The Royal Air Force and the Navy are locked in a dogfight to save their fast jets after a decision by the National Security Council to scrap either the RAF’s Tornado fleet or the Navy’s Harriers.
The decision to sharply reduce Britain’s 215 aircraft fleet was one of several made at an “Away Day” meeting of the security council on Saturday as part of the Strategic Defence Review. It is expected that the review will cut between 10 and 20 per cent of Britain’s defence capability.
“It has come down to either Harrier or Tornado,” a Ministry of Defence source said, insisting that “no decision on which will go has yet been made”.
Another senior source said: “The issue is this: one fast jet fleet has to be taken out of service ASAP, full stop.”
Ministers are also expected to consider the long-term storage of tanks and artillery, the closure of several bases, the sale of Ministry of Defence housing assets, and cuts of up to 25,000 servicemen across the three services to recoup billions of pounds by 2015.
Scrapping the RAF’s 132-strong Tornado fleet, seven squadrons, could claw back up to £3 billion. The aircraft, which were designed in the early 1970s, are due to remain in service, with service-life-extension upgrades, until 2025.
The RAF is understood to be strongly in favour of shelving the much smaller “Joint Force Harrier”. This includes 36 RAF and Navy Fleet Air Arm Harrier GR9 aircraft, in three frontline squadrons and one training squadron. Scrapping the Harriers would save approximately £1 billion but would leave Britain without any aircraft-carrier-borne capability.
With the two services battling to retain cherished assets, senior naval sources accuse the RAF of providing misleading data on the success of the Tornado since the aircraft took over from the Harrier in Afghanistan last year. They also claim that the aircraft has been less durable in harsh Afghan conditions, with two Tornados lost to systems failures in the past year.
“We are well versed in the Harrier guys’ arguments,” a senior RAF source said. “The feedback we are getting is that the Tornado is performing better than the Harrier did in Afghanistan and this is leaving the Harriers feeling particularly vulnerable.”
The RAF has been keen to claim success for the Tornado in a reconnaissance role in Afghanistan, where it has been fitted with the Raptor surveillance pod. Another well-placed source told The Times that scrapping the Tornado was “finding favour” with ministers. The RAF is expected to seek to redevelop the Eurofighter Typhoon jet to provide a ground-attack capability from 2015 onwards. This would occupy some of the space left if the Tornado were scrapped.
However, the final calculation will be swayed by the much larger question of whether Britain continues to build the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers that were signed off by the Labour government and are likely to cost £6 billion.
“Buying the carriers means keeping the Harrier,” a source said. However, the carriers were “not yet safe” as the “eye-watering” costs of the programme became clearer.
Britain also has an order for 138 American-built Joint Strike Fighters to fly from the new carriers. The order, estimated to be worth £10 billion, is expected to be significantly reduced under the Strategic Defence Review.
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