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RAF Operations

Volume 483: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2008

It is a pleasure, Mr. Atkinson, to have this debate under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to have the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in his place. He is an experienced Minister, having served on the Select Committee on Defence. During his service on that Select Committee, he earned the reputation of being a forensic investigator. If nothing else, I simply ask today that he goes away from this debate and asks a series of detailed questions.

I start by paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Dura from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who unfortunately was killed in Afghanistan last weekend. I had the honour to serve with the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Bosnia in 2001. Colour Sergeant Dura was a fearsome soldier and he will be sadly missed by the battalion.

It is absolutely right that I should pay tribute to the Royal Air Force and the service that it has provided in both Afghanistan and Iraq in supporting our troops. I intend to focus on the Harrier force in this debate—I have given the Minister advance warning that I intend to focus solely on the Joint Force Harrier—and it has been doing a sterling job, rightly earning a reputation as being very much the soldier’s friend in Afghanistan.

As someone who is serving on the RAF parliamentary scheme this year and who is due to be in theatre with the RAF shortly, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute and saying thank you to the RAF for all that it is doing on behalf of our country overseas.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the RAF is doing a sterling job, as I have just said. In many ways, it is for that reason that I have called this debate today.

Of course, there are broader issues concerning the future of the Joint Force Harrier. The Royal Navy is very concerned about where the force is heading, its out-of-service date, the impact that that date may have on future air carriers, and so forth. However, that is very much a debate for another day. As I have already said, today I want to focus on the proposals to withdraw the Joint Force Harrier from Afghanistan from 1 April 2009. I believe that that proposed withdrawal is a very grave mistake and I question the motivation behind it, but I will come to that issue of motivation later.

The first obvious question to ask is: why are we due to withdraw the Joint Force Harrier from Afghanistan from next year? In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister for the Armed Forces said that

“the Harrier force has been continuously operational in Afghanistan since November 2004 and has proven time and again its value in defending the lives of our troops, our allies and those they are there to protect.”

So far, I absolutely agree with that. He goes on:

“Mindful of the strain that this extended deployment has put upon the crews, their families and the wider role of Joint Force Harrier we have decided to withdraw the Harriers from Afghanistan and replace them with an equivalent force of Tornado GR4s.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 136W.]

It is the second half of that statement that I have concerns about. I now intend to go into some detail about those concerns, which are based on capability, finance, the impact on personnel, particularly in terms of the harmony guidelines, and also the impact that this deployment will have on air frames and the serviceability of the fleet in the long term, to show why I think that this deployment of Tornadoes is a mistake.

First, I want to address the issue of capability. A recurring theme in this debate will be the answers that I have received to parliamentary questions or, perhaps crucially, the answers that I have not received to parliamentary questions, because it is pretty clear that, if my questions had been answered, those answers would be distinctly unhelpful to the Ministry of Defence when it comes to determining the future role of the Harrier. After a series of parliamentary questions in which I asked what were the similar capabilities of the Harrier and the Tornado GR4, which is due to replace the Harrier, I was told that they have similar capabilities. Unfortunately, that is simply not true. I do not intend to go into great detail, but I will shortly be passing a document to the Minister on this subject.

For example, from a weapons point of view—I will not go into detail, as it would not be helpful in a public debate—of the six weapons systems that are carried on the Harrier, four cannot currently be carried on a Tornado. Indeed, one of the biggest impacts that we will see is on the degree of proportionality. The Tornado, which is due to replace the Harrier, seems very much to be an all or nothing option. Also, the Harrier has a series of close air support options fitted to it. In fact, of the eight specialist items on a Harrier for close air support, four will not be available for the Tornado.

