The Major’s Email: British Harrier Support in Afghanistan, Revisited
Close air support remains an especially live issue on the modern battlefield, and it is once again affecting procurement discussions in Britain. “Field Report: British British GR7 Harrier IIs in Afghanistan” addressed the positive benefits of Britain’s Harrier force in theater. A 2006 controversy over their performance in the wake of a soldier’s email deserves equal attention, and has broader implications. In September 2006, newspaper reports described a leaked email from a British Major serving in Afghanistan, who created a tempest when he said that:
“Twice I have had Harriers in support when c/s on the ground have been in heavy contact, on one occasion trying to break clean. A female harrier pilot ‘couldn’t identify the target’, fired 2 phosphorous rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and then strafed our perimeter missing the enemy by 200 metres.”
Nor is that all. He reportedly added that “the US air force had been fantastic”, and “I would take an A-10 over Eurofighter any day.” The UK MoD responded at the time. Now, it seems that the controversy described back in 2006 is influencing procurement recommendations from the very top…
- Responses, and Updates [NEW]
- Appendix A: DID Thoughts/ Op-Ed (September 2006)
Responses, and Updates
Jan 22/10: With a major defense budget review imminent, The Times quotes General Richards, Chief of Britain’s General Staff. He reportedly believes that Embraer’s Super Tucano offers a cost-effective alternative to fast jets for counter-insurgency campaigns:
“Resembling something from the Second World War, a Super Tucano costs about [GBP] 5 million, a fraction of the [GBP] 60 million estimated cost of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter ordered for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers or the [GBP] 67 million of a Typhoon… General Richards has argued that state-on-state confrontations will be largely replaced by counter-insurgency operations in the future”
As noted in this article’s 2006 op-ed, the question is not so much Plane X vs. Plane Y, as much as it is about the overall force mix of fighter jets, other aircraft, and UAVs. Estimates DID has seen for a fully-equipped Super Tucano, and publicized past orders, are closer to $15-20 million/ GBP 10-12.5 million per plane. Nevertheless, the fully multi-role EMB-314 Super Tucanos can do anything a fighter is asked to do in counter-insurgency situations, including mounting advanced targeting pods, and using laser guided weapons from safe altitudes. Their speed range, loiter time, ability to operate from poor quality airstrips, and lower per-hour operating costs all give them additional counter-insurgency advantages over fast jets, beyond their cheaper purchase & operating costs.
Their capabilities are also comparable to the RAF’s slower, unmanned MQ-9 Reaper UAV, with the Super Tucanos sacrificing time on station in order to offer a much better field of view, a response time that’s about twice as fast, and a dual role at home as an intermediate pilot trainer. Britain already operates the Super Tucano’s EMB-312 Tucano predecessor as its intermediate training aircraft.
June 2007: Britain’s dual-mode Paveway IV program to produce a bomb that can use either GPS or laser guidance eventually fields the weapon, and it is fitted to Harriers operating in Afghanistan.
Feb 26/07: Britain orders Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods for its Harriers. The pods will improve the jets’ reconnaissance capabilities, and allow them to independently find targets, “paint” them for targeting, and drop laser-guided weapons.
Sept 22/06: The British Ministry of Defence responded to the articles:
“Like many others published in recent weeks, this is a moving and at times humbling account of fighting in a part of Helmand province, Afghanistan. It reflects both how intense the fighting can occasionally be, and the enormous courage, dedication and skill of the British troops operating there. As the Secretary of State said only this week, British soldiers in Helmand are, in some cases, working to the limits of endurance, but their morale is high and they are winning the fight.”
“The comments this Major makes about the RAF are, however, unfortunate. They do not reflect the view of the vast majority of soldiers about the Harrier Force in Afghanistan, which has consistently performed brilliantly in defending coalition forces, so much so that it is in regular demand not just from British commanders on the ground, but from our allies too. It must be remembered that this is the opinion of only one man.
The general view is very different…”
The September 2006 release then adds some assessments from infantry officers as well as the local military spokesman in Helmland Province, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, and the Chief of the General Staff. Read the full response here.
