Modern Day Naval Fighter Pilots in Action Supporting NATO Troops
Joint Force Harrier is written in traditionally understated British manner which raises the sense of excitement and tension that would be lost with a more gung-ho style.
After the well-regarded Sea Harrier was retired 800 Naval Air Squadron took on the Harrier GR7 and became part of Joint Force Harrier – a force combining Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm squadrons.
It also meant that the purpose changed from an air defence fighter role to providing ground attack capability in support of ground troops. This was a fresh challenge for Fleet Air Arm pilots who had been used to providing air-to-air defence for the Royal Navy fleet.c
A New Role Providing Closer Air Support – Ground Attack
At the beginning of April 2006 800 Naval Air Squadron was recommissioned at RAF Cottesmore. Less than two weeks later the squadron was on its way to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and exercises in Oman. The squadron, and especially the pilots, who thought in three dimensions had less than six months to learn the very different skills of ground attack. They had to become “mud movers” as fighter pilots disparagingly call close air support pilots. The squadron as a whole had to learn to operate from tents and temporary accommodation so the last couple of weeks of the work up was spent living in tents albeit in Lincolnshire rather than in a wilder part of the UK.
Creating a Naval Base at Kandahar in Land-locked Afghanistan
After arriving at the Kandahar air base in the Helmand Proving of Afghanistan the squadron quickly started making the base home by personalising their facilities. As a Navy Squadron in front-line action they were given permission by the First Sea Lord to fly the battle ensign on the flagpole. The squadron also needed to assert their naval credentials and wanted an aircraft carrier so they created a deck over the air raid shelter. All of such activity was an important part of developing the squadron’s identity and camaraderie
Responsibility for Lives on the Ground – Troops and Civilian, Even Enemy
The more personal and everyday human aspects of living on a military base which was routinely bring attacked by missiles gives way to descriptions of sorties flown in support of troops under fire from the Taliban and often trapped. It is here that the Commander Orchard’s quiet words really bring out the drama and the concern for protecting life.
Clearly the pilots were very concerned with protecting NATO ground forces but it will surprise many readers that it is not at the risk of civilian casualties – euphemistically called collateral damage. Indeed the attacks on the Taliban attackers was not unbounded and the Harrier’s only used sufficient force to repel attacks on the NATO troops. Many times attacks are aborted at the last minute or “smart” weapons are even redirected after release while on the way to the target when civilians are spotted near the target.
There is plenty of excitement, even old fashioned “scrambles”, that are reminiscent of previous wars. It is clear that pilots have much of the same culture as their predecessors despite the more technical nature of their role. They still operate at the edges of their equipment’s capability and their own limits.
Despite flying a full share of sorties Commander Orchard shares his own frustration (and indeed embarrassment) at not using the skills for which he has trained. He gets a lot of “stick” from the rest of the squadron which heightens his discomfort.
Modern Warfare and Combined Services
In Joint Force Harrier Ade Orchard demonstrates that modern naval pilots are adaptable and the professionalism and discipline is still strong even with a change of purpose. The Fleet Air Arm is in good heart even if it now working more closely with the Royal Air Force. From Joint Force Harrier it is clear that both services learn from each other’s different traditions, approaches and experience.
Joint Force Harrier is a good read in a quietly spoken way which still generates the excitement and uncertainty of modern military airborne warfare. As squadron commander Ade Orchard also demonstrates that modern air-power is not just about the pilots but a whole support structure that includes engineers, strategists, intelligence offices, cooks and all the other support men and women needed to keep the aircraft in the air. It will appeal to a wide ranging audience and will inspire many readers.
It is also an important contribution to military history as a personal account of modern integrated warfare. It explains how modern weapons do not need to be as powerful to be effective as their accuracy has improved. This is part of the desire to avoid collateral damage; a need that has become of overriding importance.
Joint Force Harrier ISBN: 978-0-141-03571-0) by Commander Ade Orchard RN with James Barringtom, a former military pilot, is published by Penguin at £6.99. Commander Orchard is taking none of the proceeds from the book instead they are being donated to Combat Stress, The Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society, and to the Royal Navy Historic Flight.
First appeared on Suite101