Friday, December 9, 2011

Is £38bn Defence Deficit Affecting Aircraft Carrier Requirement and Capability?

HMS Ark Royal is verily missed
It will not have gone unnoticed that during the past few days much has been written regarding the National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports
and the mistakes that – if one believes all that is said – have been made by the Government as far as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) decision to scrap HMS Ark Royal and the building of the two Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers is concerned.

First of all let there be no doubt that the Government ‘got it badly wrong’ and left itself wide open to criticism for not fully appreciating that aircraft carriers are a necessary evil and can project air power where needed. The recent Libyan operation would have been more cost effective had Ark Royal still been in service with her highly capable Harriers than deploying Apache and Sea Kings from HMS Ocean and flying unnecessarily long and expensive sorties on Tornado, Typhoon, Sentinel and VC10 tanker aircraft from Italy, Cyprus and RAF Marham in Norfolk!. The Government are truly guilty of looking for short term financial gains without looking at the long term requirement and not realising that future defence needs will probably not be dictated by Westminster!

The Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the Labour MP, the Right Honourable Margaret Hodge MP, has accused the MoD of ‘focusing on short-term affordability in drawing up options for SDSR to cover a £38 billion black hole in its budget’ and when referring to the changes being made to the new aircraft carrier programme Mrs Hodge said:

“Once again, a major MOD project will be completed much later, cost much more and offer less military capability than originally planned.

“Changes to the aircraft carriers and the aircraft flying from them in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review have changed the risks and costs involved in ways that are not fully understood. Rather than two carriers, available from 2016 and 2018, at a cost of £3.65bn, we will now spend more than £6bn, get one operational carrier and have no aircraft carrier capability until 2020 – almost a decade. The second carrier will be mothballed, while the operational carrier will be available at sea for only 150 to 200 days a year.

“On top of that, the technology to enable the new aircraft to fly from the carrier is untested. The newly constructed ship will have to undergo immediate modification and the costs of this will not be known until December 2012.

“In preparing options, the Department concentrated on short-term affordability and the need to make cash savings, and did not focus strongly on long-term value for money. While the Department believes the decision will save £3.4 billion, only £600 million of this constitutes cash savings, with the other 80 per cent simply deferred costs.

“It is of deep concern that our ability to hold the Department to account was hampered by the Cabinet Office’s decision to withhold from the NAO all the information it requested to make a judgement on value for money. We welcome the subsequent decision by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary to make the papers available, following pressure from this Committee and others."

With regard to the NAO and Public Accounts Committee reports it has been said that media sources had reported ‘on inaccurate claims that the full Carrier Strike capability would not be achieved until 2030’. MoD sources said this was not true and answered that ‘the more capable Carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter fast jet will begin operating from our aircraft carrier from 2020, with six jets available for operation’ going on to state that ‘by 2023 this number will increase to 12 UK jets on-board and we will be able to work with our allies to increase that number because of the interoperability that the Carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter allows’.

In reply to both the NAO and Public Accounts Committee reports the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, said:

"We are tackling the inherited black hole in the Defence Budget and, earlier this month the National Audit Office [NAO] rightly recognised the work that this Government is undertaking to bring the Department's finances back into balance.

"When this Government came into power, the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers were already £1.6bn over budget. As part of an overall package of measures taken in the Strategic Defence and Security Review we have reduced overall spending on the Carrier Strike Programme by £4.4bn over the next ten years.

"The NAO and the Public Accounts Committee have both acknowledged that our decision to build a second aircraft carrier makes financial sense. Converting one of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers to operate the more capable Carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter fast jet from 2020 will maximise our military capability and enhance interoperability with our allies.

"Operating the more cost effective Carrier variant fast jet will, in the long term, offset the conversion costs and provide us with aircraft that have a longer range and carry a greater payload. Until our new Carrier capability comes into service, we can utilise our extensive basing and over flight rights to project decisive air power, as we showed during the Libya campaign”.

When examining the whole aircraft carrier issue it is worth remembering that had there been more control over defence spending in the past there would probably be no £38bn budget deficit and that had that been the case the swingeing cuts made to defence under SDSR may well not have been necessary. This leads us to suppose that the Royal Navy would still be capable of providing the all-important amphibious air wing that the current Government have deprived the country of leading to a lower level of national security and power projection – which is only one part of the whole erosion of defence equation!

Photo © Mike Cattell, Flickr