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Not available for service

Andrew Neil | 16:14 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Mea Culpa! Today I suggested to Defence Minister Nick Harvey, when he didn't seem to know the whereabouts of HMS Illustrious, an aircraft carrier, that it had been mothballed and was therefore unavailable for Libya.

I was wrong: it's not in mothballs. But it is unavailable for service.

Illustrious has been in Rosyth, Scotland since February 2010 for a £40m refit. It won't be completed until August at the earliest and after that will need to undergo sea trials. In fact, Mr Harvey's ministerial colleague Peter Luff told the House of Commons on 14th March this year that HMS Illustrious is scheduled to return to operational service in spring 2012.

And when it is it will no longer be able to carry fixed-wing aircraft: just helicopters.

Mr Harvey was unable to tell us any of this when he was on the show. But with Illustrious out of commission (for conversion) and HMS Ark Royal with a "for sale" sign on it on an MoD website, there are no aircraft carriers that Britain can deploy in Libya or elsewhere for the foreseeable future with fixed-wing aircraft.

Mr Harvey said there was nothing new about this: that fixed wing aircraft had not flown off a British carrier since 2003. Probably best that I refer you to the comments section of the Daily Politics website, where our viewers provided convincing and substantial testimony that Harriers were flying of British carriers as late as 2010 - but cannot now.

Click here to watch Andrew and Nick Harvey on Wednesday's Daily Politics.


  • Comment number 1.

    It seems to be you're being a bit unfair, he did explain during the show that the Illustrious could currently launch helicopters or jets but that we didn't have any jets to fly off of our pocket carriers...

    Our first new carrier will actually be completed in 2014 but again, we won't have anything to fly off of it.

  • Comment number 2.

    It was a hilarious interview on The Daily Politics, especially the bit with the aircraft carrier Ark Royal being on the MoD's ebay type of website for sale. The UK having no aircraft carriers ready for anything. You could not make it up. The minister deserved the kicking he got from just about everyone in the studio.

    But look on the bright side he says, the Typhoon's are ready for action - at last!

  • Comment number 3.

    Very suspicious indeed. I wonder what the REAL reason behind everything here is.

  • Comment number 4.

    How many times does the BBC need to be told that it was Gordon McFailure who scrapped the Sea Harrier, without that aircraft our carriers are defenceless as the RAF Harriers are totally useless for air defence, Spitfires would be of more use.

    The RAF Harriers are an inferior aircraft to the Tornado and Typhoon, why does the BBC find this so hard to understand?

    The ONLY war we've fought in recent years where carrier based aircraft were the only alternative was the Falklands back in 1982. There is now a full RAF station down there with Typhoon's an aircraft far superior to anything Argentina possesses.

    But hey, the BBC have never been hot on FACTS, just Liebore spin.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Andrew,
    There is no need to Mea Culpa, the Armed Forces Minister was either dissembling or had been badly briefed (but he should know some basics about his area of responsibility). Of course Harrier GR9s (close air suppport) have been operating off UK carriers over the last 8 years, in fact the BBC reported the last flight in November 2010. If HMS Ark Royal with Harriers had been in the Med a few weeks ago, then they they could have been more cost-effective and mission-effective than sending four Tornados on long missions from RAF Marham in the UK, which apparantly did not hit all the targets.
    For those RAF supporters who argue that we do not need carriers, as we will always have land bases near to the target, it should be noted that last week USS Kearsarge launched the US version of the Harrier (AV8-B) on 2 missions a day into Libya.
    As for the Minister's comment that the Typhoons now based in Italy can carry out air-to-ground operations, then I suggest he checks his facts, or calls the MoD.
    This all part of the RAF campaign trying to justify axing the Harrier instead of the Tornado, whereas the mission performance in Afghanistan of the Harrier was better than the Tornado.

  • Comment number 6.

    FACT -Jets launching 24 Nov 2010. Mr Harvey needs to get his facts right before making statements.


  • Comment number 7.