To be fair, that gap is due to be filled in part, because about £40 million-worth of urgent operational requirements are due to be fitted to the Tornado to try to close that gap and to enable the Tornado to meet the theatre entry standards. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm exactly how many of the Tornado GR4s will be fitted to theatre entry standard by 1 April and, crucially, whether all of those upgrades will be available from the first day of entry, because my understanding is that it may be some time—some months, in fact—before the gap has been filled completely. That will mean that we will be accepting quite a degree of risk when the Tornado first enters service in Afghanistan. There are other risks over in-flight refuelling, which it would be equally inappropriate to go into detail about. Indeed, there are also problems when it comes to take-off for Tornadoes in the sort of environment that exists in Afghanistan. I want to pass to the Minister the document that I am referring to, so that, when he replies, he can look at the details in it and at least confirm that I am correct in what I am saying.

There is another even more alarming area; indeed, it is deeply disturbing. I have been asking questions about the ground abort rate of Harriers in theatre. In layman’s terms, the ground abort rate is how often we call on an aircraft, whether a Tornado or a Harrier, which is then scrambled but, for some reason or another, simply does not get into the air. When I asked this question about ground abort rate, I was told that the information that I requested was not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost. I find that amazing, because I have those figures in front of me. They are held centrally and I am more than happy to pass them to the Minister in a second, at no cost whatsoever.

I will not go into the details of ground abort rates, but suffice to say that at the moment the Harrier is operating at a 0.34 per cent. ground abort rate. Therefore, only about four in every 1,000 times that we call on a Harrier to go on a mission in Afghanistan it cannot take off, because of some technical problem. By comparison, the Tornado GR4 is operating at a ground abort rate of 11.6 per cent. Therefore, more than one in 10 times that a Tornado is scrambled on operations, it simply fails to get off the ground. If that is the case, why are we replacing eight Harriers with eight Tornadoes? Why are we accepting that one in 10 times a Tornado will not get off the ground and therefore one in 10 times it will not get to serve our soldiers on the ground on the front line? Is the Minister really happy to take that risk? In fact, the ground abort rate for Tornadoes peaked last month at 12.7 per cent., so this problem is getting worse, not better. I would also like to pass this summary to the Minister, so that he can confirm or deny this information, which apparently is not held centrally.

So, from a capability point of view, I have tried to demonstrate that we are taking a severe risk in replacing the Harrier with the Tornado on the front line in Afghanistan. From a financial point of view, does it make sense financially to replace the Harrier with the Tornado? Let us look at where we are already, and this information comes from parliamentary questions that have been answered. So far, we have spent on the Harrier about £20 million on urgent operational requirements to improve its performance and potentially we have £42 million that we could spend on it. We have already spent £728 million on upgrading the Harrier to capability E, which was effectively to improve its performance specifically for roles in Afghanistan. We have also spent £112 million on the new Mk 107 engine, which is specifically designed to operate in hot climates. Therefore a total of £860 million has been spent on honing the Harrier’s performance for service in Afghanistan, and we have an average running cost of about £30 million.

Having spent all that money to get the Harrier to the level of performance that we desperately need in Afghanistan, why are we now withdrawing it? I have already mentioned that we have to spend at least £40 million on the Tornado under urgent operational requirements, just to get it to a very basic level. There will then be ongoing running costs of £31 million to keep the Tornado in theatre. The Minister will know that a National Audit Office report is being compiled, the results of which should be available in two or three weeks. They entirely undermine, from a financial point of view, the decision to replace the Harrier with the Tornado. It makes no financial sense whatever, but hon. Members need not take my word for that; they can take the NAO’s word for it when the report is published.

On personnel, much of the argument seems to be about the impact on pilots, their families and the joint force of the fact that the aircraft has been on continual operations since September 2004. I think that was the date given in a parliamentary answer. Harmony guidelines for the RAF are that people should be on operations for four months in 20. A simple ratio would be that we require 55 Harrier pilots to sustain having 11 pilots on operation at any one time. I have calculated that using a four-in-20 rule, so I have simply multiplied by five the number of Harrier pilots in theatre.

