Speaking exclusively to The News, Admiral Lord Alan West said the new 65,000-tonnes Queen Elizabeth-class behemoths could deploy without any of its F-35B Lightning II jets.
It comes amid claims that RAF chiefs were in dispute with navy top brass over who would have ultimate control of the new state-of-the-art fighter jets for HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – which will be based in Portsmouth – while on operations at sea.
Former First Sea Lord, Lord West, has made repeated calls on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to clarify the situation – pleas which he says have not been answered sufficiently.
The Labour peer now fears Britain’s future flagships could be left vulnerable.
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‘The prime minister and the government have decided, quite rightly, that we run both aircraft carriers together and that they are crucial to the strategic security of the nation,’ he said.
‘But to run them effectively, without embarking air wings with them, makes a mockery of all the investment into the new carriers. It’s a nonsense.’
The government announced in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that 138 F-35Bs would be bought, as part of a £178bn defence spending pledge for the next decade.
At least 24 of these are earmarked for the carriers, the first of which – HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is capable of carrying up to 40 aircraft – will arrive in Portsmouth next year.
However, Lord West claims the RAF sees the jets as assets ‘they can deploy from an air base’ and were reluctant to send them to carriers.
‘There is a struggle and tension at the moment because the RAF would like to have them (the jets) at an air base in East Anglia and not on an aircraft carrier,’ Lord West explained.
‘They don’t understand carrier operations at all. If you don’t embark an air wing you make them vulnerable.
‘It’s a huge error not to deploy a carrier without an air wing.’
He added: ‘I honestly don’t think the prime minister understands that this is what people at the MoD are trying to do.
‘He would be furious if the carrier went to sea and did not have an air wing.’
Retired Commander Graham Edmonds is the vice-chairman of campaign group UK National Defence Association, based in Portsmouth.
He said the problem stemmed from who would have command and control of the jets during overseas operations.
He argued short detachments by the RAF on ships ‘did not work’ and said this was a ‘divisive issue between dark and light blue’ – the navy and air force.
He said: ‘There’s no point in an aircraft carrier without planes.’
An MoD spokeswoman did not confirm if the carriers would be deployed without planes.
But she added: ‘The SDSR confirmed we will be able to embark up to 24 F-35B Lightning II aircraft in the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, by 2023, delivering a carrier strike capability second only to the United States.
‘When deployed in the carrier strike or Littoral Manoeuvre role, the composition and size of the embarked air group will be tailored to meet the required task – there is no “standard deployment”.’
Portsmouth South MP Flick Drummond said she was confident any issues betweent the forces would be ironed out.
She said: ‘Every section of the armed forces wants to protect their own but we have been moving towards all forces working more closely together.
‘So I don’t think its a serious issue. They have just got to work out how it’s going to work effectively.’