THE government is poised to make a sensational U-turn and bring Harrier jump jets back into Royal Navy service.
The News understands defence secretary Liam Fox is holding talks to put jets on HMS Illustrious.
The Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier is in Rosyth undergoing a multi-million pound refit to turn her into a helicopter carrier.
But it is understood Illustrious, which will return to Portsmouth on July 15, has been prepared in a way that accommodates Harriers.
This includes keeping the ramp on the flight deck, which has been given a new coat of special non-slip paint.
The Royal Navy’s jets were axed along with HMS Ark Royal in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which has left the navy without any jets until at least 2020.
But while Ark Royal is up for sale, the jets are being stored in hangars and could be ready to fly with two months’ notice.
A senior navy source told The News: ‘The Harriers have only been mothballed so they could be brought back out to fly at any time. Until you crush something, it can be used.
‘We’ve still got the ramp on Illustrious so it’s a strong possibility this will happen.’
A number of Harrier spares need to be put back on the ship to bring the aircraft back into service.
‘It’s easily done,’ said the source, adding: ‘It just depends whether there is the political appetite for it to happen, which I hear there is... I wouldn’t fall off my chair if this happens.’
A U-turn on the jets would be embarrassing for the Prime Minister David Cameron, who made cuts to plug a £38bn hole in the MoD’s budget.
But a Whitehall source revealed: ‘Liam Fox has said to several people he wants the Harriers back.’
An MoD spokesman for Dr Fox denied this was the case, saying: ‘We stand by the decisions in the SDSR.
‘We said we will project power from land bases around the world and that is what we’re doing successfully in Libya.’
Sixty useable Harriers have been mothballed while Britain spends £30m a week on RAF raids over Libya.
But figures in the SDSR suggest an aircraft carrier with Harriers could do the job for £80m a year.
Beth Torvell of The Navy Campaign called for Harriers to be used in Libya.
She said: ‘Many other nations sent a carrier as their contribution to Libyan efforts. It’s high time Britain brought back carrier strike capability and rejoined the grown-ups’ table.’
Planes could yet be deployed in Libya
NEWS that the Harrier jets could make a return has been met with relief from within the Royal Navy.
The jets give Britain the ability to anchor off the coast of anywhere in the world and project air power from a moveable airfield.
With no end in sight for the mission in Libya, HMS Illustrious could provide a base for the Harriers.
The warship could sit 15 minutes from the target, saving an awful lot of time, fuel and money in the process.
As it stands, running the air operations in Libya is costing £30m a week on basing RAF jets, their crews and ground staff in Italy, plus fuel and ammunition. The hotel bills alone are reportedly costing £40,000 a night. By comparison, MoD figures show running operations from an aircraft carrier with 24 Harriers would cost £80m a year.
But the political sensitivities of bringing the Harriers back is embarrassing for the government, which at the moment is trying to deny such a plan exists.