The vast bulk of our own armed forces are set up, equipped and focused on this type of mission – rather than the hugely more common one of battling guerillas and insurgents, as seen in Afghanistan – so the Libyan operations of the last week are very important to us at a time of shrinking budgets and worldwide turbulence. Libya is telling us how well the Coalition government did in its recent Strategic Defence and Security Review - and bluntly, it is showing that the Review was a fiasco.

A crewman aboard an RAF E-3D AWACS plane monitors the air picture over Libya. Credit: Crown Copyright/SAC Andy Stevens

This bloke is actually doing something useful.

While we are learning these lessons, we need to remember all the time that all the different parts of our armed forces are well aware of these dynamics and are jockeying for position throughout, trying to make sure we learn the lessons they wish us to learn. It is always very common in all modern wars to find, for instance, that tasks will be achieved or attempted using inappropriate tools in order to justify those tools' existence.

Thus we need to ask not whether this or that was used, but whether this was the most efficient way to achieve the goal – whether it could have been done more cheaply and/or with less risk to our servicemen and women. In many cases we will need to ask whether anything actually was achieved.

So what's happened so far?

In short, it appeared until last weekend that the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi's dictatorship would soon be crushed, as Gaddafi had retained control over the bulk of his armed forces. As he thus had an almost complete monopoly of heavy military hardware – coupled with a complete lack of restraint in using it – he would be able to defeat the rebels militarily almost regardless of the degree of support they might enjoy among the population.

The western alliance has stepped in to remove this military inequality – to neutralise Gaddafi's hardware, to defeat his armed forces. What threats have we needed to neutralise, then?

First and least significant among these were Gaddafi's air defences, preventing us from operating above Libya. Air defences generally consist of fighter jets, missiles fired from the ground, and long-range radars (on the ground or, in the case of well equipped enemies, airborne) which are used to direct operations.

Gaddafi's air force at the start of the fighting was very typical mad-dictator or military-junta stuff. He nominally had hundreds of combat jets, but these were antiques – at least two generations behind modern planes like the UK's Eurofighters or France's Rafales, and a generation behind our older planes like the Tornado. Also, only handfuls of the Libyan planes were actually airworthy – perhaps 50-odd all up.

Gaddafi's planes would present a potent threat against ground forces without air cover – they operated effectively against the rebels – but the air-to-air menace they could offer against our planes was close to nil.

Thus we have to conclude that highly advanced specialist air-to-air combat capability has not been necessary here. The RAF has rushed Eurofighter Typhoons to Italy – they were the first British aircraft to arrive there, in fact – but they are pure air-to-air planes at the moment (the RAF doesn't expect to have them properly ready for use as bombers until 2018). The odds are that they will not fire a shot – and if they do it will be to swat down some rusty old MiG flown by a suicidal pilot. For this job, much cheaper fighters would have been more than adequate: say American F-18s or F-16s, or even our previous embarrassing Tornado F3, now retired.

So, point one: buying the Eurofighter remains a stupid idea on our part.

Much more serious than fighters from our point of view were Gaddafi's heavy missile batteries and air-search radars, which could make the sky dangerous right up to high altitudes above 40,000 feet. Coalition electronic warfare and AWACS aircraft – along with US satellites – had been monitoring Libya for weeks prior to commencement of hostilities last weekend, and appear to have done a good job of locating these systems (and tracking them in the case of those which have been mobile).

Point two: electronic warfare and AWACS planes are useful, even against the minor regimes who we might genuinely fight in the real world. The decision to keep both in the recent UK Defence Review was sensible (the Nimrod R1 Elint planes were marked for the bin – and have been temporarily been reprieved for duty in the Libyan situation – but replacement "Rivet Joint" aircraft are on order).

OK, so we had a good handle on where the radars and missiles were. The next step is to take them out, rendering the skies safe for us to use (above say 10,000 feet, the effective ceiling of portable shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles).

There are lots of ways to take out radars and missile batteries. One way, provided you aren't up against modern AWACS-plane radar looking down from the sky, is to fly in at low altitudes. That way you'll be below the horizon and won't show up on radar until the last few minutes. Then you zoom in, bomb the target and hope that you can get out again safely even though the enemy very definitely know you're there at this stage.

