Save the Red Arrows! – Telegraph Blogs

At the Armed Forces Day in Stirling (Photo – PA)

On Armed Forces Day at the weekend, the Royal Regiment of Wales marched proudly through Cardiff, led by a goat called Siencyn.

Siencyn is the latest in a long line of regimental goats, dating back to the Crimean War. Goats were originally taken into battle to be eaten. But, after one Welsh goat woke up a Private Jenkins during guard duty in the Crimea, and alerted him to an enemy soldier, he was adopted as the regiment’s mascot.

In cold, objective terms, Siencyn, and the Goat Major who looks after him, are essentially a waste of taxpayers’ funds. But – in sentimental, spiritual and ceremonial terms – they are priceless.

You can say the same of Bill Millin, the bagpiper who piped Lord Lovat onto the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago last month. And you can say it in spades about the Red Arrows, who also appeared at the Armed Forces Day – in Stirling – and are also under the threat of extinction.

This week, their leader, Squadron Leader Jim Turner, said the Government only has four years to save the RAF display team, which is celebrating its 50th year in the skies. The current fleet of Hawk T1 jets is only expected to last until 2018 – and, as yet, there has been no guarantee of a replacement. Already, the present crop is showing its age. In 2011, two pilots were killed, after one plane crashed and another had a faulty ejector seat.

Normally, I’m ferociously anti-government spending. At a time when the country is broke – and the national debt is rising – government money is still splurged all over the place with all the carelessness of anyone spending someone else’s money. So much for austerity.

But the Red Arrows are different. Just as with Siencyn, their value is impossible to quantify; but it is enormous all the same.

Like Siencyn, they are a ceremonial quirk for the armed forces – and the public – to attach their loyalty and affection to. 32 years on, I still vividly remember seeing the Red Arrows at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch – they’ll be flying over the Grand Prix at Silverstone again this weekend.

At the age of 10, I was far from being a military child – I was much more of a mini-petrolhead. But it is the swooping, climbing formation of nine planes, trailing red, white and blue smoke, that I remember now; much more than I remember Niki Lauda’s victorious McLaren. Looking back at my photo album, I see that I took five pictures of the Red Arrows and only two of Niki Lauda.

You can’t monetise – to use a horrible word – that sort of childhood memory. But, if that’s what you want to do, it’s worth its weight in gold as a recruitment device; and as one of the most robust strands of the web that binds a country’s people to its armed forces. Let that web fall apart, and you let the country’s national and international security fall apart.

The Red Arrows give more than just sentimental value. They may cost a lot more than Siencyn but they are also more cost-effective. Among the beneficiaries is the British aerospace industry. Which Saudi potentate – chequebook in hand, longing to top up his national airforce – could fail to be moved, as I was at Brands Hatch, by the Red Arrows’ gravity-defying feats, performed with peerless precision and unity?

It doesn’t take much to imagine those feats transferred to a warzone. As indeed they often are. All nine Red Arrow pilots are recruited from frontline RAF squadrons. And, once they’ve completed their three-year tour with the display team, they return to RAF duties.

If the Government axed the Red Arrows tomorrow, they would save a few million pounds. But it would be as cost-effective in the long run as killing the golden goose – or eating the regimental goat.

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