THE government aims to reverse its controversial decision to mothball the first of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, The News can reveal.
Last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review decided HMS Queen Elizabeth – the first of two new 65,000-tonne supercarriers being built for the navy – would be put into storage in Portsmouth to save cash when she arrives in 2016.
But defence minister Gerald Howarth hinted at a U-turn in the next defence review in 2015 – one year before the ship comes into service with the navy.
He told The News: ‘The SDSR concluded we needed one carrier but clearly that has its own limitations in availability and clearly the 2015 defence review gives us an opportunity to look again in the prevailing economic conditions and see where we go from there.
‘Clearly, all of us would like two aircraft carriers because that gives us the continuous at-sea capability.
‘We’ve had to take some pretty tough decisions but we’re hoping to be in a position to recover that one in 2015.’
Mr Howarth, who is the Minister for International Security Strategy, was speaking at Govan shipyard in Glasgow which – like Portsmouth – is one of six sites across the UK building the new carriers.
Paying tribute to the British shipbuilding industry, he said: ‘This carrier is stunning engineering.
‘It’s about time the UK woke up to the fact that we do have immense engineering skills in Britain and that the companies with those skills are world class – indeed they operate across the globe – and Britain’s future prosperity will not be found simply on the back of financial services.’
But the project to build the aircraft carriers has been branded ‘a shambles’ by Portsmouth MP Mike Hancock.
As previously reported, HMS Queen Elizabeth will not be kitted out to fly the navy’s latest jets when it comes into service.
Those building the carrier say it was ‘too late’ to alter the design to accommodate the type of plane the government wants for the new warships.
This means the £2.6bn ship will be left as a four-acre helicopter landing vessel when it comes into service.
The government will then have to stump up an estimated £1bn tearing the ship apart to fit catapult and arrestor gear – known as ‘cats and traps’ – to enable F-35C jets to fly from her flight deck.
Mr Hancock, who sits on the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, said: ‘If the first one does not have cats and traps then why are we building it?
‘It’s a complete shambles. Why are we spending more than £2bn for a helicopter landing ship?’
Originally, both carriers were going to have F-35B jump jets which, like the old Harrier jets they are replacing, are designed to take off and land vertically.
But the government decided in the SSDR that Britain would instead buy cheaper F-35C jets, which require electro-magnetic cats and traps to be fitted for taking off and landing.
Last year’s decision was taken without knowing how much it would cost to change the design of the ships, which is now the subject of the 18-month cats and traps study that began in June.
While work on the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is at an early stage, construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth is past the point when cats and traps could be installed before her in-service date in 2016.
A recent report by the National Audit Office said fitting them to one of the carriers will increase the overall cost of the £5.2bn project by £1bn. Some analysts warn it will cost more.
A MoD spokesman confirmed: ‘Our current planning assumption is to convert HMS Prince of Wales in build but no firm decisions will be taken until late 2012.’
GOVERNMENT’S STRATEGY IS TO ‘MUDDLE ALONG’
DEFENCE experts have again criticised the plan to leave one of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers unable to launch jets.
Rear Admiral Chris Parry, from Drayton, in Portsmouth who is a respected defence analyst, said: ‘There are a lot of random decisions going on.
‘It seems to me that the current government’s strategy is to just muddle along whether it is with Libya, the new carriers or anything else.
‘This is another example of a lack of coherence in long-term planning that was introduced by the Strategic Defence and Security Review.’
Admiral Sir Jonathon Band called the current situation ‘untidy at best’.
He added: ‘It is a consequence of the government’s decision to change the type of aircraft.’
However, the former First Sea Lord argued the government’s plan has a silver lining.
He said: ‘This will allow the Queen Elizabeth to be commissioned, do all the deck trials and platform trials and make sure the design is fine.
‘Then when HMS Prince of Wales is built we can go straight in with flying trials.’