Appendix A: DID Thoughts/ Op-Ed (September 2006)
British Harrier pilots have had difficulty identifying ground targets before; this was an issue in the 1982 Falklands War, for instance, and at least one pilot (Sqn. Leader Bob Iveson) got shot down trying. American Harrier pilots now rely on their LITENING surveillance and targeting pods to make their Harriers effective amidst the urban warfare challenges of Iraq. At this point, British Harriers use a Thales-Vinten Joint Reconnaissance Pod instead, which lacks the targeting functions, and may not have been carried as integral equipment on the controversial flights.
In this case, as in so many others, the aircraft’s ancillary systems can be as important as the platform itself when it comes to determining battlefield performance.
British Eurofighters will be equipped with the LITENING pod, which are often carried on the USA’s A-10s. The O/A-10 “Warthog” also has the advantage of heavy armored protection, however, along with a purpose-built design that allows slower forward flight, and longer loiter time over the battlefield. This is what allowed it to do a substantially better job in Desert Storm than fast-moving fighters like the quickly-abandoned “A-16″ F-16 experiment, and it’s currently keeping A-10s very busy in Afghanistan.
It kept them busy in Iraq, too. A July 2003 report in Air Force News quoted Lt. Col. Dave Kennedy:
“Kennedy said during a Pentagon interview that in the first week of the war, close-air support requests went to the Combined Air Operations Center “open-ended” — meaning no specific aircraft type was requested. After the first week, he said, 80 to 90 percent of the requests for close-air support were A-10-specific.”
As one can see, the British Major is hardly alone in his preferences. Why is this?
As this National Defense magazine article notes, fast jets simply aren’t an ideal choice for close air support, and the British aren’t alone in having this issue. US Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori discusses his recent experiences in Iraq:
“The aircraft that we have are awesome, but they are too awesome, they are too fast, too high speed. The older technology, the A-10, is far better than the new technology, Antenori said. “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target,” he said, recalling his recent experiences in combat.”
Dispatches from Afghanistan add an additional edge, and reinforce the point:
The A-10 combines some of the best of today’s high-technology Air Force with a solid, low-tech foundation. The addition of a targeting and laser-designation pod was a huge boost to the plane’s capabilities, but still no substitute for the pilot’s eyeballs.
“Most other aircraft rely heavily on (electronic) sensors to find and target the enemy,” said Capt. Rick Mitchell, deployed here from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. “In the A-10, it’s not unusual for a pilot to use binoculars.”
Despite advances in technology like the LITENING pod, Brimstone missiles, etc., if we were doing what the Major was doing in Afghanistan and needed close air support, we’d share his preference for an A-10 over a Harrier or a Eurofighter. It’s purpose built for the close air support job, far better armed, and more survivable. This combination means it will be flown differently, giving it a far better likelihood of seeing ground targets and accurately attacking them. Though it isn’t ideal, we’d be crazy to choose any other current or planned Western fighter in its place.
Britain has invested a great deal in the Eurofighter as its multi-role fighter of the future, which may make the Major’s criticism a sensitive point for some. Still, no serious observer could expect anything else.
If there is a larger question triggered by the Major’s email, it needs to address force mix amidst the demands of modern conflicts rather than “this aircraft vs. that aircraft.”
An A-10, for instance, certainly can’t perform air superiority missions or strike missions as well as the Eurofighter, which is arguably the world’s second-best air-air fighter behind the F-22A Raptor. On the other hand, if the kinds of failed state/ peacemaking conflict represented by Afghanistan are indeed a future norm, the same Western militaries that are rethinking their wheeled patrol vehicles may also wish to rethink the balance and composition of their air assets. In order to provide the support required by their troops on the ground, and handle forward observation and light precision attack roles more effectively at a much lower cost per flight-hour, “new” options may be required. Options like “Bronco” type forward air control aircraft (currently under US consideration) at the low end, purpose-built aircraft like the A-10 at the high end, lighter options like the Brazilian Super Tucano etc., or even light gunship aircraft, may be necessary instead.
Additional Readings & Sources
For a more in-depth treatment along the lines explained by the Op-Ed, see also “Effects-Based Airpower for Small Wars: Iraq after Major Combat” by Major Robyn Read (ret.), in the Spring 2005 Air & Space Power Journal.