    Let's not forget that the RAF/Royal Navy Harriers served us well in Afghanistan for 5 years before the less able Tornados replaced them. The only reason they were withdrawn was that there were only 3 squadrons and the people rather than the planes needed a rest. It cost a great deal of money to reequip the Tornados for the close air support role for which they were not designed. The Harriers were designed for close air support and served their purpose above and beyond what they were tasked to do. They were only scrapped because the RAF Command at the time of the SDR were all Tornado jockeys. The whole Harrier fleet was fairly new as all had been upgraded over the past few years from GR7 to GR9 - What a waste of our money to see such an able aircraft doomed for the scrap heap when they had so much life left in them.

  • Comment number 8.

    I find it incredible that the so called Defence Minister - Nick Harvey, comes out with utter nonsense re: Harriers have not flown off a carrier since 2003. Maybe he should have asked the PM, he was on Ark Royal, when she was alongside in Canada in 2010.
    Quite clearly in the background is a Harrier, Mr Defense Minister!
    Why do we put up with these so called politicians, who don't know their facts? More importantly, they get us involved in wars that have nothing to do with us, then don't have common decency to pay for them. I suppose we get the politicians we deserve.

  • Comment number 9.

    So the Tornadoes are superior to Harriers? They were only kept going because of the number of Scottish constituencies that would be affected by their bases going, and they couldn't shut Nimrod as well as Tornado, otherwise Salmond would get really hyped! Of course, when they get independence, they can reconstitute the Scottish Army regiments, rebuild Nimrod, build the embassies etc.. and then we'll see if they can do free prescriptions and university tuition..

    Harriers need less to take off, less to land, are a darned sight quieter, and far nimbler than Tornado. Tornadoes can't take off from carriers.

    Isn't it standard practice for MOD to spend millions on refits for ships, then either use them as target practice, bases for 'coral reefs' or selling to the likes of Pakistan for less than half the price of the refit?

  • Comment number 10.

    Harriers quieter than Tornadoes? Rubbish, the Harrier is far noisier and for longer. So where are these "facts" being garnered from? Planespotters Monthly? The noise footprint around Cottesmore when it was a Tornado base was far less than when it took on the Harrier as we found out in joint surveys with local councils at the time.
    The Harrier is a very able ground attack aircraft, but the Tornado GR4 in it's latest update is a superior close support, and strategic attack aircraft with a longer range, greater loiter time and a broader spectrum weapon fit. It also takes roughly one seventh of the amount of time it takes to carry out routine servicing and does not require considerable airframe breakdown to change major engine components, unlike the Harrier. The other problem we had with the Harrier is that most of them had been at sea at one time or another and they lacked the maritime protection that had been built into the long withdrawn Sea Harrier. Salt corrosion was an issue, although not insurmountable, it was a limitation in terms of available airframes at any one time. The Tornado, and the Typhoon are very able, sturdy aircraft able to do everything that the Harrier does and more. The Harrier could take off and land vertically but with a much restricted fuel and weapon load. But the biggest advantage tornado has over Harrier in any conflict is the two man crew and the twin engines. A big advantage in a wartime scenario.
    As for Nimrod, it was the RAF themselves who offered it for scrapping. Ask yourselves, why?

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    There's other factors with the straight Tornado/Harrier comparison though, mainly numbers. The RAF/RN had three operational Harrier Squadrons at the time of the defence review, 1, 4 and 800 NAS. A fourth Squadron, 20 Sqn, had been stood down previously as the training squadron. By comparison, the Tornado fleet currently numbers 7 Squadrons, with the additional training Squadron (for the record not ALL based in Scotland). Whatever advantages Harrier had (and it did have a few) this was largely negated by the fact they'd been worked hard on the Afghanistan deployment and were tired. There was not the airframes to rotate the jets in theatre, and as a result were always the more likely to be cut. Operating one type is cheaper, and there's no way you could justify ditching 8 Squadrons of Tornados to save 4 Squadrons of capable, but tired, Harriers. Ideally we'd have kept both, but it was never going to happen.

