22 March 2011

SDSR redux: Tomahawk vs. Storm Shadow

The Save the RAF at any Cost Review (SRCR) overseen by the Boy Wonder and his hapless Defence Secretary Lame Fox has encountered reality, and - guess what? - reality has won.

The (imbecile on its face) decision to proceed with aircraftless carriers while destroying the capability to operate from them by axing existing carriers and all Harriers, was based on false RAF allegations that the Tornado could provide air cover for the fleet world-wide and that it must be kept in service to provide ground support in Afghanistan.

In fact the ONLY thing Tornado can do that Harrier cannot is to carry and launch the Storm Shadow cruise missile - which is the reason the missile was developed in the first place. Operations against Colonel Daffy in Libya have starkly contrasted the prompt and accurate response of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from warships and the delayed and inaccurate performance of Storm Shadow.

Storm Shadow costs about £1.1 million a pop, to which one must add the per hour operating cost of £33,000 per Tornado carrying two of them plus the operating cost of air-to-air refueling tankers, and we're looking at about £1.5 million per missile fired.

Tomahawks cost £305,000 per, and the nuclear subs that launch it add no additional costs since operating expenses are the same whether they are on patrol or not. The Tomahawk also has a longer range, which leaves Tornado quivering on the very thin ice of close air support for ground troops, a task that even the RAF cannot argue would not be better performed by Harriers.

There is a certain grim satisfaction in recalling the fate of the 1981 Nott defence review based on much the same false RAF claims and abandoned after the Falklands War demonstrated the indispensable capability afforded by Harrier-equipped aircraft carriers. 

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. With respect (and I really mean that, you have a cool blog name and a very nice Ingsoc banner), you have made numerous factual errors here.

    "...was based on false RAF allegations that the Tornado could provide air cover for the fleet world-wide"

    I dispute this, the choice was between carrier-based strike or land-based strike NOT fleet air cover. The RAF managed to destroy carrier-based air cover when the Sea Harrier element of the Joint Force Harrier was retired prematurely. The Harrier GR.9 had no maritime strike capability beyond using unguided rockets or LGBs and lacked any serious air defense capability.

    "In fact the ONLY thing Tornado can do that Harrier cannot is to carry and launch the Storm Shadow cruise missile..."

    You are ignoring the Tornado's ALARM missile capability, RAPTOR reconnaissance pod and it's ground mapping radar, none of which can be matched by the Harrier.

    "Storm Shadow costs about £1.1 million a pop... ...Tomahawks cost £305,000..."

    You are comparing average system price with unit price. If this site is correct about the Tomahawk(http://www.deagel.com/Land-Attack-Cruise-Missiles/Tactical-Tomahawk_a001146005.aspx), the 64 tomahawk missiles cost the UK MOD £70m, which is pretty much the same as Stormshadow.

    "...to which one must add the per hour operating cost of £33,000 per Tornado... ...and the nuclear subs that launch it add no additional costs since operating expenses are the same whether they are on patrol or not."

    That Tornado per flying hour operating cost includes a lot of fixed costs which we have to pay whether we actually fly the aircraft or not. After all ground and air crewmen have to be paid whether they launch an aircraft or not. They calculate the per-hour cost by adding up the entire running cost of the Tornado fleet and dividing by the number of flying hours per year. It doesn't mean we have to pay significantly more if we fly more (though obviously there would be some increase) in fact the per-hour flying cost may well fall if we fly more, even though the overall costs are increased.

    "The Tomahawk also has a longer range..."

    True, though you have to be a bit careful as it depends on the situation. With air-air refueling the Tornado/Stormshadow combination has a pretty long reach, as demonstrated with the Libyan strike, and in some situations would be preferable to submarine or carrier-based strike(for example if the nation you want to attack is 100s of miles from the nearest safe patch of ocean).

    All that said, I agree with your basic contention that we should not have scrapped the Harriers, however limited they are. I am actually in favor of the UK returning to its traditional Maritime strategy with a strong fleet to support our diplomacy. But the stupidity comes from having to choose between the Tornado or the Harrier force in the first place, not in having chosen the Tornado over the Harrier.

  2. My senior RN friends are unanimous that the RAF made a false representation about their ability to give air cover to the fleet back in the 1970s, and I read recently declassified documentation to that effect when researching my Falklands book. The key question is why, even if we could afford to play the game of each service getting their very own cruise missile, we didn't just get ALCM. And the answer I will always presume is the incestuous relationship between MoD procurement officials and the companies they steer contracts to.

  3. "...the RAF made a false representation about their ability to give air cover to the fleet back in the 1970s"

    That I'm not going to dispute! I strongly agree that the RAF is quite incapable of protecting the fleet more than 1 hours flying time (say 400-500 miles) from the nearest airfield, which is essentially useless. What I was disagreeing with was the more recent decision to scrap the Harrier had anything to do with providing fleet cover.

