​Aircraft-less carriers: No point in new Navy vessel if no jets supplied, MPs warn

Workers walk in front of HMS Queen Elizabeth.(Reuters / Russell Cheyne)
Britain cannot afford to launch the second of its new aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, because of planned cuts in the defense budget, a committee of MPs said on Tuesday.

The total cost of operating the aircraft carrier, which includes deploying additional ships to protect it and jets to launch from it, exceed Britain’s projected military spending, MPs warned.

Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed the government’s intention to bring HMS Prince of Wales into service at the NATO summit in Wales last September.

At the time, Cameron said the second aircraft carrier would enable the UK to “always have one carrier available, 100 percent of the time.

The Royal Navy has operated one aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, since last July. The ship cost £3.1 billion to build, significantly more than was budgeted.

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In a report titled ‘Re-thinking defense to meet new threats,’ MPs questioned the viability of operating two aircraft carriers.

We do not believe that given the very high proportion of the overall defense budget currently absorbed by the carrier commitment, that it would make sense to press for an additional carrier battle group,” the committee said.

MPs noted the cost of operating HMS Prince of Wales had escalated due to the increasing price of F-35 fighter jets.

Each carrier is designed to accommodate up to 36 F-35s. But the MoD (Ministry of Defense) has so far agreed to purchase only eight F-35s with more to be purchased in due course. Each F-35 is estimated to cost in excess of £100 million, implying a cost of many billions to equip the carriers,” MPs said.

There is no point in having the carriers without jets,” the committee quotes Admiral Zambellas as saying.

Originally intended to be in service by 2012, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets have experienced a string of embarrassing delays which have made them prohibitively expensive.

The MoD originally intended to buy 128 F-35s. In order to save money the ministry has chosen to buy a cheaper version of the jet. However, the less expensive version cannot fly as far or carry as many weapons.

MPs expressed concern about other costs associated with operating the carrier, such as ensuring a system was in place to refuel and resupply the ships.

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Supporting these carriers requires very substantial capacity in refueling and resupply — and the resupply vessels travel much more slowly than the carriers,” the report said.

This entails the development of a very complex carrier battle group, which would need to be resourced. All this has a profound impact on the ‘readiness’ and ‘sustainability’ of the carrier package.”

The committee called on the government to assess the consequences of introducing HMS Prince of Wales into service.

In the same report, MPs warned that Britain’s defense plans are inadequate in the face of global security threats from terrorism, Russia and Asian rivals.

For the first time in twenty years, an advanced military state has challenged the borders of European nations, and the security challenges in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia have increased dramatically in scale and complexity,” the report said.

The UK cannot afford to ignore these challenges and retreat to isolation.”