From The Times January 22, 2010
RAF urged to cut ‘Cold War’ new jets for cheap propeller aircraft Tom Coghlan, Defence Correspondent 11 Comments
Recommend? (2) The RAF is under pressure to cut its multibillion-pound orders for fast jets in favour of cheaper propeller aircraft as part of a review of defence spending. The suggestion, from General Sir David Richards, has ignited a debate that pitches the head of the Army against his opposite numbers in the other two Services.
General Richards, Chief of the General Staff, believes that the Super Tucano offers a cost-effective alternative to fast jets such as the Cold War-era Eurofighter Typhoon in counter-insurgency operations such as those in Afghanistan. Resembling something from the Second World War, a Super Tucano costs about £5 million, a fraction of the £60 million estimated cost of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter ordered for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers or the £67 million of a Typhoon.
A strategic defence review expected after the general election is likely to recommend that each Service’s budget is cut by about 20 per cent.
General Richards has argued that state-on-state confrontations will be largely replaced by counter-insurgency operations in the future, making huge savings possible if the Government is prepared to sacrifice ships and tanks for lighter and cheaper but technically advanced matériel.
Air analysts argue that the Tucano offers a cost-effective platform to which high-tech equipment and munitions can be attached. It is being considered by the US Navy after impressive performance in Colombia, where it is used against FARC rebels.
Paul Beaver, former editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly and a former army helicopter pilot, said: “What David Richards is saying is that the airframe does not need to be superb — you just need to put high-tech sensors and the defensive aids on there. In Afghanistan, there is a reasonably small threat level for aircraft. It is not a replacement for Apache helicopters but it is a complementary capability.” Richard North, a defence analyst and another advocate of the aircraft, said: “The right kit for the sort of wars we are fighting today is a lot cheaper than the high-end kit.”
The Brazilian two-seater Tucano can fly from airstrips and loiter for six and a half hours over the battlefield without refuelling, although it cannot refuel in mid-air. It can carry 1.5 tonnes and uses only £500 of fuel an hour. The Eurofighter Typhoon costs nearly £85,000 an hour to fly. The trainer version is in service with the RAF.
Andrew Brookes, aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “I think that General Richards has been led astray by people who think that because it is cheap and cheerful it is the answer to the maiden’s prayer. In a Joint Strike Fighter you have a stealthy, magnificent intelligence-gathering platform. No one will see it coming and it could go to downtown Tehran, Pyongyang or maybe even Moscow tomorrow. You can say you would get a lot of Tucanos cheaply but the money for Typhoon and JSF has already been spent and they can be used for the whole spectrum of operations.”
One defence source told The Times: “We neither need, nor can afford the ‘deep persistent operating capability’ associated with attacking stealthily the most heavily defended airspace on Earth. Something like Tucano does the job for irregular warfare [of the future] and is effective and cost-efficient.”
An RAF spokesman said: “We are always seeking the most effective ways of conducting surveillance. The preferred option is currently to use fast jets and unmanned air vehicles because of their ability to stay airborne longer [through air-to-air refuelling] and their greater versatility in providing close air support to troops.”
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