Queen Elizabeth has officially named the biggest warship Britain has ever built after herself in a ceremony today.
The ceremony was the latest step in a £6.2bn project to build a new generation of aircraft carriers, but it comes at a time of financial uncertainty that means it remains unclear if the vessel, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be the only carrier of its kind to be deployed by the Royal Navy.
The event saw a crowd of 4,000 gather at Rosyth Dockyard in Fife, where the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier has been assembled and fitted out, to watch the Queen smash a bottle of Scotch whisky against the hull. But how many US-built F-35 jets it will carry is an open question too, for the project £2.6bn over the original budget set out seven years ago.
Britain has cut defence spending by around 8 per cent over the last four years as part of a government plan to reduce a record budget deficit, leaving it with an army which by 2020 will be the smallest it has been since the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century.
The Royal Navy has been particularly hard hit – it had 50,500 personnel in 1995 but now has only 33,350. The fleet size has also shrunk. In 2005, it had 11 destroyers, 20 frigates and 11 tactical submarines. Today, it has only six destroyers, 13 frigates and seven tactical submarines.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is meant to be the first of two aircraft carriers, but the fate of the second ship is unclear. Identical to the first, it is already being built, but the government won't decide whether Britain will use it until a defence spending review in the second half of next year. Defence experts say it could still be mothballed or sold.
Nor has Britain yet ordered the fighter jets for the carriers. The original plan was to buy 138, but so far the government has only committed to 48 and has bought just three for training purposes. A $5bn order for 14 Lockheed Martin F-35 super-stealth jets is expected this year however.
While Britain was one of only four NATO partners to meet their agreed target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence last year, both US and British military officials have said spending cuts could affect its ability to fight wars.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is meant to be a game changer though, providing the armed forces with a four-acre military operating base, which can be deployed worldwide.
The length of each ship is the equivalent of 28 London buses – almost three times the length of Buckingham Palace – and they will be versatile enough to be used across the full spectrum of military activity, from war fighting to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Each ship, which has a life expectancy of around 50 years, will be fitted out with more than three million metres of cable and it will have enough power to light up a small town.
The man overseeing the construction of the ship, Queen Elizabeth Class programme director Ian Booth of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, told BBC Radio 4's Today: "They are effectively a floating military city that can deploy aircraft, that can act as a disaster relief centre. They have their own hospital with operating theatres. They can support land forces, all sorts of military interventions.”
The Queen Elizabeth's captain, Commodore Jerry Kyd, told the same program that thanks to the advanced technology found on-board the ship’s crew will be just 750, compare to the 3,500 normally found on US carriers.
"In terms of size, scale and ability to deliver increased strategic effect and international influence, the two aircraft carriers under construction for the Royal Navy represent a step change in military capability," independent defence analyst Howard Wheeldon said.
Analysts say the $10.6bn bill for the pair built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance – a consortium including British engineering companies BAE Systems and Babcock, and the UK division of France's Thales – is good value in comparison to the US, which spent an estimated $12.9bn on its new carrier.
The decision about the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, will be made by a new government elected in a vote in May 2015, and the health and growth prospects of Britain's defence industry is likely to play heavily on politicians' minds
Employing over 300,000 people directly and indirectly, Britain is the world's second largest exporter of defence equipment and services after the USA, with exports netting £8.8bn pounds in 2012.
"If we don't spend the money on defence and buy equipment ourselves and equip our forces well, why should anybody buy from us?" Wheeldon asked.