The recent case of fratricide in Afghanistan has understandably attracted letters on the issue to at least one newspaper. As expected in a public forum, these have included rather subjective assertions which are sometimes based on very little relevant professional knowledge. But as such views are assimilated by many of those who subsequently read them it is important to counter sometimes unhelpful speculation by providing more information on the matter. The following detail should therefore provide lay observers and commentators with a more informed basis on which to make judgments.
One published criticism is of the RAF’s apparent inability to provide support to British forces in Afghanistan, which necessitates the use of American aircraft. Yet there should be no surprise at all that US aircraft are providing support to British troops. The US Air Force is the West’s largest air arm and the US has the biggest land contingent in Afghanistan, so it is to be expected that it would provide the greatest number of aircraft for ground support duties. Furthermore, the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan comprises troops from 37 nations, of which 9 also contribute air assets. Its air campaign is coordinated from a Coalition Air Operations Centre in Qatar which allocates missions across the Afghan theatre. This means that air support to coalition soldiers is supplied on a coalition basis which gives British, Canadian, Dutch or other forces access to the crucial support of assigned air assets. It is also worth noting that US aircraft transiting to their Afghan patrol areas from bases outside Afghanistan often use RAF refuelling aircraft in order to do so.
Secondly, to dismiss the Harrier as an obsolete asset is baffling. Since January 2007 the Harriers deployed to Kandahar to provide air support to the coalition include the upgraded GR9 version. These are modern aircraft capable of providing Close Air Support in poor weather conditions or at night, utilising a wide armoury including precision guided weapons, and they represent one of the world’s most advanced ground-attack platforms. Although it is true that the RAF has invested enormously in the Typhoon this has no bearing on the utility of the Harrier or the conduct of current expeditionary operations. The Typhoon was procured primarily as an air defence system and while it was expected to replace the Jaguar in a ground-attack role, the primary RAF responsibility for bombing and reconnaissance duties will remain with the Harrier and Tornado GR4 fleets.
Empirically, it is inaccurate to state that there is a ‘huge gap’ in the RAF’s ability to support ground forces. Rather, its advanced capability in this role is repeatedly demonstrated in the effective assistance given to troops deployed on current operations in Iraq - and Afghanistan.
Royal United Services Institute