    As for Mr Harvey's comment, it's nothing short of embarrassing when the current defence minister continually trots out the line of the carriers not having launched fixed wing aircraft since 2003 when it's demonstrably rubbish. If he doesn't at least have a basic knowledge of what he's speaking on he shouldn't be doing the job, and he made a real fool of himself there. We will miss the capability, and as for maintaining that we still have Illustrious then surely the logical thing would have been to keep the fully operational Ark until that situation arose. As it is the loss of the Harrier makes this largely pointless anyway. The RAF and the Navy have been backed into a corner from which there was no escape. Forced to choose between the loss of the Tornado and subsequent (intolerable) strain it'd have put on the RAF, or lose the capabilities the Harrier brings with it, well the whole situation was really rather short sighted. If the money can't be found for the equipment the armed forces needs, then we need to scale back their commitments. You can't burn the candle at both ends forever, and I feel presently we are very close to getting burned, especially if Libya proves as drawn out as it easily could.

  • Comment number 13.

    The incompetence of this Government is beyond belief. If Nick Harvey doesn't remember the last Harrier flight from Ark Royal, which took place while he was Defence Minister, he really isn't the man for the job.

    Harrier and Tornado are completely different aircraft that were designed for completely different roles, including in Tornado's case long range nuclear bombing sorites against the Soviets during the Cold War. The resistence in Libya, as with the ground troops in Afghanistan, need "CLOSE" air support for which the Harrier is far better than Tornado. Hence the US using their AV8-Bs for exactly that purpose.

    Aircraft of all types are limited in flying hours, so not only does flying a Tornado from the UK, or even Italy, use up precious hours, but it also uses up fuel and the stamina of not only the Tornado pilots, but the crew of other aircraft supporting them such as tanker aircraft. Not only would Harriers from Ark Royal have provided a better operational capability in support of the Libyan resistance, but they would have had a faster turnaround, been more reactive and flexible and would have airborne early warning radar cover provided by RN helicopters.

  • Comment number 14.

    The Defence Minister is either a complete liar, badly advised, or incompetent.
    The BBC should be sitting him down in a nice warm studio with the likes of Mr Paxman, whilst shown of video of 1(F) Squadron flying harriers off HMS Ark Royal in 2010!
    The fact that he repeatedly bangs on with confidence that Harriers last operated a British carrier in 2003, is a concern.
    A man who should be acquainted with the facts, who does not know the facts

  • Comment number 15.

    Judging from observations of living near Cottesmore during its Tornado training and Harrier period is.. Harriers are quieter. Unless the Harriers are spending time hovering, the noise they made compared to Tornadoes was alot less.

    Yes, it's a huge advantage in a theatre like Libya, having to fly either from Norfolk, or Italy, refuel en route a few times (from Norfolk), rather than simply, in the case of a Sea Harrier, take off from a carrier (even a US one..). They aren't scrapped yet, just mothballed, as railrunner would have seen when he went to the Residents Farewell thing last month. They had one on the deck, the rest were in the hangars.

    Mind you, if the wind was in the 'right' direction, the rifle range could be heard and much louder than Harriers at other times, never mind the odd big band when the bigwigs had their parties.

  • Comment number 16.

    British Airways are raising the fuel charges for their flights. Is it not the case that no matter what the MoD is rapidly running out of money. How much fuel does a jet fighter, of any type, use, how much does it cost to fuel a ship, just to do some training exercise, or some sea trials. We cannot afford the new aircraft carriers, well we might be able to build them, but to run them, to get a full complement of able seamen, well there is another story. Nobody has yet invented a ship or a plane which can function on all the hot air expelled by the politicians. Brilliant show by the way.

    However, what I reminded of is the decision by Chuchill back in 1912, to transfer responsibility for the protection of our interests in the Med from the English to the French navy. This was because of costs, and of course it was the wonderful Mr Churchill who made the decision to stop coaling ships and instead run them on oil, and so the storm clouds started gathering in the middle east, and they have still not settled.

