Operation ELLAMY: the UK’s contribution to the action in Libya

 by Sean Meade at 3/22/2011

Angus Batey writes:

Operation ELLAMY, as the UK’s contribution to the enforcement of UN Security Council resolution 1973 is known by the British Defense Ministry (MoD), is apparently succeeding in its aims. Not only has the Libyan air defence system and command-and-control network been severely disrupted by the allied air and missile strikes, but the mid-air aborting of a Tornado GR4 attack on an undisclosed command-and-control target over the night of March 20/21 “clearly demonstrates that we take all measures possible to reduce the chances of harming innocent civilians,” according to MoD spokesman Major General John Lorimer, speaking at a media briefing in London yesterday. But enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya looks set to cause further strain between the MoD and the UK’s Treasury if it becomes more than a short-term commitment.

In the last 24 hours, Tornado GR4s have joined Typhoons at Gioia del Colle in Italy to constitute the newly established 906 Expeditionary Air Wing. The swift deployment of both types is testament to the adaptability and organization of the squadrons and their support systems, but with both fleets the subject of heavy pruning in recent defense cutbacks, how long such an arrangement can be sustained is unclear.

The UK currently has 71 Typhoons, with additional future numbers unclear. Four are deployed to RAF Mount Pleasant to perform Quick Reaction Alert air defense of the Falkland Islands, and 6 Squadron’s Typhoons formally take over northern British QRA duties from Tornado F3s at RAF Leuchars on the 31st of this month. The Typhoon “hub” at RAF Coningsby also supplies aircraft for southern QRA as well as the Operational Conversion Unit. Although the MoD will not confirm how many aircraft it is sending to Italy, and there are no immediate concerns over the fleet’s ability to support these concurrent commitments, questions will begin to mount the longer ELLAMY continues.

The swing-role Typhoon needs conversion work and pilot training to fully utilise its air-to-ground capabilities, and this will be difficult to complete with extended numbers of aircraft deployed in air-superiority roles. The platform’s ability to replace the GR4 in air-to-ground missions — a cornerstone of the RAF’s plan to base its fast-jet fleet around Typhoon and F-35 — would be impacted, but there must also be question marks over the recently announced axing of two Tornado squadrons. The RAF’s GR4 fleet currently stands at 136 aircraft, but the cuts planned for June will leave that number closer to 100. Eight GR4s are deployed to Afghanistan, and with maintenance and training burdens to meet, even the Afghanistan operation alone was viewed, as long ago as 2009, as getting near the prolonged deployed limits of the Tornado force, according to senior RAF sources.

The GR4s remain prized assets in Afghanistan, and their RAPTOR high-resolution imagery pod and Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone moving-target missile will be available for use in ELLAMY once the aircraft reach Italy. RAPTOR is a large pod carried on the GR4’s centre line, the same place as the Storm Shadow missile. The Tornado missions so far flown during ELLAMY — 3000-mile round-trips from RAF Marham, in Norfolk — have been with Storm Shadow-equipped aircraft, and it is hard to envisage the full suite of GR4 capability being available from UK-based aircraft alone. Maintaining a long-term presence in both Afghanistan and the Mediterranean may mean postponing June’s squadron cuts; yet with the Nimrod R1 also temporarily evading the economic axe, the pressure to find savings elsewhere across the MoD will only intensify.

British forces are clearly anticipating a long involvement. Royal Navy Captain Karl Evans, of the MoD’s Naval Staff, told yesterday’s briefing that “we fully expect to be a part of an embargo operation” and said that resupply for the Trafalgar-class submarine’s stores of Tomahawk missiles is being looked at, though is not required immediately. While the RN’s commitment is relatively modest — two surface ships and the sub — so are its diminishing resources: HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier force were withdrawn from service earlier this year following cuts made in the Strategic Defense and Security Review in 2010. What remains to be seen is how long this level of commitment could be sustained if other members of the emerging coalition are unable — or unwilling — to carry some of the UNSCR1973 air and sea workload.


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