As the world becomes a more dangerous place each day, and Britain's armed forces are stretched around the globe on peacekeeping duties, the Government seems intent on reducing its defensive capabilities. The first of a latest of cuts came into being on 31 March when 800 Naval Air Squadron disbanded, leaving the Navy with just one front-line unit for the next two years, until it too will go. It will be at least six years before its replacement is ready... Damien Burke reports from Yeovilton. Pictures by the author, Jamie Hunter and Nick Blacow
It seems that when it comes to Harriers, nothing ever goes to plan. Joint Force Harrier all turned into a bit of a damp squib; a grand plan for a 42-Harrier flypast this month was scuppered by spoilsports at RAF stations along the route not granting permission for the overflight; and the fleet's only viable air defence component is now being thrown away by a government who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
800 NAS are the oldest Naval Air Squadron and have the dubious honour of being the first Sea Harrier squadron to be axed after twenty-four years of operating the type. Formed in 1933, they have an impressively long list of battle honours and fifty air-to-air kills including more than twelve in the 1982 Falklands War, with the Sea Harrier FRS1.
The FA2 has been flown by the Squadron since 1995, and progressively upgraded while in service so that today's FA2 is still a very capable aircraft and being retired well before its use-by date. They may not be as easy to maintain as more modern designs but regularly embarrass supposedly more capable opponents in air-to-air combat training (such as the F-15Cs from RAF Lakenheath), and in a recent bombing competition FA2s trounced their RAF colleagues flying more advanced GR7s and GR7As - and also left Lakenheath's F-15Es trailing in their wake.
So - historic squadron - highly proficient pilots and ground staff - nifty little jet... well, they were clearly crying out to be disbanded and the jets stripped for spares... and, oh yes, let's not bother replacing them with anything else. The Falklands War cost the Royal Navy several expensive ships and many valuable personnel because of the lack of Airborne Early Warning - it seems now the lessons are being forgotten once again because we are throwing away the fleet's air defence entirely.
31 March was chosen for the disbandment, and the sad day was marked with a parade of the entire squadron complement on the ground and a flypast by six 800 NAS SHARs. A pair of 899 NAS jets had been pulled out onto the ramp just in case they were required but clearly 800's ground crews had been making sure that wasn't necessary, and six 800 NAS jets plus another as air spare departed Yeovilton for the last time just before the disbandment ceremony began.
The First Sea Lord made a speech (including a gentle reminder to the RAF about who won that most recent bombing competition) and inspected the assembled Squadron; 800's Commanding Officer (Commander Paul Stone) also spoke, and the 2003 Flight Safety award was presented to the Squadron. After a brief service, it was time for the assembled Divisions to about-face and await the flypast. Dead on track the six Sea Jets roared overhead and with that, 800 NAS was officially history.
With the formalities out of the way, the seven jets all came back for a positively fearsome run and break - the reason for the speed of arrival being clear when champagne bottles sprouted everywhere for some traditional dousing of the pilots who carried out the flypast. With the news that two of the Navy's carriers are going to be mothballed, the fixed wing carrier pilot is now officially an endangered species in the UK...