Aircraft carrier

Defence cuts hit Britain's aircraft carrier programme

There will be no carrier aircraft capability for Britain until 2020 and possibly no full strike capability until 2030.

The report by the Common Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the cash savings from scaling back the carrier programme will only be £600 million and there remained "considerable uncertainty" about the cost of modifying one of the new ships to accommodate a different kind of fighter jet.

The effects of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) would not be known until December 2012, the committee said.

It accused the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of focusing on "short-term" affordability in drawing up options for the SDSR to cover a £38 billion black hole in its budget.

Under the SDSR plans set out in October 2010, the construction of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers ordered by the previous Labour government is going ahead.

However, one of the ships will be mothballed to save costs and the other will be converted to operate a cheaper Joint Strike Fighter, rather than the short take-off, vertical-landing (STOVL) version planned by Labour.

There will be no carrier aircraft capability between 2011 and 2020.

In a report critical of the long-term value for money of the Government's revised carrier programme, the PAC said: "To convert the ship has changed the profile of risks and costs, and the costs are not yet fully understood. 

"The switch from the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter to the carrier variant has reduced the technical risks associated with the STOVL aircraft.

"But the costs of converting the carrier for the carrier variant aircraft will not be known until December 2012, leaving the project at risk of cost growth and slippage, and there are new technical risks and challenges integrating the new aircraft with the carriers."

The report said there were other technical risks associated with integrating new aircraft with the carriers and suggested full carrier strike capability might not be achieved until 2030.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said there was "a gaping hole" in the government's credibility on defence.

"Yet again we have a respected body giving a damning assessment of the defence review, which was driven by short-term cash savings, not strategic need, and limits Britain's ability to project power," he said.

"It is incorrect to claim that a full carrier strike capability will not be achieved until 2030," said an MoD spokeswoman.

"The more capable carrier variant of the joint strike fighter fast jet will begin operating from our aircraft carrier from 2020, with six UK jets available for operations.

"By 2023, this number will increase to 12 UK jets onboard 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."

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