Writing for PoliticsHome, and published before Defence Questions on Monday 26th March, the Shadow Defence Secretary argues the Government’s aircraft carrier programme is in disarray.
The Government’s aircraft carrier programme is confused and the defence community is concerned. The rushed defence review left Britain without aircraft to fly from aircraft carriers for at least a decade and now Ministers cannot tell us how or when this capability gap will be closed. There may be a significant u-turn on the Joint Strike Fighter, which would mark one of the biggest public procurement messes for many decades. Today’s session of Defence Questions in the Commons is a chance for Ministers to replace uncertainty with clarity.
The disarray on defence is totally of the Government’s own making. In the rushed defence review the Prime Minister chose to build both carriers but mothball one, chose to scrap HMS Ark Royal and chose procure the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, overturning Labour’s plan to have an alternative variant and provide carriers with aircraft all year round. The Prime Minister derided Labour’s previous plans and promised a superior capability. So confident was he that he sold the last Harrier Jump Jets to the US for spare parts for what even the MoD recognised as under value.
The result is Britain today has no operational carrier at all and when we do it will be part time. Pilots have been trained on planes we may never fly or buy. The Prime Minister promised planes that were “more capable, less expensive” but has made our carrier programme less capable and more expensive. Senior military figures warn weekly we may be unable to retake the Falkland Islands and while our allies deployed Harriers from carriers off the coast of Libya, Britain simply could not.
If the Government do u-turn and return to the jets Labour planned to order – the very policy the Prime Minister described as a “mistake” – this would be a humiliation. The Prime Minister promised year-round carrier capability by sharing platforms with the French, but we would not be able to land on each other’s carriers. Not only would the important UK-French Treaty be undermined but in future Britain may be left stranded with no carrier defence at all for a third of each year. Promises made in the defence review, and indeed the financial assumptions on which they were based, are falling apart. We must ask why this happened. The Public Accounts Committee warned of rising costs and increased risk. The National Audit Office pointed to the Government’s “immature understanding” of costs. The Defence Select Committee warned against strategic shrinkage. Warnings were ignored and the Prime Minister appears on the verge of wasting British time, money, talent and prestige.
To give the country confidence in the Government’s handling of the defence equipment programme and budget as a whole Ministers today need to answer serious questions. We must know how much reversal would cost, how many pilots have been trained with skills which could be wasted, whether we will ever achieve year-round carrier capability and when new jets will enter service to restore British firepower at sea.
People may wonder why this is so vital. Britain’s aircraft carrier programme is one of the most strategically important elements of national defence. An aircraft carrier is a floating British airbase; a plot of sovereign land at sea which enables us to project power and rapidly deploy aircraft when and where we need it. The Government’s failure to successfully deliver derives from a lack of overall strategy. Ministers have not matched ends – a vision for Britain’s military role in the world – with financial means: the Defence Review recognised the value of carrier strike yet cut it for a decade and based our future policy on equipment which may be unaffordable. A programme which goes to the heart of our ability to act in the world is becoming characterised by incoherence.
Labour has been clear that savings in defence have to be made, but this is self defeating if not accompanied by bold, strategic reform. On procurement, the equipment programme and the future shape of the Services this government is failing.
Furthermore, thousands of jobs in the four countries of the United Kingdom are tied to the success and progress of the carrier programme. Many will ask whether a government which cannot manage an aircraft carrier programme can be trusted with the economy as a whole.
The Defence Secretary had wanted to declare progress on defence policy, but Prime Ministerial hubris has combined with Departmental incompetence to end his premature triumphalism. This government’s choices have left British air power at sea downgraded. Today we need answers.
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You can read the original article on PoliticsHome, here.