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New BAE destroyer launches today on the Clyde

Another eyewatering day for UK taxpayers

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Comment HMS Diamond launches today at the BAE Systems Govan shipyard, third of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 destroyers. There will be rejoicing up and down the Clyde and quieter satisfaction in many parts of the Navy. Meanwhile in the warzones of Southwest Asia, British soldiers and marines are fighting and sometimes dying, hamstrung by lack of money.

The Beeb reports this morning on the latest Type 45 launch:

The Type 45 will replace the navy's ageing fleet of Type 42 destroyers... securing work at the Clyde yards for next 15 years. With a price tag of £605m, the 150m long vessels weigh in at 7,350 tons... The Type 45 is fitted with state-of-the-art technology, including the Principal Anti-Air Missile System, which can provide air space cover for hundreds of miles.

BAE Systems took on more than 100 apprentices this year and hope the launch will encourage more young people to join up.

Even the Beeb and their briefers at BAE admit that the Type 45 project is to cost £6bn for - most probably - just six ships (actually the latest estimates say £6.11bn, up from £5.95bn last year - but hey, what's a poxy hundred million quid or so). Therefore, the actual price tag of each ship is one billion pounds and counting, more than half the projected cost of a new aircraft carrier.

Not that we UK taxpayers are splurging all that cash into deprived Govan. Most of the cost of an air-defence destroyer goes on its sensors and weapons - in this case on the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS), as the Type 45s are not supplied with any other significant kit.

PAAMS is mostly French and Italian, though BAE electronics is also used. Most of the UK taxpayers' money for the Type 45 project is not going on hiring young Scotsmen (and perhaps a few women) to work steel on the Clyde - it's hiring Frenchies and Italians to build complex electronics and aerospace components, genuine high-added value work which might be viable for rich Westerners in the 21st century. (The UK version of PAAMS is about to undergo its first end-to-end tests. In France, of course.)

There's nothing wrong with buying stuff from overseas, of course, particularly missiles. Britain has never really acquired the ability to build proper guided weapons that genuinely work. The performance of the all-Brit Sea Dart and Sea Wolf missiles in the Falklands was embarrassing, and nowadays they are completely obsolete*. PAAMS should be a big improvement, though it certainly doesn't dominate "hundreds of miles" of airspace. It can knock down low-flying stuff out to 20 miles at most, and higher-flying targets to perhaps 75.

Still, though, we could have bought cheaper. And better, and bigger - all at the same time. Consider the 9,000 ton uprated "Flight IIA" Arleigh Burke class destroyers now coming into US naval service. They carry two helicopters to the Type 45's one, and 96 missiles to the Type 45's 48. They can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets hundreds of miles inland, too - typically the main useful employment for surface warships in modern wars. The American ships bristle with other useful weapons, and can be upgraded to shoot down Scud-type ballistic missiles of the type favoured by rogue states.

By contrast the Type 45 is a one-trick pony which will only be of any serious use in the event of another Falklands War scenario where a big fleet is caught without proper air cover. Other than PAAMS, all it has is some rather unimpressive gun mounts.

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