- DID – Task Force ODIN: In the Valleys of the Blind… Covers an American effort that successfully mixed and matched light surveillance aircraft, UAVs, attack helicopters, and even precision artillery.
- Defense of the Realm (Sept 23/07) – Jackpot! Covers a series of letters to The Sunday Telegraph, including one from from Group Captain Hastings (Ret.), who commanded the Sultan of Oman’s tactical air force in Dhofar Province in the latter stages of a war which, he writes, “had similarities with the current Afghan operations… Air strikes were flown against a ruthless and determined enemy equipped with surface-to-air-missiles, heavy machine guns and AK47s.” Their weapon of choice? A slow-flying BAE Strikemaster counter-insurgency aircraft, derived from an RAF trainer. The same fast/jet/slower plane effectiveness dynamic applied back then.
- DID (May 9/07) – Iraq Issues RFP for COIN Aircraft
- DID (March 5/07) – British Harriers to Get Advanced Targeting Pods. In response to an Urgent Operational Request, the new GR9s will be equipped with Lockheed’s Sniper pods. The goal is to have them operational by June 2007.
- UK MoD (Jan 30/07) – New Harrier takes up the fight in Afghanistan. Confirmation that the upgraded GR9 has arrived, and that the Kandahar detachment will become an all GR9 fleet by the end of 2007, significantly improving their precision attack capabilities.
- RAF (Oct 21/06) – Videos Shows Harrier Operations Ramp Up As RN Crews Join RAF Engaging Taleban. “Shot last week, the clips show the cockpit view, munitions being directed onto targets, and jets landing, taking off and preparing for sorties…” Links to video clips in the article, along with detailed background and statistics re: the Harrier deployment to Afghanistan. If RAF link isn’t working, see UK MoD version from October 5.
- UK MoD (Oct 11/06) – GR9 Harrier Delivered On-Time, On-Budget. Early heads-up that Britain’s new upgraded GR9 Harriers, which have been significantly improved to carry precision weapons, would be headed to Afghanistan.
- UK MoD (Oct 5/06) – Harrier crews set to return from successful Afghan mission. similar to the August 25 piece, notes that IV Army Cooperation Squadron is returning home to RAF Cottesmore with their GR7A Harriers, after a 4 1/2 month tour.
- UK MoD (Sept 22/06) – Forces and MOD respond to “leaked e-mail” concerning operations in Afghanistan
- UK MoD (Aug 25/06) – “Scramble! Scramble! Scramble!” Harriers get tough in Afghanistan. More of a “flavor of operations” piece.
- USAF Air Force Link (Aug 22/06) – Bagram A-10s surge for summer offensives
- DID (Aug 12/05) – Field Report: British GR7 Harrier IIs in Afghanistan
- DID (March 20/05) – AV-8B Harrier Finding Success in Iraq
- USAF Air Force Link (Aug 19/04) – A-10s rescue ambushed ground forces
- National Defense Magazine (April 2004) – Fast Jets Not Ideal Choice for Close Air Support
- US Air Force News (July 18/03) – Guardsmen Detail Close Air Support
- Command and Staff College Education Center, Marine Corps Development and Education Command (Mar 25/86) – The Falkland Islands War 1982: A Rifle Company Commander’s Perspective
- Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center – AV-8B Harrier II
- UK Royal Air Force – Harrier GR7/7A. See also the upgraded Harrier GR9/9A. Note that neither aircraft carries a cannon, unlike the USMC Harriers. This means that the “strafing” the Major referred to almost certainly involved additional rocket shots.
- GlobalSecurity.org – AV-8B Harrier
- Airforce Technology – Harrier II Plus (AV-8B) VSTOL Fighter and Attack Aircraft, USA
- Harrier.org.uk – Harrier GR.9/9A & T. Mk.12. Upgraded UK variant just entering service in 2007. This pages describes the specific upgrades in detail.
- USAF Fact Sheets – A-10/OA-10 THUNDERBOLT II
- Wikipedia – A-10 Thunderbolt II. Not a bad entry, with some good program and feature details as of this writing.
- Eurofighter GmbH – Eurofighter project official site.
- Eurofighter Typhoon – This private UK site doesn’t keep up with happenings as well as the official site, but provides much better and clearer background information concerning the Typhoon, its various component systems, and even its weapons.