The RAF's Tornado bombers were originally designed just for this type of mission back in the 1970s. They tried it in 1991 against Saddam Hussein's forces, and were famously decimated – typically getting shot down by short-range anti-aircraft weapons as they departed the target area.

Those massive longhaul Tornado raids against Libya? They delivered just three or four cruise missiles of the hundreds it took to close down Gaddafi's defences

Thus these days, unless we possess Stealth aircraft (hard to see on radar if used right – only the US has these) we normally prefer to tackle defended targets situated within a radar/missile defense net by shooting cruise missiles at them. A cruise missile is basically a robot jet aeroplane which flies in low like a Tornado and then crashes on the target, blowing it up. Risk to our people is avoided, and of course getting shot down while outbound isn't an issue.

An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon takes off from the UK to participate in Op ELLAMY. Credit: Crown Copyright/Cpl Andrew Seaward

This bloke? Not so much

We are told in official announcements that some 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were used in the initial strike at the weekend, launched from US and British warships and submarines off the Libyan coast. We are also told that "a number" of Storm Shadow shorter-ranged cruise missiles were launched from Tornado bombers. The Tornadoes had flown 3,000 miles from Kent Norfolk to do so, requiring the aid of repeated air-to-air refuelling assistance both on the way out and on the way back.

We can be pretty sure what the unspecified number of Storm Shadows was, as the Tornado can carry only one Storm Shadow into combat and we are told that a total of four Tornadoes have been assigned to Operation ELLAMY, the British contribution to the Libyan fighting. Some accounts suggest that in fact only three Storm Shadows were fired in the initial long-range Tornado raid.

Later in the weekend the Tornadoes launched another massive longhaul mission from the UK but this was aborted due to the presence of civilians in the target area – although there is some suggestion that a Storm Shadow may have been fired anyway. More Tomahawks were also launched from naval units off the coast.

Following the weekend cruise missile barrage of 112 to say 200+ Tomahawks (and three or four Storm Shadows) we were told that "the Libyan air force no longer exists ... we can operate in Libyan airspace with impunity".

Subsequently some more Libyan air-defence targets appeared – it would of course be a normal tactic to keep some radars switched off at first, mobile missile batteries hidden etc. Nobody bothered waiting for bombers to trundle in across Europe this time, however: more Tomahawks were launched from just off the coast and the targets were silenced.

It has been widely noted in the press that Tomahawk missiles are expensive: the most recent batch purchased by the UK cost about £1m each, though the Americans (buying in bulk) get the earlier models for around £300k. The Tomahawk is very cheap compared to the Storm Shadow, however, which has cost the UK approximately £2m a pop – despite being short-ranged and thus needing a Tornado to carry it much of the way.

Point three: there was no point at all in mounting the Tornado Storm Shadow missions, which made a negligible contribution to the suppression of Libyan air defences (quite likely zero, if the missile's performance during the Iraq invasion was repeated1). We should never have bought Storm Shadow and may as well dispose of it now – we should certainly not, as is planned, squander large sums fitting it to the Eurofighter as well.

Our lesson from a shooting war against a national air force – the first we have fought since 1982 – is that you don't suppress enemy air defences of the sort you actually meet in the real world with deep penetration bombers and air-launched weapons (far less with stealth planes). You do it with AWACS and Elint planes and Tomahawks launched from the sea.

The pointlessness of the Tornado in the initial Libyan story is also interesting, as the decision in the recent review to scrap the highly popular Harrier in order to keep the Tornado was highly controversial.

But hold on – our four Tornadoes are now based in Italy (at Gioia del Colle on the Gulf of Taranto) now armed with Brimstone tank-buster missiles and smart bombs rather than Storm Shadow. Now they will prowl the skies above Libya, picking off Gaddafi's armour and generally giving the rebels help wherever they can do so without killing innocent bystanders. They may also provide airborne surveillance and spyeye capability with their "Raptor" recce pods.

Unfortunately in order to do so they will have to fly in 700 miles across the Mediterranean to reach the contested regions, then out again, meaning that our airmen will spend more than half their flight time above the sea, not above the battlefield. Again, frequent aerial refuelling will be a necessity to make this possible at all; this will also be the case with no-fly-zone enforcement by Eurofighter Typhoons.