    I think there might be a simpler reason for not considering ALCM. The conventionally armed versions of ALCM are a bit big for an aircraft like Tornado, being intended for use from strategic bombers. While Tornado is obviously capable of carrying large weapons like the JP233 pod which is very similar in weight, length and width to ALCM, I suspect that the prominent dorsal air intake on the ALCM might make it too high to fit.

  4. A fleet without air cover is horribly vulnerable. Harrier with AMRAAM could have done the job. It's a foully complex story, and as you said before, the Naval Staff share responsibility for the all-star screw-up.
    I am dredging up memories of when cruise first came along, and I recall some talk about ALCM being mass-launched from modified civilian airliners. Point taken, though it would not have been beyond human ingenuity to have a pop-up fin! After all, Tomahawk does it.

  5. "A fleet without air cover is horribly vulnerable."

    I think "horribly vulnerable" is actually understating it. Even a moderately equipped third world nation might be able to put a cheap maritime patrol aircraft in the air with a basic sea search radar and track the movements of a surface fleet 24/7. This enables them to make co-ordinated attacks with air-launched anti-ship missiles or to vector SSKs into positions ahead of the fleet where they can lie in wait for the fleet to run into torpedo range. Really, without the ability to launch fighters to kill or drive off the shadowers, the fleet has no real ability to fight a war at all except in the most restricted possible scenarios. IMO the decision to scrap the Sea Harrier was borderline insane, even though that aircraft was pretty limited as a fighter. Scrapping the Harrier GR9 was merely stupid in comparison.

  6. You might be interested by my post on why the RN has so few ships for so much money: http://stravagantisimo.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-royal-navy-will-have-so-few-ships.html
    The (so far unadmitted) plan appears to be to equip the CVFs with Rafale, which is a nice piece of kit. So all we have to do is hope the Argentines and others who have scores to settle will not take advantage of our current unilateral disarmament

  7. I'll have a look at it. :)

    I disagree about the Rafale being a nice piece of kit though, if anything it's even more obsolete and over priced than the Typhoon, which at least is supposed to have a significant advantage in air-air combat over the Russian Flanker/Fulcrum family. Rafale is comparatively underpowered at high altitude and I think they made a mistake when they selected the radar which suffers from a lack of range, especially at high angles off the nose. The IRST system apparently doesn't work well and I'm not keen on the lack of a towed radar decoy on a fighter without significant stealth features. The French have been trying to get other nations to pay for the needed improvements to Rafale as part of their export strategy. This increases it's cost significantly and IMO makes it unlikely that we will ever buy it unless they give them to us at cost and pay for the upgrade program themselves. If the choice comes down to paying £4 billion for 40 F-35Cs or £4 billion for the same number of Rafales with the updated radar, engines and other planned improvements, I really can't see us picking the Rafale. I also can't see us buying the existing version which is already obsolete and obviously so. The cheap option is the Super Hornet, which already has an advanced radar and electronic warfare suite. Sure, the EUrophiles will try to argue that there are saving to be found on the basis of European commonality or something, but I think in this case they will find it difficult to sell to a cash-strapped Royal Navy...

    At least I frikken hope so! :)

  8. Or the F-18. But see http://stravagantisimo.blogspot.com/2011/03/libyan-intervention-hypothesis.html
    for what I suspect is going on.

  9. You're waay out on Tomahawk costs. Look at p24 of this PDF :

    Programme cost to 2009 (ie including R&D, which makes it comparable to that £1.1m cost for Storm Shadow) is US$10.594bn which has given the USN 6,482 Tomahawks at an average cost of US$1.634m/missile (£1.019m).

    FY11 unit cost is US$1.532 per Tomahawk (£955k).

    80% of the £1.1m cost of Storm Shadow stayed in the UK, which means that the net cost to the Treasury was about £750k per missile.

    Tonkas could carry a lot more than just Storm Shadow that the Harrier couldn't. Probably the definitive list is at http://services.parliament.uk/hansard/Lords/ByDate/20101111/writtenanswers/part004.html

    Not having Brimstone or a cannon is a significant gap for COIN type stuff, and the Tornados have been flying RAPTOR more than they've been dropping weapons in the sandpit. OK, the integration of Brimstone onto Harrier had probably got to the stage where it could have been used if push came to shove, but it wasn't officially cleared.

  10. Call me "simplistic" but I am inclined to believe that the cost of something is what you pay for it. Missile costs are infinitely variable depending on what date you choose and what off-sets you choose to factor in. And any such debate distracts from the fundamental question, which is why the hell a "stand off" missile that has to be carried most of the way by manned aircraft was procured when Tomahawk does the job from a far greater range at far less extra delivery cost.

    Let me cite a clearer example: it matters not that the £6+ billion for 6 Type 45s is the result of a fixed cost contract originally awarded for 12 ships - the end result is that we are paying £1+ billion per not fully equipped ship. And so on right through all British government procurement.