Colt after the Cat
Gary Parsons looks at the future of RAF Coltishall once the Jaguar is retired
Celebrating its 90th anniversary over the weekend of 15/16 May, 6 Squadron's low-key event was one that brought both the Jaguar's and Coltishall's futures into prominence with the local press. Since the 'Big Cat's' 30th anniversary last September, speculation has been mounting over its retirement plans and the threat of an early withdrawal under revised spending plans dictated by the Treasury.
Due to the recent conflict in Iraq, future defence programmes have been raided to cover the necessary operational cost of maintaining a presence in the Middle East. It would seem rather ludicrous that the Defence budget should be required to cover its in-theatre costs at the expense of its future equipment and procurement, but this is the modern accounting way. The Chancellor is expected to eventually cover the cost of the war through emergency funding but in the short-term it undeniably puts pressure on all three forces' budgets.
Since early 2003 the Treasury has imposed a new system of accountancy called 'Resource Account Budgeting' (RAB) for all Ministerial departments. Previously all budgetary control was on a cash spent/earned basis in the fiscal year, a system that had been in place since the mid-19th Century. Now RAB takes into account depreciation of assets, such as bases and equipment, and accrues costs when stocks are used, rather than when cash is spent. What this does is put pressure on departments to lower their overheads and reduce asset base, as the less it owns and has to maintain, the less charges for maintenance and depreciation are incurred. There are many critics of this system, as in true accountancy style if reflects the cost but not the value. Asset-stripping may be the way forward in modern commerce, but in Defence it promotes the closure of bases, agglomeration of employees and equipment without reflecting the value of retaining assets for future expansion. This is a real concern with regard to airfields, as in today's tight environmental and planning legislation it would be almost impossible to construct new ones, except under emergency powers by which time it would be too late.
Such infrastructure that Coltishall provides is invaluable, as it could be retained for future expansion or diversification of assets if required through other pressures. At the moment it would seem that the base's future is sealed, as on 24 April Nicholas Soames asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he would make a statement on the future of the base. In reply, Rt Hon Adam Ingram, MP (Chief Whip) stated "On current plans the Royal Air Force will have no continuing requirement for RAF Coltishall once the Jaguar aircraft goes out of service." It was rumoured that Coltishall was being considered as an alternative base for the Hawks from RAF Valley, but this seems now to be highly unlikely.
A high-level study on future basing policy for the three services is due for publication in July, which is expected to announce the closure of many small units and up to five major airfields. The policy, headed by the Chief of the Air Staff, has a vision looking at requirements through to 2015, but is at risk of the Treasury's demand for more immediate cost savings. There is little doubt that Coltishall will be one of the five airfield closures, but as yet there is no information on how the decisions will be made. Coltishall is a historic airfield - it's the last front-line Battle of Britain airfield to still host offensive aircraft - and one that lies within a predominantly rural location with low noise issues and affordable housing. It is also close to the North Sea, the East Coast bombing and gunnery ranges and a short trip from the Continent. Airspace is relatively quiet, only the small airport at Norwich providing any conflicting traffic. The current Station Commander, Group Captain Graham Wright, believes stations the size of Coltishall are ideal and is lobbying hard for its future, having spent nearly twenty years of his career here. "As the Jaguar force is self-contained, there is a good family spirit - promotions happen within the base and many personnel find themselves settled in the area for a number of years."
Many of Coltishall's advantages certainly don't apply to some other airfields in the south, most notably Northolt, Benson and Odiham, the latter being subject to a review just a couple of years ago. With a crowded airspace in the South-East, high-cost housing and plenty of alternative employment it would seem appropriate for the Chinook and Merlin squadrons to be re-located at Coltishall, close to the Stanta training area. The effect on the local economies at Benson and Odiham would be much less than that to be experienced at Coltishall, where the impact will be felt especially hard combined with the draw-down at nearby Neatishead. It's not just a case of RAF personnel leaving - it's also the loss to local tradesmen and industry, of which there is little else in North Norfolk except tourism.
One hopes that the need of the local populace is paramount within the MoD review, but past experience begs to offer that it isn't always a prime concern - the departure of squadrons of aircraft from Suffolk in the early nineties left a significant gap in the Woodbridge area, only balanced elsewhere in the county by the arrival of the Army Air Corps at Wattisham. A true community-based economic study would also look at the benefits of retention in a locality - Coltishall inputs something in the region of £20m a year into the Broadland area, balancing its operational and maintenance cost directly charged to the MoD budget.
The closure of yet another East Anglian airfield will leave just one fully operational RAF flying base, Marham, a shift change from the fifties and sixties when it was the hub of Fighter Command activity. Change is one thing, but abandonment another.
Current plans indicate that the Jaguar will continue in service until 2009, but speculation is rife that the impending Defence Review in July will accelerate the timescale. Critics argue that this will only be possible if Typhoon training and procurement is in a position to accommodate the capability shortfall that would ensue and enable current Jaguar pilots to transfer without undue delay. With 6 Squadron the first to disband in mid-2006, the Typhoon OCU would need to be training pilots and completing courses by then - not unachievable at this moment in time, but any further delays to the Typhoon programme will compromise this. Coltishall's Station Commander, Group Captain Graham Wright, is well aware of this: "The transition of pilots is paramount in any decision to retire Jaguar early. We may be able to move the more senior pilots to staff posts or instructor roles, but it's the younger pilots' careers that are important." Some senior Jaguar pilots have already moved onto the Typhoon programme to form the basis of the OCU, 29(R) Squadron, including Sqn Ldr Rob Colligan who performed a flypast with two Jaguars over Coltishall on Friday 14 May.
Although thirty years old, the Jaguar is still one of the RAF's most capable and flexible aircraft and one that is immediately deployable. With a war requirement of sixteen aircraft, the current forty-odd aircraft at Coltishall could quite easily and cheaply be supplemented by many of the low-houred airframes currently with the School of Technical Training at RAF Cosford. But, in some civil servants' eyes, this gives the Jaguar fleet a resale value on the foreign market, or to put it another way capable of bringing in a 'fast buck'. However, any cash generated from such a sale would be a short-term benefit and insignificant in terms of the MoD's budget. Here RAB works against the system, as the Jaguars were 'bought and paid for' a long while ago and thus should be cheap to operate. Maintenance costs may be higher compared to more modern airframes, but in terms of lifetime costs over the remaining life of the airframes presents extremely high 'value for money', or 'bang per buck'.
seem that Jaguar is a sacrificial lamb to ensure the continuation of Typhoon,
a decision that would appear to compromise operational effectiveness in
the ground-support theatre over the next ten years or so, as Typhoon has
some way to go before being ready for 'swing-role' and the kind of missions
at which the 'Big Cat' excels.