Why only four Tornadoes in Italy? The RAF has no less than 136 of them, after all – though admittedly there are also eight Tornadoes deployed to Afghanistan.

This is very interesting too, as well-connected sources tell us that "even the Afghanistan operation alone was viewed, as long ago as 2009, as getting near the prolonged deployed limits of the Tornado force ... Maintaining a long-term presence in both Afghanistan and the Mediterranean may mean postponing June's squadron cuts".

The planned June cuts resulting from the Defence Review mean reducing the fleet from 136 to 100. In other words the RAF is contending that it requires more than 11 Tornadoes to keep one in the field. The former Harrier force was able to keep at least one in seven of its jets flying combat: and it was better for operations in Afghanistan - not least as it was capable of getting off the runway there without occasionally running off the end and being destroyed. The Harrier could even carry Storm Shadow, assuming you actually wanted to do that for some reason.

Don't we just wish we had a carrier off Libya now? Shame we scrapped ours just months ago. Nice work, Mr Cameron

There can be little doubt that the Harrier would also have been better for Libya. The Harrier fleet actually had more aircraft modernised to drop the latest smart weaponry – it was a superior battlefield strike plane – and it was cheaper to run. Best of all, it could operate from our also-recently-axed pocket aircraft carriers right off the coast and thus reach the theatre of action in minutes rather than hours. France and the USA both have carriers operating off the Libyan coast right now, but our foolish decisions in the recent review have left us on the sidelines.

A Tomahawk cruise missile in flight, as launched from Royal Navy submarines. Credit: Crown Copyright/Royal Navy

This is how you suppress enemy air-defence networks

Oh, but carriers are expensive, aren't they? Why, the new ones – which we will still build, though they will get no planes until 2020 or later – might cost £5bn or more.

True, but air-to-air refuelling – of the sort that Tornadoes and Eurofighters need in such huge amounts to be even marginally useful – costs a hell of a lot more. Our future PFI air-to-air refuelling package is set to cost us no less than £10.5bn, plus billions more from Treasury reserves for actual combat operations. And at the end we won't even own the planes.

Point four: The decisions taken over many years to whittle down the Harrier force to the point where it was barely viable – and then finally axe it in the Review – were totally wrong. Instead the Tornado should have been scrapped. Our present-day fleet of more than 130 of these cripplingly expensive-to-run, slow, lumbering low-altitude jets, assisted by similarly costly tanker planes, has offered us an utterly pathetic capability to deliver three or four dodgy missiles into Libya and a minimalist air support capability thereafter.

Even by the time of the Review, when the Harrier fleet was down to an almost unviable 44 jets, it would have made more sense to keep them, scrap the Tornado and buy or lease some nice cheap F-18s from America to bulk up our strike forces somewhat. The RAF should be ashamed of itself for manipulating the Prime Minister into keeping Tornado; heads should roll.

Point five: The connected decision to forfeit strike carrier capability for at least 10 years has been shown to be utterly mistaken, just months after it went into effect.

The scheme of keeping Harrier and leasing some F-18s would have worked well on the carrier front too – right now Harriers would be above Libya, operating from our Falklands-vintage pocket carriers, and F-18s would presently replace Tornados in Afghanistan (and do a much better job there). When the first new carrier appears in a few years, F-18s – equipped as they are for tailhook deck operation, though not hover landing as required by the just-departed Harrier carriers – would be ready to move straight aboard. They would bridge the gap nicely until the planned F-35C tailhook stealth jets arrive in the 2020s.

A fleet of F-18s would also remove any possible need to keep the Eurofighter: we could scrap it and save not just the £11bn+ it is officially supposed to cost us in support down the road, but also the many extra billions it will actually cost to run in the real world.

Is there anything more we can learn from the Libyan fighting so far?

Well, maybe one thing. We can also consider Gaddafi's other hardware, the stuff which was letting him actually crush the rebels: his tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery on the ground. Our own army has a lot of this kit, not as old as Gaddafi's but mostly pretty old, and it would like to buy replacements. More than £10bn of funding is still allocated for this, even after the Review.

