Languishing in Arizona, our once-mighty fleet of Harriers... sold for the price of just ONE of their US-made replacements
By ADAM LUCK
They were once the pride of Britain’s RAF and Royal Navy – but now these stripped-down Harrier vertical take-off jump jets sit like skeletons in the famous US aircraft ‘Boneyard’ in the Arizona desert.
The once iconic aircraft – whose original versions first saw active service more than 40 years ago – are among some of the 72 Harriers that Britain prematurely scrapped and then sold to America for a knockdown £116 million last November.
They are now used for spare parts for US Harriers, which America still consider viable fighting planes.
Sorry ending: RAF Harrier jets languishing in the Arizona desert after being sold off to the US for a cut-down price
An RAF BAE Harrier GR-7 in action before the aircraft were decommissioned
Despite being the world’s only successful combat-tested jump jets – and at one time considered ideal for the Navy’s two new £6.2 billion aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – the Harriers were decommissioned two years ago as part of the Coalition’s defence cuts.
They are due to be replaced towards the end of the decade by the US’s F-35B jump jet, which experts believe will cost as much as £200 million each – about 75 per cent more per plane than the Americans paid for Britain’s entire Harrier fleet.
The US-made jets will not be available until 2018 at the earliest – leaving Britain with two new super-carriers but no jump jets to fly from them.
The discarded Harriers make a sorry sight, parked up at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona, known as the world’s largest military aircraft cemetery.
More than 4,000 mothballed or retired aircraft are at the ‘Boneyard’, which has featured in Hollywood films including Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, and covers 2,600 acres of baking desert.
The site’s high altitude and arid conditions mean aircraft can be left outdoors without deteriorating too rapidly. The estimated value of its collection, including B-52 Stratofortresses, F-14 Tomcats and A-10 Thunderbolt ‘tank-busters’, is an incredible £17.5 billion. Though some areas of the base are classified as secret, the rows of aircraft have become a tourist attraction, with bus tours available to those who visit the nearby air and space museum.
When America bought Britain’s Harriers, Rear Admiral Mark Heinrich, chief of the US Navy’s supply corps, said the deal made sense because many of the British jets had recently undergone a refit – and the US already had pilots who could fly them.
A majestic sight: A Harrier jet takes off from the deck of the British strike carrier HMS Illustrious in 2007
‘We’re taking advantage of all the money the Brits have spent on them,’ he told a US military newspaper.
‘It’s like we’re buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it. These are very good platforms. And we’ve already got trained pilots.’
The US Navy, widely acknowledged as the world’s most technologically advanced, believes that the purchase of the British Harriers will allow it to keep flying its own planes into the middle of the next decade.
All planes arriving at the Boneyard go through the same process of being stripped down for storage. Guns, ejector seats and sensitive hardware are removed before the fuel system is drained. It is then refilled with lightweight oil and drained again to leave a thin protective film of oil.
An artist's impression of the Royal Navy's planned super aircraft carriers which the Government have invested in heavily at a time of deep cuts
The Harriers will eventually be shrink-wrapped in a special vinyl material to protect them from dust, heat and sunlight.
The fate of the Harriers – and the question of what should replace them – caused an ongoing political storm.
When the Coalition came into power, David Cameron slammed Labour’s ‘appalling legacy’ in defence procurement and said he would abandon Gordon Brown’s plans to buy the F-35B, which has a short take-off capability.
Instead, in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of October 2010, the Prime Minister pushed the military to adopt the F-35C, which has a longer range and can carry more weapons than the F-35B.
As part of the same review, the Government scrapped Britain’s last aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and sold off its Sea Harriers along with the RAF’s Harrier fleet.
Defence Procurement Minister Peter Luff claimed that the move would save taxpayers £1 billion.
Harrier jump jets pictured on what was billed as their final flight in 2010 before they were axed
But during the subsequent Libya air campaign the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, infuriated the Government by pointing out it would have been cheaper, quicker and more effective to have kept Ark Royal and its Harriers rather than fly missions from Italian air bases.
Then last month, the Government announced a U-turn over the type of fighters it was ordering for the Royal Navy’s new super-carriers.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a defence review that the Government would be buying the F-35B jump jet after all, rather than the F-35C – which David Cameron had originally favoured.
The decision to buy the American F-35B is a bitter blow for the British aerospace industry, which for decades led the world in vertical take-off technology and sold the Harrier to the US Marine Corps.
In his first major interview, Ralph Hooper, the aerospace engineer who was the driving force behind the Harrier, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It makes me both sad and angry. I was amazed when I found out. Everyone went home on Friday evening believing the Government was going to run down the Tornados and keep the Harriers. They came to work on Monday and found it had been turned round the other way.’
In one of a series of u-turns made by the Government, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has confirmed the plans to buy F-35B jump jets, rather than the F-35C originally favoured by the PM
Mr Hooper blamed politicians for the decline and fall of Britain’s world-beating military aviation industry. ‘They invariably want the cheap option,’ he said. ‘There is no one in the Cabinet with any kind of expertise in aviation. They are bloody politicians. God help us all.’ The respected engineer believes that the American F-35B, which he described as ‘bloody complicated’, remains unproven.
He said: ‘It is ironic we are buying this plane when we sold Harriers to the Americans – and they are being flown by Spaniards, Italians and Indians to this day.’
Former Vulcan bomber pilot Andrew Brookes, director of the Air League, the aviation training and lobbying body, said: ‘If you end up after a major review with an aircraft carrier with no aircraft on it, there’s something wrong with your review.
‘The question is this – was there any money elsewhere that could have saved the Harriers? Well, of course there was.
‘The review was really numbers on the back of a fag packet. It was that bad – the logic wasn’t there and they just wanted to save a certain figure.
‘The skills of the people who operated the Harriers have been lost and they will not be easily brought back.
‘These aeroplanes were top-of-the-range, not some old Sopwith Camel that we could get rid of because it had long passed its sell-by date.
‘We invested a fortune in these aircraft and that was completely dismissed by [former Defence Secretary] Liam Fox and the people round him, none of whom had a real understanding of defence, and that was a great shame.’
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said last night: ‘Savings had to be made to tackle the multi-billion-pound black hole inherited from the last Government. The difficult but necessary decision to retire Harrier early and sell the aircraft will save the Government around £1 billion.
‘Cuts to the Harrier force predating the Strategic Defence and Security Review meant the force was too small to carry out operations in Afghanistan while maintaining a contingent capability for other operations such as Libya.
‘It was essential to retire older, less-capable aircraft to allow us to focus our resources on Tornado in Afghanistan and more modern, cutting-edge fast jets such as Typhoon and the stealth Joint Strike Fighter.’
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