The pilots are the most restricted of the personnel. Engineers will almost never do four months on an operational tour. When the MOD talks about harmony breaches for the Harrier force, it is almost entirely to do with pilots, rather than the whole force, so we are talking about a small number of people. As a rule of thumb, the maximum tour length for a Harrier pilot on a front-line squadron is only three years. Within that three-year period, a pilot might do only two four-month tours.

Front-line squadrons at RAF Cottesmore have a total of 48 pilots, which is seven short of the 55 required to ensure that harmony guidelines are met. However, the extra seven are relatively easy to find, as the number does not include the force commander, the deputy force commander and the stan-eval—standards and evaluation—officer. Those three officers are additional pilots who are available within the Harrier force and all of whom go to theatre to fly. The further shortfall of four pilots is made up from the operational conversion unit at RAF Wittering, which does not deploy on operations as a squadron, and routinely supplies four of its 16 pilots to augment the operational force. Harmony is therefore being achieved, despite claims to the contrary.

I have asked, in a parliamentary question, how many pilots we need to maintain harmony with 11 in theatre, and it is fascinating that my question, again, magically remains unanswered. Even without the current seven-pilot mitigation, pilots would go from a four-month to a 4.8-month tour in 20, which would be an increase of only three to four weeks in their three-year maximum tour length. So, we are talking about a handful of people having an extra three weeks in theatre, but that seems to be the crux of the argument as to why the Harrier is being withdrawn. Is the Minister really basing the reasoning behind withdrawing the Harrier on those considerations?

Interestingly, the whole harmony question would be completely removed if only six aircraft were deployed. There were six initially, until a night capability was identified. Since then, other multinational air assets have entered the theatre, and it is questionable as to whether eight Harriers are required. I have asked a parliamentary question on that and am still due an answer. I realise, of course, that the answers will be unhelpful. Sometimes, we get parliamentary answers that are entirely wrong.

I asked a parliamentary question about how long the Harrier force had been

“deployed continuously on operations since the start of Operation Telic.”

The Minister for the Armed Forces replied:

“The Harrier force has never been deployed on Operation Telic.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 135W.]

It took me three minutes last night to go on to the RAF’s website and discover that 4 Squadron was deployed on Op Telic from February to May 2003. So, what is going on when the MOD is churning out answers that are incorrect when compared with its own website? It took me three minutes to discover that the information I was given was wrong and that Harriers have been on Op Telic. If that is the quality of information that the MOD is churning out, what sort of information is the Minister getting? It is outrageous.

I have outlined the reduction in capability that the introduction of the Tornado will bring to the theatre. Will the Minister tell me, with particular reference to the technical ground abort rates that I have given him, why, if the MOD is prepared to accept the risk of one in 10 Tornadoes not getting off the ground, it is not prepared to accept a reduction in the number of the considerably more reliable Harriers? That is a moot point, however, because we are already meeting harmony guidelines.

It is bizarre that after spending so much money upgrading the Harrier force to the standards required for Afghanistan, so that it is now relatively cheap to operate, we are not fully funding it. Why is the RAF doing that? Will the Minister explain? Ironically, and perhaps crucially, the money being spent on getting the Tornado up to theatre-entry standards and keeping it there could maintain a Harrier force that fully meets harmony guidelines in Afghanistan indefinitely, but the RAF chooses not to do that.

The RAF claims that because the Tornado fleet is bigger it will be easier to maintain harmony, but that is rubbish. The Tornado fleet is, in fact, two fleets—the GR4 and the F3. We have discovered, from the answer to a parliamentary question that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked, that only 60 per cent. of the Tornado forward GR4 fleet are fit for purpose. How many of those will have met the theatre-entry standard by 1 April? Not many I fear.

