As building work on the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers progresses at a rate of knots, exactly how the ships will be put to use when they enter service in 2020 is not fully known.
The contract for HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the largest warships ever built for the navy, was announced with much fanfare back in 2008.
The 65,000-tonne warships, which will be based in Portsmouth, were initially estimated to cost £3.9bn and enter service in 2014 and 2016.
But almost four years later, design changes and a government-ordered delay has seen costs bloat to £5.2bn.
And that’s not the end to the rising costs of the project after the government decided to change the type of fast jets it wants for the carriers in 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
Initially, ministers wanted the jump-jet variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F-35B, which is in development in the US.
Like the navy’s old Harrier jets, F-35Bs are designed to use their engines to hover on take-offs and landings.
But now the UK has plumped for the cheaper F-35C JSF jet which needs a conventional run-up and requires expensive catapult and arrestor gear to take off and land from a ship’s deck.
Ministers have said it will cost an extra £1.2bn per ship to fit the gear and the Ministry of Defence is conducting a study to decide whether it can afford to fit both carriers or just one with the equipment.
The study is due to end in December, but sources say it is likely that the second carrier, Prince of Wales, will be the one fitted with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System being developed by General Atomics in the US.
This is because of difficulties in retro-fitting Queen Elizabeth now after so much of the construction work for her has already been done.
The first carrier would therefore initially enter service as a so-called helicopter carrier without any jets able to fly from her flight deck. That is if she enters service at all.
In the SDSR, Prime Minister David Cameron said one of the ships will be mothballed to start with to save cash. The MoD will not confirm which carrier it will mothball until it completes its study in December.
But sources say it’s likely that Queen Elizabeth will be the one kept in reserve.
This has drawn strong criticism, including from MP Thomas Docherty, a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, who warned: ‘When we eventually get a functioning aircraft carrier, it will only be part-time. We will only be able to operate it for perhaps 150 days of the year, so we must be really hopeful that those who seek to attack us only do it on the five or six months a year when we are able to respond.
‘It reminds me of Asterix the Gaul and the scene where he comes to Britain and the British have gone home at 5 o’clock to have their tea.’
Defence minister Gerald Howarth told The News back in August last year that he hoped the decision could be reversed come 2015 so both carriers could enter service.
But this optimism has been blunted following a report by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee this month which warned the MoD will struggle to increase its budget by one per cent post-2015.
The report said: ‘In the light of current economic conditions that assumption may be unrealistic.’
This is not to mention the significant challenges being faced by defence firm Lockheed Martin which is running the JSF programme.
Last year, a prototype F-35C failed a series of ship landing tests in Florida because the distance between the plane’s tailhook and the arrestor wire which catches it on the deck was too far apart.
It was the latest setback in the global jets project to supply JSF planes to 10 countries, which at $380bn is the most expensive military-industrial programme ever.
The UK has already sunk more than £2bn into the JSF scheme, but the developers stress the design problems can be overcome. That has not stopped dissenting voices within the navy calling for a squadron of different aircraft to be procured as an interim replacement for F-35C.
Sources say the MoD has drafted contingency plans to loan US F-18 super hornets or French Rafale jets to be used from the new carrier until the F-35s are ready. It’s understood around a dozen navy pilots are currently on exchange tours with US and French forces to practice flying those nations’ planes.
It’s also been suggested that the government may revert back to its original order for F-35B jets, which would negate the need to invest in catapult and arrestor gear for the new carriers.
This was denied by the MoD, which said it is ‘100 per cent committed’ to the F-35Cs.
However, at a time when global powers are cutting military spending – which saw the US Department of Defense postpone its order for 179 JSF jets and Italy slash its number of F-35s on order from 131 to 90 last week – the planes may end up costing Britain twice as much than the estimated $80m per aircraft quoted back in 2002.
The UK has indicated it aims to buy 138 F-35 jets. But the MoD has said the navy will have only six jets by the time the carriers are due to come into service in 2020. The navy will still only have 12 F-35s by 2023.
An MoD spokeswoman said: ‘The more capable carrier variant of the joint strike fighter fast jet (F-35C) will begin operating from our aircraft carrier from 2020, with six UK jets available for operations. By 2023, this number will increase to 12 UK jets onboard and we will be able to work with our allies to increase that number because of the interoperability that the carrier variant joint strike fighter allows.’
Lockheed Martin’s US executives flew to the UK last week – including the company’s senior vice president Patrick Dewar – and met the head of the navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and other MoD officials at a dinner aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth.
Speaking to The News, the First Sea Lord refused to be drawn on whether the navy is looking to loan F-18s or Rafales while it waits for its F-35s.
He said: ‘The navy is committed to the F-35 programme, but more importantly so is the government. The policy position of the government is to have fixed-wing aircraft from the sea and the SDSR made it clear that was going to be F-35. We will have F-35 on our carriers in the future.’
Lockheed’s UK chief executive Stephen Ball said the tailhook problems with the F-35C were being addressed.
He said: ‘The program is in the development phase and you have to expect some of these developmental glitches as you go along, but there’s no fundamental technological problems with the aeroplane. It’s hitting all of its test points. It’s coming back from most test flights without any issues.
‘The issues with the tailhook has been blown out of all proportion. It’s a minor technical issue which we have a fix for already. That’s why you have a test program, for that sort of thing.’
Asked if he was concerned the MoD may opt to bring in other aircraft for its new carriers, Mr Ball said: ‘Those are issues for the MoD to wrestle with.’