DEFENCE secretary Philip Hammond has announced the government’s U-turn on the type of fighter jets it will buy for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier.
In a statement to Parliament this morning, Mr Hammond confirmed ‘the facts have changed’ over the coalition’s move to abandon the previous Labour government’s ‘error’ to buy the F-35B jump-jet version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The navy will now get the F-35Bs after all in a move which will see both of the new Portsmouth-based aircraft carriers enter service, rather than mothballing HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the 65,000-tonne warships.
Mr Hammond said the first jet will be operating from Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck in 2018 - two years earlier than was previously planned.
But the change of heart is embarrassing for the government nontheless.
In the defence review announced in October 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron stated Labour got it ‘badly wrong’ when it opted for F-35Bs and instead ordered F-35C aircraft which need catapults and arrestor wires to be fitted to flight decks - known as cats and traps.
But Mr Hammond today conceded the cost of fitting cats and traps had ‘more than doubled’ to £2bn - making the jets unaffordable in the MoD’s budget.
He said: ‘When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decision you’ve made and be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be.’
He added that the goverment is ‘doing what is right for Britain, not burying our heads in the sand and ploughing on regardless as the previous government all too often did.’
However, critics argue getting rid of cats and traps is a short-term move and negates the need for building such huge warships in the first place.
They say it damages Britain’s defence interoperability with France and America because those countries’ jets would not be able land on Britain’s new warships.
There are also warnings that F-35Bs will cost more to maintain in the long term.
Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward, who was decorated for flying Harrier jump jets during the Falklands war, claimed the F-35B cost an extra £5bn for a fleet of 60 aircraft.
He said: ‘This Government wishes to obliterate the black hole in defence spending through short-term cuts that will in themselves lead to markedly greater and arguably unnecessary expenditure in the future.
‘It makes a laughing stock of so-called strategic planning.’