It’s time to get Harriers back out of their hangars

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We’ve said before that a U-turn on defence cuts would not be a sign of weakness. Instead, we believe it would be a welcome indication that the government is prepared to listen to experts and heed their advice.

So we’re pleased to reveal today that Harrier jump jets, controversially and hastily axed in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), could be brought back in to Royal Navy service.

We have it on good authority that defence secretary Liam Fox is holding talks to put the jets on to HMS Illustrious. The carrier is up in Scotland undergoing a refit so that she can accommodate helicopters, but the work is being done in such a way that she could take Harriers as well.

Of course it’s hard for the government and prime minister David Cameron to admit they got it wrong by cutting the Harriers along with Ark Royal to save cash as they sought to plug a £38bn hole in the Ministry of Defence’s budget. They obviously believe a volte-face would be viewed as embarrassing, hence the official denials of any plan to bring mothballed Harriers back into service.

But our source says: ‘It just depends whether there is the political appetite for it to happen, which I hear there is.’

The case for putting Harriers back in the air is a sound one. It is not based on sentiment, but hard facts. And if the overarching consideration is the saving of money, then they win on that score too.

Look at what’s happening in Libya. Air operations are costing us £30m a week because RAF jets, crews and ground staff have to be based in Italy.

Think of the fuel and hotel bills that are being racked up. In comparison, running operations from an aircraft carrier would cost just £80m a year.

As our involvement in Libya continues for who knows how long, Harriers could use HMS Illustrious as a base and provide an economic and effective aerial force.

It’s time for Mr Cameron to front up, admit he made a big mistake and get those Harriers out of the hangars.