The ongoing NATO air campaign in Libya is providing two interrelated lessons for the future of the Alliance as a military instrument. The first is you play with what you pay for. Or in the case of NATO it might be stated if you don’t pay you cannot play. The lack of investment by this country’s European allies has led to shortages of everything from targeteers, refueling aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and combat search and rescue helicopters to precision munitions.
The second, related lesson is the value of VSTOL/STOVL aircraft. When a U.S. F-15 went down in April, it was a combination of V-22s and Harrier jump jets operating from a Navy amphibious warfare platform in the Mediterranean that rescued one of the two crewmen. Since the time the U.S. withdrew combat forces from the operation, Harriers have continued to prove their worth in the hands of U.S. allies. Defense News carried a very interesting article in its June 20 edition about the Italian Navy’s operation of Harriers from the aircraft carrier Garibaldi. The Italian Harriers have been used for both air superiority and strike operations employing Litening II targeting pods and both Paveway II and JDAM precision munitions. The ability to operate close in to Libya’s shores both enhances responsiveness and reduces costs.
The U.S. and Italian experience employing their Harriers makes the case for the STOVL Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. As the head of Italian naval aviation, Rear Adm. Paulo Treu, observed “Having a carrier in 2020 that uses legacy aircraft in a threat situation means having a carrier you cannot use. Carrier-based Harriers are a valid instrument for intervention for Italy, whether far from home or close by as in Libya. If Italy wants to keep this capability it needs the JSF.”
Pity poor Britain, which decided to cancel its acquisition of the F-35B in favor of the conventional carrier variant. An equally good aircraft, the F-35C requires a full deck carrier. The British are building two, one to use and one to mothball. But because the Cameron government has decided to retire the British Harriers, the two existing carriers will only operate helicopters until such time as they are decommissioned.
So today it is the Italian navy that is providing responsive air assets for the Libyan campaign using Harriers launched from its aircraft carrier. Britain is forced to fly Tornado and Typhoon jets from Italian airbases with all the refueling that requires and the wear and tear on pilots and aircraft. This conflict signals the end of Great Britain as a naval power. It also underscores the value to NATO and its members of having a weapons system as flexible as the F-35B in future conflicts.
Find Archived Articles: