Richard North, 04/07/2014  

000a ac-004 launch.jpg

As it does on such occasions, the juvenile media is going into gushing overdrive at the "launch" of the Queen Elizebeth II in Rosyth, the latest in the saga of Britain's aircraft carrier programme, set to deliver one operational platform with no aircraft to fly until 2020.

Originally, conceived in the 1998 defence review, two carriers were to cost the then princely sum of £2bn. By 2005, when we were writing about it, the cost had climbed to £3.5bn and now has escalated to £6.2bn, with one of the platforms to be mothballed as soon as it is built.

Add the cost of the embarked F 35B VSTOL aircraft, once estimated at £10bn but now in stratospheric territory, plus the price of shore facilities, and we are looking at a package cost in excess of £20bn, for a single operational vessel, equipped with the wrong aircraft of dubious capability, themselves suffering from massive cost over-runs.

In my view, it was always a mistake opting for the VSTOL version in any event, not least because the aircraft is less capable than the conventional version. But it also prevents cross-decking with US vessels, and thereby limits interoperability, and prevents other types being operated, such as the Hawkeye AWACs airframe.

With the UK adopting a lower strategic profile, it is in any event hard to justify retention of naval manned fixed-wing capability, especially as the future will probably rest with long-range UAVs. These are not far from a semi-autonomous mission capability, with endurances measured in weeks. The days of the short-range, high cost, manned aircraft are already numbered.

In terms of force projection and utility, the Royal Navy would probably have been better of with vessels such as these, but then one recalls that the main purpose of our carrier is to fulfil our commitments to the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). It is considered to be a shared resource, as part of the 2010 Headline Goal.

Thus, it is very hard to feel any sense of pride for this grotesque, over-priced white elephant, which is distorting the defence budget. That is more so when its role is to provide a capacity which, when it is actually available in six year's time, won't be needed or wanted by the UK, but is available mainly to satisfy the vainglorious ambitions of the "colleagues".

But then, when you delegate your foreign policy to a supranational entity, as in the EU, and then gauge your defence requirements to servicing that posture, it was always on the cards that we would end up with an unbalance defence capability, fielding equipment that had no role in projecting our own national interests.

In the long history of Britain as a naval power, therefore, this day marks a low point which, in the way of things, will only be the first of many. With £20bn and counting, this is an embarrassment we cannot afford.


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