Aircraft carrier risks warning

Engine woes end mission

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A CONTROVERSIAL decision to leave Britain without an aircraft carrier for almost a decade has been criticised in a report.

Whitehall spending watchdog the National Audit Office highlighted ‘major risks’ in plans to reconstitute a carrier strike force from 2020 onwards in a damning report, and says the MoD will not fully realise the consequences for two years.

It claims changes to the programme in the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review created ‘significant levels of operational, technical, cost and schedule uncertainty’.

The report states the Ministry of Defence will not have ‘matured its understanding’ of the consequences of its decisions for another two years – with the final programme cost set to exceed £10bn.

It reveals military chiefs recommended axing the carrier programme and keeping more surface ships, such as frigates and destroyers. But they were overruled by the MoD on the grounds it would have been unaffordable in the short-term due to cancellation costs – despite leading to ‘significant’ medium-term savings.

The report’s release sparked a row in Whitehall, with the MoD complaining it was published before they agreed the final text - against normal practice.

The NAO claims it was denied access to crucial Cabinet Office papers it needed to help understand the decision-making process behind the SDSR.

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee which oversees the NAO, said the ‘lack of transparency’ in the programme was ‘not acceptable’.

But Defence Secretary Liam Fox insists decisions in the SDSR put the carrier programme ‘back on track’ and cut costs by £3.4bn.

Ministers agreed in October to proceed with building two Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Some of the work is taking place in Portsmouth.One ship will be mothballed.

The operational carrier will now have the cheaper and more effective carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, which has added two years to the programme.

Meanwhile the Invincible class carriers and their Harrier jets have been axed.