Alarm Over Aircraft Carrier Programme

Alarm Over Aircraft Carrier Programme

The National Audit Office today released a report evaluating the changes to the aircraft carrier and associated Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft project as a result of Strategic Defence and Security Review in October. Liam Fox insisted that the report was a "broad endorsement for the government's position'. However, a closer reading of the report suggests grave concern. The changes will save some £3.4 billion, but the SDSR is unaffordable unless there is a real terms increase in defence funding from 2015.

Given the decision to retire the Harrier aircraft and the existing aircraft carrier immediately, there will be a decade-long gap without aircraft carrier capability. The report hints that ministers have not fully comprehended the risks of such a policy.

Michael Whitehouse, Chief Operating Officer of the National Audit Office, commented:

" It will take two years for the Department to reach a mature understanding of the consequences of the decision. These consequences include a decade without an operational carrier and the risks after such a time associated with reconstituting the capability. The risks to the delivery of the new carriers are compounded by more generic problems with defence acquisition - notably the MoD's continuing difficulties in balancing its budget."

The SDSR decision meant the MOD would build two carriers but operate only one, pending the next SDSR. This carrier will be available at sea only for an average of 150-200 days each year. A decision whether to convert the other carrier will be taken in the next SDSR, planned for 2015. The National Audit Office said changes to the programme had created "significant levels of operational, technical, cost and schedule uncertainty".

The report has created ill-feeling in Whitehall, with the MoD complaining that it had been published before they had agreed it. Meanwhile, The NAO argued that it had been denied access to crucial Cabinet Office papers. The NAO also revealed that senior army figures had recommended scrapping the carrier programme in favour of keeping more surface ships, such as frigates and destroyers.

Jim Murphy, Labour's Shadow Defence Secretary, concluded:

"This report is confirmation that the defence review was led by the search for short-term cuts, not our nation's strategic defence needs.


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