We should bear in mind here that the only real purpose of a main battle tank is to fight other armoured vehicles (unless you're into using them against street protests – definitely not our style). This is also mostly true of other armoured combat vehicles and most kinds of artillery: though they can be used in counter-insurgency fighting of the sort seen in Afghanistan, it usually turns out that there are better and much cheaper alternatives. We have in fact bought hundreds of new counter-insurgency type vehicles to use in Afghanistan, and very little of our traditional armour is there. Some of the artillery is, but it isn't firing many rounds; there are much better and easier ways to make explosives fall out of the sky than setting up a defended base to house a battery of guns or rockets every few dozen miles.

So armour and artillery isn't required for fighting Afghanistan-type wars. But perhaps it is required for warfare against proper armed forces, who have tanks and big guns and rocket batteries of their own? We won't be going into Libya on the ground in any strength, but we might easily want to in some future fight against some future dictator or junta of his type. We did in Iraq, twice, after all.

But even in 1991, the general who commanded the British armour assessed that in fact his tanks and guns had no real chance to do their bit2; the Iraqi army was smashed from the air before our troops could close with it. In 2003 for round two, only a third of the ground units we sent were actually armoured – the others were light troops, often in the past stigmatised as little more than "speed bumps" against enemy armour - and yet they had no problems during the invasion. The writing has really been on the wall for our armoured forces since then.

Today, Gaddafi's armour has been stopped cold outside Benghazi and it appears likely that it will be eliminated completely in the coming weeks – now that the cruise missiles have cleared the way for strike air to operate. Sure, Gaddafi's armour was every bit as obsolete and rubbish as his air force – though being simpler, rather more of the kit was at least partly functional – but this is what real enemies that you might actually fight are like. And anyway, it's now pretty widely acknowledged that even modern tanks will be cut to bits if they try to manoeuvre under hostile skies.

So armoured forces are useless either way: if you have air superiority you plainly don't need them, and if the skies are hostile they will be destroyed. Armour and most types of artillery are also extremely expensive, require enormous logistic support and take ages to get to the battlefield. They account for the majority of our army's budget and personnel, in fact, one way and another – perhaps a clue as to why the generals cling to them so vigorously.

Point six: The decision to keep well over half of our armour/artillery forces in the recent Review was a needless waste of money. Tank, reconnaissance (that is, light tank) and heavy artillery regiments should either be got rid of entirely or reduced to a single brigade's worth (ie one of each). This would free up tens of thousands of personnel billets and huge amounts of budget for more cost-effective formations. We might get to the point where the British Army could put as many troops into combat as the US Marines can3.

Meanwhile in A'stan ... more than half our troops helicopter lift has to be borrowed from the US Marines

Summing up, the lesson of Libya is that the recent Defence Review was, indeed, a dismal failure. RAF empire-preservation saddled us with the useless Tornado at the cost of our carrier capability. The army insisted on preserving pointless tanks and big guns and as a result we are not pulling our weight in Helmand – a war we more or less unilaterally started in 2005 – and we have no option to intervene on the ground in Libya seriously.

The navy made no real effort to help matters. It might have managed to preserve a carrier capability by making concessions on its pointless frigate flotilla, but this it refused to do.

RAF Eurofighter Typhoons take fuel from a VC10 tanker above the Mediterranean while a Tornado awaits its turn. Credit: Crown Copyright/SAC Taz Hetherington

We're going to be doing an awful lot of this in coming weeks

Most shamefully of all, the Coalition has slashed – and may now cancel altogether – an order for vital Chinook helicopters that would let our troops fight safely and effectively in Afghanistan (or anywhere else). Even though we don't manage to send many troops to war because we keep so many at home polishing tanks, the ones we do send are hamstrung by their lack of choppers.

This is an aside – not really relevant to Libya, not yet anyway – but it's important, so forgive the digression. The helicopter issue really is critical. Just for example, British troops in Helmand last month mounted an airmobile operation into Taliban-controlled territory in which some 300 troops needed to be delivered in one lift. The British officer in charge wrote:

I fully expected that complications would conspire to make {the] plan come to nothing. I was wrong - on my return from the UK the operation was good to go, the aircraft were available ....

The RAF assigned four Chinook and three Merlin choppers – almost all the transport helicopters the UK has in Afghanistan – to the task. However these on their own could never have moved the troops in such tough high-altitude conditions.

