Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Military Minds

"The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out."

The words of Basil Liddell Hart ring as true today as they did when he wrote them over half a century ago.

At least that is the impression given by attitudes towards the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers.

The financial case in support of the Queen Elizabeth class is clear.

However,that case in clearly not understood by many within and without the British armed forces.

Aircraft carriers are a means of delivering air power.

To understand the case for aircraft carriers we must first understand the demand for air power.

Even when engaged in low intensity conflict against poorly trained and equipped third world peasants the British Army is reliant on air support.

The magnitude of air support required by modern ground forces is illustrated by the Air Power Summaries published by the United States Air Forces Central (A.F.C.E.N.T.).

The most recently published Air Power Summary for the 1st of October 2010 is typical of the level of air power required over the last decade of sustained low intensity operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:

"Close Air Support:

Sorties flown (in Afghanistan) to support ISAF & Afghan security forces : 91

Sorties flown (in Iraq) to support Operation New Dawn : 14"

This heavy demand for air support during low intensity war fighting in part reflects the lightweight nature of the ground forces involved.

Light forces are lacking in mobility,protection and firepower compared to heavy forces and hence require more air support. 

The 8 British Tornados of the Royal Air Force based at Kandahar typically fly 6 daily combat sorties in Afghanistan.

The United States Ship (U.S.S.) Dwight D. Eisenhower (C.V.N.69) typically flew 24 daily combat sorties over Afghanistan during her last deployment to the Arabian Sea.

In 4 months on station in the Arabian Sea,the American aircraft carrier delivered more Close Air Support (C.A.S.) than the British Tornado wing generates in a whole year.

In 4 months the U.S.S. Eisenhower generated 7.25 times as many sorties and 11.8 times as many flight hours over Afghanistan as the Royal Air Force's 31 Squadron generated in 3 months.

This equates to the carrier wing flying 5.5 times as many sorties each day as the land based squadron.

This illustrates that there are two options for delivering air support for long term sustained combat operations.

A land based squadron can sustain a small number of daily sorties constantly or a carrier based wing can contribute a larger number of daily sorties during it's turn on station.

The carrier wing can also operate from land bases where that is the most appropriate option.

The only British combat aircraft to take part in the Korean War flew from the decks of the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers:

"The Commonwealth carrier that saw most action in the Korean War was HMS Glory.

She had equalled a record of 123 sorties in a single day set by HMS Ocean, a feat which involved every pilot, including Commander "Air" flying four sorties, which resulted in the destruction of seven bridges, 28 buildings, and five oxcarts.

 After leaving the United Kingdom in May 1951, she steamed 157,000 miles and flew 13,700 sorties, of which 9,500 were operational.

 Her aircraft destroyed 70 bridges, 392 vehicles, and 49 railway trucks for the loss of 20 aircrewmen.

 Weapon expenditure for this ship alone totalled 278 1,000 lb bombs; 7,080 500 lb bombs; 24,328 three-inch rocket projectiles; and 1,441,000 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition."

However,the cost of the British combat aircraft fleet is not determined by the low level of sorties required during sustained low intensity conflicts such as Afghanistan.

Only 8 British combat aircraft have been operating in Afghanistan,2 more have been ordered out there recently.

Even allowing for training aircraft,maintenance and attrition reserves,it would take a fleet of only about 30 Tornados to maintain the 8 aircraft stationed at Kandahar.

As of the 17th of March 2010 the British combat aircraft fleet was made up of 297 aircraft.

The 30 aircraft required to sustain 8 aircraft in Afghanistan accounts for only 10% of the size,and cost,of the British combat aircraft fleet.

The rest of the combat aircraft fleet exists for two purposes,to provide domestic air defence and to generate large numbers of sorties during major war fighting operations.

Of the 13 combat aircraft squadrons in British service at present,3 are fighter squadrons which provide domestic air defence.

The other 10 squadrons (7 Tornado G.R.4 and 3 Harrier G.R.9 squadrons) exist to generate air power in expeditionary warfighting operations.

That is a total of around 200 aircraft dedicated to expeditionary warfighting with only about 30 of those required to support sustained operations in Afghanistan.

The number of aircraft required to generate sorties during major warfighting operations dictates the cost of the combat aircraft fleet.

The size,and cost,of this expeditionary air fleet is defined by the amount of air power which is required and by the number of aircraft needed to generate that air power.

Air power is measured not by the number of aircraft in the fleet but by the effect these aircraft can have on the enemy.

Key metrics for this are the number of hours on station and daily sorties which the expeditionary air fleet may generate.

This is the key to financial arguments about whether the United Kingdom should have aircraft carriers.

In every major air war which the United Kingdom has been involved in over the 65 years since 1945,carrier based aircraft have generated more sorties per aircraft per day than the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

In every case the aircraft carrier could generate the required level of air power with a far smaller air fleet.

In every case the savings from maintaining a smaller air fleet far exceeded the cost of maintaining two aircraft carriers.

In (almost) every case the carrier based aircraft had shorter distances to fly resulting in a lower demand for aerial refuelling,which is important as the Royal Air Force's new tanker aircraft fleet costs 3 times as much as a pair of aircraft carriers.

The average number of daily sorties flown by British combat aircraft during major warfighting operations in conflicts since 1945 is listed below.

Korea 1950.

Royal Navy carrier based aircraft flew an average of about 21 sorties per day over 1,119 days.

British aircraft carriers took turns on station with American and Australian carriers.

British aircraft carriers often averaged over 80 sorties per day during a patrol

Land based Royal Air Force combat aircraft took no part in the Korean War.

Suez 1956.

Royal Navy carrier based aircraft flew an average of about xx sorties per day over xx days.

Land based Royal Air Force aircraft flew an average of about xx sorties per day over xx days.

Royal Navy carrier based aircraft flew twice as many sorties per aircraft per day as the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

(The available figures for this conflict are rather vague,on source suggests the combined British and French forces generated 5,000 sorties in about 6 days).

Falklands 1982.

 Carrier based Royal Navy Sea Harriers and Royal Air Force Harriers flew an average of about 32 sorties per day over 45 days.

Land based Royal Air Force Vulcan bombers flew an average of about 0.1 sorties per day over 45 days.

Kuwait 1990.

Land based Royal Air Force Tornados,Buccaneers and Jaguars flew an average of about 72 sorties per day over 43 days.

Kosovo 1999.

Land based Royal Air Force Tornados and Harriers flew an average of about 13 sorties per day over 78 days.

Afghanistan 2001.

Royal Air Force Tornados,based at Ali Al Salem,flew no sorties in the bombing of Afghanistan,despite being based in Kuwait alongside United States Air Force F15s and F16s which did.

This may have been due to the available "hose and drogue" tanker capacity being better used to support American carrier aircraft flying from the Arabian Sea.

British participation was restricted to land based support aircraft and carrier based helicopters.

Iraq 2003.

Land based Royal Air Force Tornados and Harriers flew an average of about 50 sorties per day over 31 days.

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