Royal Navy facing 'big problems' with its carrier strike plan as MPs urge MoD to 'crack on' and tackle delays

WHITEHALL watchdogs have demanded dithering defence chiefs urgently tackle ‘big problems’ in the Royal Navy’s ambitious aircraft carrier programme and put an end to delays bogging down the nation’s most important military projects.

By Tom Cotterill
Saturday, 26th September 2020, 6:00 am

Parliament’s powerful public accounts committee is gearing up to grill top officials at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Monday as part of an inquiry into the navy’s multi-billion pound carrier strike plan.

It comes after the group blasted the MoD for its ‘lamentable failure to get a grip’ on military equipment procurement.

And despite numerous warnings, the committee has told The News there are still too many ‘unanswered questions’ about the carrier strike programme.

An F-35B stealth jet pictured launching from HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth. Photo: LPhot Belinda Alker

Central to these are how much it will cost to maintain and fund the task force.

But there are also concerns over whether or not Britain will have bought enough of the costly F-35B stealth jets to operate effectively from the navy’s aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

Speaking exclusively to The News ahead of Monday’s parliamentary hearing, Meg Hillier, chairman of the public accounts committee, said: ‘A lot of the questions about how the carrier strike project as a whole will be delivered are still unanswered, partly because the government has dragged its feet.

‘This government hasn’t made decisions about this yet and that’s one of the big problems.

HMS Queen Elizabeth pictured with two embarked squadrons of British and American F-35 jets in North Sea this week. Photo: LPhot Belinda Alker

‘We feel very strongly that there are a lot of decisions that are being avoided by the MoD. We need to crack on with some of these defence decisions...If we don’t, we’re at risk of losing capability.’

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HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, is just months away from her first operational mission.

The 65,000-tonne behemoth will be expected to lead a task force made up primarily of Royal Navy warships.

American jets from the United States Marine Corps pictured on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth during her latest training exercise in the North Sea this week. Photo: LPhot Belinda Alker

But the committee said costs to deliver the programme had soared by more than £193m from its original price tag of £6.212bn, to £6.405bn.

‘We are watching the money, we will be laser-focused on the costs,’ insisted Ms Hillier, adding: ‘If there is a delay on something then it will cost a fortune.’.

MPs also have fears over whether or not critical Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships will be delivered in time – or at all – as well as the crucial Crowsnest radar system, which has been hampered by delays.

And out of the 48 F-35s needed for the carrier programme, only 18 have so far been bought.

An F-35B stealth jet pictured launching from HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth. Photo: LPhot Belinda Alker

‘This is a big problem and a big risk,’ said Ms Hillier, who also raised concerns about training programmes for the stealth jet pilots, which had been blighted by technical delays.

‘At one point you had a carrier with no aircraft and no pilots. It’s marginally better now. But it isn’t great,’ she added.

A delegation from the committee travelled to Portsmouth Naval Base to visit HMS Prince of Wales on Thursday.

The trip comes ahead of the autumn announcement of Britain’s Integrated Defence and Security Review – touted as being one of the most comprehensive in decades.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chairman of the committee, who was on the tour, had ‘no doubts there would be cuts to the armed forces’ but felt the carrier programme would be spared.

‘Having bought the ship for £3.2bn, we want to make sure that it’s operational to its maximum capacity as soon as possible,’ he said, adding: ‘It would be crazy to spend £3.2bn on an asset and then not properly equip it in every sense, with all the support equipment it needs.’

In March the National Audit Office revealed almost one-in-three of the MoD’s most key procurement projects was behind schedule.

Monday’s parliamentary hearing will take place from 1.45pm.

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