  • Comment number 17.

    How can a Defence Minister possibly not know where our aircraft carriers are...?
    I mean it's not as though we've got dozens of them, is it...?

  • Comment number 18.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 19.

    Mein host@0

    We are getting very Daily Mail these days - I did not see the interview but if a minister is not on top of their brief that is their problem.

    Is the defence review a momentous cock up or are we just struggling to accept the realpolitik of what we can afford?

    Of course it may be a combination of the above but I fancy we really can't accept Britannia is too broke to rule the waves

  • Comment number 20.

    So HMS Illustrious is also a 'no-fly zone'.

  • Comment number 21.

    Dear Andrew
    If you get a chance to interview Nick Harvey again, you might like to ask him why we are axing 2,500 servicemen whilst (as at Jan 2011) we have 84,180 civil servants in the MoD.

  • Comment number 22.


    The Tornado GR has been providing close air support for a long time now. Close Air Support doesn't mean down in the weeds anymore. The US use B-1s and B-52s for close air support. The Tornado has proven itself in the close air support role.



    From the Pilots perspective.


    'I don't hold with the argument that Tornado can't do CAS - it can, we proved it when I flew them in Germany in the 80s and we learned the skills having also prepared for it with 3 different pre-planned options on the IGB whilst I was on Buccs in the 70s. It doesn't have to be a mini-jet to do CAS and again, based on my OR experience in weapons procurement, in these frugal days each of our air assets has to be capable of all roles -'

    Iraq Battle Honours for the Royal Air Force - Iraq 2003. Note the citations for CAS for GR4 Squadrons.


  • Comment number 23.

    A very good morning Andrew,

    so effectively we have no military to talk of left. However, what we do have is an awful lot of some very good personnel who have left the army, Special Forces in particular, who can be 'hired' by the government through the private firms who supply 'protection' for our civil and diplomatic communities whilst they operate in difficult places. Many would call them mercenaries.

    Now we know that the retired General Sir Mike Jackson, mentioned in the Bloody Sunday inquiry, who led the British army in Iraq, is involved in one of these private security firms. We also know that Lt-Col Richard Williams, former head of the SAS in Iraq is also involved in the same reputable company.

    Therefore, it would be no surprise if the British government did not want to send our brave and courageous soldiers to Libya, to protect civilians of course, but instead chose to 'hire' some 'mercenaries' to fulfill the role of training the new Libyan army. With all the redundancies just announced it would be brilliant if the army could be used as consultants, or advisers, without the government being directly involved.

  • Comment number 24.

    Well, for a change, some informed comment on here instead of the usual political pinball. The consensus is establised already and I have nothing to add that hasnt been said already except to the host who would probably do well to absorb the wisdom of the informed individuals who have contributed here.

  • Comment number 25.


    do not get distracted. When you next ask questions about the Royal Navy then ask about HMS Albion. The trouble is we live in a country with a free press, the Plymouth based ship has just left port with a contingent of Royal Marines, purely to go on exercises of course.

    Just like our soldiers were conveniently on exercises just before the war in Iraq, and just like the naval review of 1914 was not dispersed, but was held on station on the orders of the wonderful Winston Churchill, just in case of course.

  • Comment number 26.


    Oy...I hope that you are not including me as a political pinballer...I do so loath these generalisations...like politicians who say 'we'...or nobody saw this coming...oh yes I did...mind you some of the politicians are now using the 'I' or even 'you'...the English language is brilliant...

    If I may just go ever so slightly off topic to indicate what I mean about the English language. You see I worked in the Czech Republic, and I got to know some 'locals' very well. We were discussing English books, and they said one of the best writers was Agatha Christie, whose books were translated into Czech, only in one book the story was lost in translation, as the book was 'Why didn't they ask Evans', and of course the title was translated, only they had to give Evans a gender, although of course the main thrust of the detective story was based on people thinking that the gender of Evans was other than what it seemed.