On harmony, according to parliamentary answers, we have 11 air crew and 86 ground crew for the Harrier, giving a total of 97. When we replace the eight Harriers with eight Tornadoes, the numbers will be 24 air crew and 122 ground crew, so a like-for-like replacement equates to a 50 per cent. increase in manpower on the ground. The key argument seems to be the need to meet harmony guidelines, but we are about to send 50 per cent. more ground staff just to support those eight aircraft.

If anything requires an operational pause, it is the Tornado, because it has been on operations constantly for 18 years, since 16 January 1991. We are deploying it at enormous risk. If the Minister does not believe me, let me refer him to the Tornado GR4 integrated project team joint business agreement, which will be available to him. I refer him particularly to the risk log on page 3, which highlights 14 risks, 10 of which are high-impact, and all of which have a medium or high likelihood of occurring over our current problems within the Tornado fleet. It is outrageous that all that information simply is not being given to the Minister.

There is also an argument about the life span of the Harrier. As the Minister is probably aware, the prime factor that controls the Harrier out-of-service date is the original airframe flying hour life, which is a conservative estimate of 6,000 flying hours. When working out whether an out-of-service date for an aircraft type may be extended, one must first consider the residual airframe life that is available on each of the aircraft in the fleet and add them together to give a bucket of flying hours. The bucket of flying hours remaining for the Harrier would enable a two or three-year out-of-service date extension beyond 2018 to 2020 or 2021. The full five-year out-of-service date extension to 2023 that is so desperately needed by the Royal Navy is achieved by a small, 10 per cent. extension to the airframe flying hour life. That is more an engineering paperwork exercise than anything else. Ironically, the type of flying on Operation Herrick is less demanding on the airframe than the normal UK-based training flying, which tends to involve more aggressive flying, from an airframe perspective. Any arguments on that ground are therefore ridiculous.

Having discussed why we are pulling the Harrier out, and having given the Minister some information as to why the reasons are fictitious, I must ask why the RAF is so keen to withdraw it. I believe that the key lies, again, in an unanswered parliamentary question. I have asked the Secretary of State for Defence

“whether Harrier will be subject to a programme review in 2009 if it is withdrawn from Afghanistan (a) before and (b) after 1st April 2009.”

What does that actually mean? I am not going to draw the Minister into debates on Treasury cuts and the fact that the RAF is having to find ways to save money next year. A lot of money seems to be splashing around, but if the MOD needs more money, that is a point for him to argue with the Treasury. It is pretty clear that, if the Harrier stays in Afghanistan, it will not be subjected to the programme review. If, however, the Tornado is pulled out of Iraq—it soon will be, hopefully—what exactly is it going to do? It will not be on operations, and it will not have an operational role. I am assured that the RAF is concerned that, all of a sudden, the Tornado fleet is beginning to look exposed. It believes that, by ensuring that it has a role in Afghanistan, we can give the Tornado fleet and its future a degree of protection.

If we are potentially accepting all the capability loss that I have explained and coming up with arguments about harmony, simply because the RAF is concerned that it may take cuts to its Tornado fleet, that is outrageous. I shall not overplay my concerns, as I have limited experience of serving as a soldier in Afghanistan, but it is outrageous if we are prepared to take all the risks that I have outlined for that reason.

I ask the Minister to ask some detailed questions of his officials. I am convinced that he has not been given all the information that he needs to take an informed decision. If he were to say, “I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I give him my assurance that I will go away now and ask those questions, to ensure that the decision is being made for the right reasons”, I would be happy with that. I have given him considerable detail about the matter. I am deeply concerned that there seems to be a culture in the MOD of not only giving inaccurate answers, but refusing to answer questions because the answers would not necessarily support the RAF’s decision to remove the fleet from Afghanistan.

We have only nine minutes left, so I shall finish. I ask the Minister to refer directly and specifically to the points that I have made.

