Saturday, December 18, 2010

Retiring the Harrier GR9 will damage the ability to regenerate skills to operate the new F-35C variant of the Joint Strike Fighter off a new aircraft carrier when it enters service around 2020.

One of Britain's senior Royal Air Force commanders has rebutted suggestions that retiring the Harrier GR9 will damage the ability to regenerate skills to operate the new F-35C variant of the Joint Strike Fighter off a new aircraft carrier when it enters service around 2020.
Sixteen Harriers in a diamond formation over RAF Cottesmore. (Ministry of Defence)
"Anybody who thinks that operating a Harrier today was somehow going to link you with the F-35C on the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier is [wrong]. It is just not true," said Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell.
The Harrier is a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft, while the F-35C is a conventional aircraft requiring catapults and arrestor wires to operate. The latter aircraft is destined to be used on the new 65,000-ton carriers now being built by a BAE Systems-led alliance.
Britain originally intended to acquire the STOVL F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter, but as part of the strategic defense and security review in October opted to switch to the conventional F-35C variant.
At the same time, the British government decided to immediately ax the joint RAF/Royal Navy Harrier GR9 force and decommission the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, leaving Britain without a maritime air strike capability until 2020, when the F-35C and the Queen Elizabeth-class warship are available.
Britain's joint force of 79 Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harrier GR9's aircraft took off into retirement Nov. 15 from their base at Cottesmore in eastern England and will now be scrapped, unless they can be sold or a new use for them is found.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper said earlier this week the MoD was looking at a proposal to create a reserve squadron using the Harriers.
The decision to decommission the Harrier and the Ark Royal has caused huge controversy, in part because its opponents say it will be difficult to regain the skills needed to run carrier strike operations in the future.
Bagwell said he does not underestimate the challenges and risks involved in building the F-35C operation, but he thinks the RAF and the RN forces would have faced the issue regardless of whether the Harrier had stayed in service.
"The techniques and procedures to recover a conventional carrier aircraft using catapult launches and arrestor gear recoveries, or 'cats and traps,' are totally different from that of a STOVL aircraft," he said.
"That is just as true for the aircrew as it is for the ships crew. Whilst the Harrier would have preserved the requisite skill sets for the F35B STOVL variant of the Joint Combat Aircraft" - the name the British called their JSF program - "they are largely irrelevant to that needed to operate the F35C.
"Effectively, we need to build the skill sets for the new aircraft and carrier configuration from scratch. We all ready have plans in place to begin that build up over the next 10 years with our allies and partners."
He said it was a "tall order," but regaining carrier skills is a problem Britain had previously faced and overcome.
One senior Royal Navy commander agreed with Bagwell's assessment and said there was a much bigger question mark over regaining deck skills than the capabilities of pilots
Bagwell, who commands all of Britain's fast jet operations, said the RAF and the RN "have 10 years to get our act in gear and understand what operating the F-35C variant means for training and other preparation. Some we will have to learn from the USA and France," he said.
The British already have a pilot exchange program with the U.S. with officers flying carrier operations with the F-18.
Bagwell said he was confident British pilots would also be flying French Navy jets as well
"We will be flying Rafales from French carriers within a few years. I'm sure of it," he said.
The British are targeting the availability of a single squadron of F-35Cs by 2020 to equip a joint RAF/RN operation. Briefing reporters last week, Bagwell said that would require an initial order for about 40 aircraft.
How the aircraft will be employed in the future has yet to be worked out, but said he thought the aircraft would not be tied to the aircraft carrier.
"They are there to project air power. It's irrelevant where they are launched from. The Royal Navy will hate me for this, but sometimes they will be launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier for good reason. Other times it will be in-country closer to the problem," he said.
Either way, he said the F-35C gave the British better deep penetration, ISTAR and other capabilities than the more limited STOVL F-35B.

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