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UK Carriers safe: Other war-tech ripe for the chopper

Why won't our flat-tops have catapults, anyway?

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But the cold new wind of austerity blowing along Whitehall has put them and their high prices under the spotlight. This is deserved: their products always require foreign tech support, their vaunted technical innovations (in recent times, anyway) often appear to draw heavily on other countries' work, and their claims to be the bedrock of the UK tech base seem rather flimsy. Money given to them doesn't really secure jobs in the UK; rather, it is spent buying up US companies.

The carriers are in the clear, at least. So what will we taxpayers get for our £2bn per ship? Americans spending that much money get a Nimitz-class nuclear powered supercarrier, a ship which on its own can defeat most national air forces.

Funnily enough, we Brits won't get anything like that. The new UK carriers, for a start, will not be nuclear-propelled. The US Navy doesn't use nuke power just for fun - there are good reasons why it makes sense for carriers. In particular, nuclear is the only kind of modern-day warship propulsion which can easily generate the huge steam power required by current catapult launch systems. There are vague notions brewing in America regarding electrically-powered cats, to go with the electric transmissions favoured in the latest warships, but electric launchers won't be ready in time for the UK.

As a result, the Brit carriers - though easily big enough - won't have catapults at all. This means that they won't be able to launch normal carrier planes, and thus that the UK must buy the jump-jet version of the new F-35, at needlessly vast expense. We will also have to buy some kind of highly specialised (hence expensive) fleet airborne-radar craft - perhaps the unfortunately-named "TOSS" version of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.

Neither the new jumpjets nor the TOSS will be as capable as simpler, more conventional alternatives. They will also be hugely more expensive. The decision to make the carriers non-nuclear was taken mainly on cost grounds rather than for any ideological reason - after all, the UK already has many nuclear-powered submarines - but the savings may very well be wiped out and to spare by the added aircraft costs.

It is true that the carriers could be fitted with catapults if and when the Yanks get round to making some electric ones. But to make this worthwhile you'd then need to buy another whole new lot of arrester-hook jets, and a catapult radar bird too (the current excellent offers on E-2D Hawkeyes probably won't be available any more, sadly).

It won't happen - not the way things are going, anyway. There's further gloom on the horizon for those with Blighty's military clout (and fighting service people) at heart - indeed, for those interested in any form of government activity other than the NHS. As the FT also points out today, even the Tories have agreed to a health budget rising in real terms. As overall government spending probably won't now be able to rise in real terms the way it has been planned to, this means that other government departments without broad support across the country - sciences/space, defence, that kind of thing - will be looking at more budget cuts to come. ®

Bootnote

*The Cold War was perhaps a special case, as nuclear armed France, Blighty and the US had non-nuclear allies between them and the Iron Curtain. It was seen as possibly worthwhile for the Soviets to grab off West Germany, Belgium et al in a sudden conventionally armed assault - feeling sure that the NATO nuclear nations wouldn't think it worth destroying the world to save their allies, which would probably have been true.

Thus it seemed worthwhile to the Russians to have conventional forces able to do so. And in turn the Westerners thought it worth having conventional forces which might hold the Soviet ones off, or at least postpone for a while the awful decision: give up allies to the commies, or go nuclear.

There are those in the Pentagon today who apparently feel the same way about Taiwan as the big NATO powers did about West Germany, and that the PLA(N) is in something like the position that Third Shock Army was in 1985.

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