I, too, would like to say what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I add my tribute to Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura, who was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. I know that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) is very close to the Gurkha regiments, and if he speaks to them, will he pass on my heartfelt condolences and my pride at the job that the Gurkhas are doing in Afghanistan?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It gives me an opportunity, in the limited time left to me, to pay tribute to the role of the RAF and the other forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I understand that he wishes to concentrate on Afghanistan. We ask a lot of our armed forces, and the tempo of the RAF’s operations is constantly under review. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They can hardly argue that we should reduce the tempo of operations and the pressure that we put on personnel, and then argue, as I think he did, that we should keep people in theatre for long periods.

The RAF’s contribution in Afghanistan is everything from heavy lift to the close air support that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That support has been of great effect to UK and coalition forces. He has left me little time, and I shall not respond now to the document that he has passed to me, but I shall certainly respond to the specific points in it afterwards. I need to touch on some of the issues that he raised.

We cannot get away from the fact that we ask the RAF and our other armed forces to do a lot. There is pressure not just on them but on their families. It is easy to blame the MOD or the ministerial team, but the decisions in question are made by the RAF for clear operational reasons. Hon. Members need to be careful in such debates not to try to be armchair generals—or in this case an armchair air marshal—by second-guessing what commanders on the ground need. I wish to make it clear that the decision has not been taken because of anything to do with finance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the future of the Harrier force, and I can only say that, like everything else in the MOD, it is under review. Decisions have not been taken on financial grounds; they were operational decisions on the ground.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Tornado being of less capability than the Harrier. I have asked questions about that in preparation for the debate, which he was kind to give me an opportunity to do. In some ways the Tornado brings capabilities that the Harrier does not, such as the 27 mm cannon and the new RAPTOR imaging system—the reconnaissance airborne pod Tornado—which has been used very effectively in Iraq and, I am told, will be in Afghanistan as well. I accept that the two aircraft are different, but it is wrong to give the impression that we are somehow not providing our armed forces with the support that they need by putting Tornado there.

Since the Minister has decided to mention the capabilities that Tornado has and Harrier has not, for the sake of balance he should now state the capabilities that Harrier has and Tornado has not.

I can have it both ways, because I and other Ministers have to ensure that we provide what commanders on the ground ask for. It is wrong to suggest that Tornado is a poorer or cheaper option that will not provide the capability that is needed, or that it is somehow a cost-saving measure. It is not; I think that Harrier costs £30 million a year and Tornado will cost £31 million.

It is, but that shows the Government’s commitment to providing our armed forces with the equipment that they need. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the money that has been spent on Harrier, but again, Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They can hardly criticise the Government for not supporting our armed forces given that, in this case and others, urgent operational requirements have brought from Treasury reserves—not from the MOD budget—the capabilities that our commanders on the ground have asked for. He cannot say that Harrier is not needed, and it would be wrong of Ministers or of him to second-guess what commanders on the ground want.

The hon. Gentleman clearly has a good source of information—be it from a constituent or someone else. I am quite prepared to answer the points raised in the document that he has passed to me, but I find it sad that, if there are concerns among serving personnel, they cannot be articulated through the chain of command. I emphasise again that these are operational matters, and the MOD, the ministerial team and the Government more widely are committed to ensuring that our people on the ground have the support that they need. May I finally nail the point about the possibility of the Treasury asking for cuts? It is not about cuts; it is about providing what is actually needed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the effects of withdrawing Harrier on the airframe and on the individuals involved. We must recognise that we have been asking the Harrier to do a lot in Afghanistan, and that needs to be taken into account. We have also been asking a lot of the people there, and we must allow them recuperation with their families and home bases and recognise that they need to continue training. They cannot do that on operations.

I will not. I am about to finish, as I am running out of time.

That need was another factor that led to the RAF’s decision. We need to keep the training, and the quality of the people who fly the Harrier, up to date.

On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. May I simply ask that the Minister go away and correct the parliamentary record in the case of the answers that I have been given that I have said are wrong? I have demonstrated one of them to him, on 4 Squadron serving on Op Telic. Will he also write to me with answers to the questions that he has not answered?

Sitting suspended.