As a result the US Marines had to supply four CH-53 Stallions, which provided more than half the lifting capacity used in the operation. The USMC also supplied Cobra gunship escorts – evidently no British Apaches were available.4

On an earlier operation in 2009 no helicopters could be obtained (perhaps nobody cared to beg the Americans for some). The colonel in charge on that occasion wrote:

I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters – we all know we don't have enough.

We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED [Improvised Explosive Device, ie roadside bomb] threat and our exposure to it.

The colonel was subsequently killed by an IED explosion during an unnecessary road movement. Previously there have been the sad cases of Major Matt Bacon in Basra – killed in a road convoy which only set out because a scheduled helicopter flight was cancelled – and many, many others all the way back to the 1979 Warrenpoint bombing in Northern Ireland and beyond. Hundreds of our servicemen have been killed and crippled and injured over the years, all for lack of helicopter lift which we could easily afford; but instead we squander our cash on pointless Tornadoes and tanks and frigates.

Hopefully this illustrates the awful, deadly, embarrassing lack of helicopters our forces suffer from, and the terrible betrayal of Coalition ministers' plans to prevent this being partially sorted out. As for the RAF air marshals who have advised those ministers to cut the new helicopter order in order to keep Tornadoes and Storm Shadows, it's impossible to imagine how they get to sleep at night. No condemnation is too strong for them.

Quite apart from Service parochialism and empire preservation, another and even more powerful factor has been at work. All through the Review the malign influence of the greedy, inefficient British arms industry has been paramount.

After all, the RAF wouldn't at all mind having F-18s instead of Tornados or F-35s instead of Eurofighters, but BAE Systems would lose huge, lucrative maintenance and upgrade contracts if that happened. BAE would lose yet more if the army's tanks and artillery were cut. The crappy £2m Storm Shadow is partly British made, the far superior £1m-and-falling Tomahawk is not. The ripoff megabillion air-to-air refuelling deal is run by a consortium of influential British defence contractors. So the list goes on.

But the chance to change things is not gone yet. So badly fudged were the Strategic Defence and Security Review's figures that more reorganisation remains on the cards; in effect, a review of the Review is now very likely. The chance is still there to scrap the cripplingly expensive Tornado and Eurofighter altogether and replace them with cheap, excellent F-18s – so getting our carrier capability back in just a few years, as well. When the F-35C actually becomes affordable at last around 2025 we can buy some – by that point its Stealth and other new technologies might actually be becoming relevant for wars that might really happen, along the lines of Libya.

We can also scrap most or all of our remaining armour and heavy artillery, and get the helicopters that our combat troops need for actually fighting and staying alive, as opposed to the tanks that generals need to keep their budgets high.

It's a dream world, probably: but a lovely dream, if you're a combat soldier or a taxpayer or someone who would like British clout and prestige to be maintained.

Just a thought. ®


1Colleagues of mine in the bomb-disposal world at the time reported that the Storm Shadow's vaunted British made bunker-penetrating BROACH warhead is excellent at drilling its way deep into heavy reinforced concrete. Unfortunately it then has a nasty habit of failing to explode, creating a very troublesome problem for a hapless Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) operator to deal with later. Thanks, flyboys.

The Storm Shadow's guidance system also proved more than a little bit erratic on that occasion, too.

2This was General Rupert Smith, who later wrote that in his opinion the last occasion on which proper armour/artillery warfare took place was in the Arab-Israeli fighting of the 1970s. He has since confirmed to your correspondent that if he – the last man to command British armour en masse in combat – were placed in charge at the MoD, the current Challenger II main battle tank would not be replaced.

3The UK currently has about 10,000 troops on the ground in Helmand province. The US Marines have 30,000 (and are occasionally on the ground in Libya right now as well). The US Marine Corps has about as many personnel in total as the combined UK armed forces: but very little in the way of tanks, artillery, pure air-superiority fighters, deep penetration bombers etc etc. This may offer a clue as to how it manages generally to be so much more useful.

4You would never know this, as the MoD has sanitised the colonel's account of the operation since it was published – now, you would never realise that the USMC choppers were involved at all. Fortunately we kept a copy of the original release, as did some others. That, combined with the official MoD pictures, allows one to work out what aircraft were involved.