“I want to send a clear message across Defence: reckless spending stops here.” Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP, June 14th 2011. Shows you how little he knows of his brief.
The MoD announced today (June 22nd) that it has now spent £250m on the conflict in Libya. If this keeps up, by the end of the year, it will have cost the same as the total reduction in the Scottish Government’s budget—£1.3m. This set me to thinking about such costs.
I like Ming Campbell—not just because I can wave at his constituency out of my bedroom window but because he asks some pretty shrewd questions. In December last year and on the back of the decision to scrap both HMS Ark Royal and its Harrier jump-jets, he asked the Defence Minister for cost comparisons for running Tornado and Harrier RAF bases. The answer was around £250m each year for Lossiemouth and Marham (Tornado) and £175m for Cottesmore & Wittering (Harrier). By concentrating each wing at the latter base in each case and closing the other, these costs could have become £140m and £82m.
This is interesting. This net saving of £200m could have funded the annual cost of running Ark Royal (£25m) and still leave a £175m saving each year. More importantly, the severe loss of operational flexibility by having to fly Tornados (£55m each) or the new Typhoon (£120m each) instead of the Harrier (under £20m each when new and now amortised down to sweeties) results in combat inefficiency = waste. This is highlighted by the ongoing Libyan conflict, in which 20 RAF Tornados and Typhoons now operate out of the Italian Gioia del Colle airbase but need in-air refuelling (out of RAF Akrotiri) to carry significant munitions to Libyan targets. On top of a per-sortie cost of £22,000, the substantial base support costs operating from Italy make this no cheap operation.
Had the MoD kept the Harrier and Ark Royal (see above), they could be flying a flurry of missions (at under £3,000 per sortie) from the Ark Royal, which would need none of the additional basing and refuelling costs hampering present operations. If the UK is indeed strapped for cash, why is it using such a costly, fragile and inefficient delivery system as the latest Eurofighter? The single-seat, single-engine, sturdy subsonic Harrier is carrier-capable and just the job for loitering off the Libyan coast and smothering selected targets with squadron-scale strikes for less than the single aircraft pinpricks we do manage—if there were any left. But there aren’t.
Using the Eurofighter for ground attack against third-rate opponents is like taking a Lotus Elise to the stock car races—it’s so inappropriate that it is crass stupidity. A year ago we had both the Harriers and carriers to fly them off. If Liam Fox had a shred of humility and/or insight into his job, he would have overridden whichever Whitehall pencil-neck originally decided to scrap them and we would have dished out three times the damage to Ghaddafi’s military at a third of the £250m cost—to date.