    It brought home to me that nobody should base their decisions on assumptions, but only on the facts, on the facts of the case if you like, and I would have asked the Minister, what do you mean 'in service' because a ship in mothballs, or being mothballed, could be said to be 'in service' because she had not been decommissioned.

  • Comment number 27.

    'Mr Harvey said there was nothing new about this: that fixed wing aircraft had not flown off a British carrier since 2003. Probably best that I refer you to the comments section of the Daily Politics website, where our viewers provided convincing and substantial testimony that Harriers were flying of British carriers as late as 2010 - but cannot now.'

    Getting to be something of a trend, this habit of politicians mouthing facts that are at variance with actualite. And being nailed, if not on the spot, but soon thereafter.

    I seem to recall Mr. Darling and Mr. Hammond doing exactly the same thing on education/environment/energy issues not so long ago.

    And what happened was... not a lot.

    Though I think the thread shut down PDQ. Cross party pressure? Mind you, after the latest tweet this AM, the BBC might be even more amenable to requests to curtail critical activities that don't suit.

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    Tommy, our first carrier will be ready around 2017, and following sea trials should be in service around 2019/2020 along with the F-35C variant that will fly from it. It's a bit of an urban myth that the jets won't be ready in time for the carrier.

  • Comment number 30.


    I can well understand why may not be 'allowed' so if moderated out don't worry...must not overstep the mark...or go off topic...now if you were to start a blog on the release of the Kenya documents...and the British response to the Mau Mau hostilities...and if there is any evidence that we might have done something to the father of President Obama which we might regret with the benefit of hindsight...or if NATO forces had accidently hit 'rebel' forces...the news is just so fast nowadays...

  • Comment number 31.

    Lovely sunny day down here in the Westcountry as well...especially as it is my birthday...but no power cuts...very devious...is there a conspiracy...we must be told...

  • Comment number 32.

    By the way Andrew and the crew...watched your show...only slightly concerned that you would appear to have been sat in the noonday sun...and it looked fierce...now in the papers yesterday was the news on the increases in the numbers suffering malignant Melanoma...now listen...you should have been under an umbrella...or some sort of protection...the BBC should do more to protect the workers...and as for wanting what the public really think and public opinion polls...well I like to think that through your blog we let you know exactly what we think...really think...only sometimes the moderators would prefer it if not everybody knew what we thought...and we must stay within the regulations mustn't we!

  • Comment number 33.


    Oh go on...as an Editor might have said in days of yore...print and be damned :-)Or should we be aware that like a very close family member of mine we really ought to be careful of High Court injunctions...or maybe as was pointed out on your show at lunchtime by the delicious Anita that people involved in the opinion poll business do not always get told 'the truth'...for example by adding to the name Anita 'delicious' does it cause a problem...or should we lose all forms of description to a narrative...should we lie...or be economical with the truth...just a thought...looking forward to the 'show' tonight...especially since we do not know who will be appearing with you...Angelina Jolie...or was that a lie

  • Comment number 34.

    To fly missions to Libya without a carrier is madness, we shouldn't be doing it. In the early days flying from the UK was even more insane, and flying from Italy not much better as shown by a possible incidence of 'friendly' fire. Why carrying on like this is just not going to work in the long run I'll refer your readers (as you already have) to some well informed blogs on the Daily Politics page. What the French do is up to them, at least the have a carrier, until it breaks down again that is.

  • Comment number 35.


    The trouble is the new carriers will not have all the tecnology required for joint operations...whoever allowed the construction to go ahead without change must have been seriously one eyed...not in the Nelsonian way...but in the way which just thought it would be good for the Scottish shipyards...as for Illustrious...why has that been sent to Scotland...could they work some overtime so as to get her delivered sooner rather than later...however you know the Scots...just like the English pound...but do they like the English

  • Comment number 36.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 38.

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