THE government is set to perform another U-turn in the Royal Navy’s £6bn aircraft carrier programme.
The News understands the coalition’s plan to mothball one of the 65,000-tonne warships is to be scrapped.
Instead, both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enter operational service in Portsmouth later this decade – as was originally planned by the former Labour government.
It follows the coalition’s recent backtracking on the type of fighter jets it will buy for the nation’s flagships.
‘Planning assumptions are that both carriers will now enter service,’ a defence source told The News.
The move, to be confirmed in the next defence review in 2015, is being welcomed by the navy as it will offer the UK a continuous, year-round carrier capability.
It could also secure hundreds of jobs at BAE Systems in Portsmouth due to double the repair and maintenance work.
The plan to mothball one of the carriers was announced by David Cameron in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which opted to fit catapults and arrestor gear – cats and traps – to the flight deck of Prince of Wales.
This was in order to fly the longer-ranged F-35C version of the US-built Joint Strike Fighter from the ship.
But after cost estimates to install the gear rose to £2bn, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond reverted to the plan to buy the F-35B jump-jet variant of the aircraft, which don’t require cats and traps to take off and land.
Defence ministers are keen that both ships are used.
A source said: ‘When you go to the trouble and expense of building the Royal Navy’s largest-ever warships and will have fighter jets that can land on either of them, it makes absolute sense to put both of the ships to sea.’
An MoD spokeswoman said: ‘We are planning on having the first of the two carriers brought in on sea trials in 2017. The decision on when the second ship will be brought in will be made during the SDSR in 2015.’
The move would be a welcome boost for BAE Systems workers in Portsmouth, who fear of mass redundancies once the work on building the carriers comes to an end in 2014.
This is because the defence giant will profit from double the repair and maintenance work on the ships in the city.
BAE is conducting a review of its shipbuilding business, which sparked rumours of 1,300 job cuts in Portsmouth.
Yesterday The News revealed how BAE has urged the government to base the navy’s new frigates in Portsmouth to secure jobs in the city.
A BAE spokeswoman said the review was ongoing and no decisions have been made.
She said: ‘We are not working towards any specific timetable.’