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Brit carrier deals inked at last

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Suppose, more realistically, that the bad guys have some strike air and/or anti-shipping missiles - Falklands style. Again, an honest air-defence boss will choose airborne radar and fighters alone over destroyers alone. He'd prefer to have both, and probably raygun hoverships and miracle-juice too; but you can't always have everything you want.

So some British carriers are a good idea in general. They certainly aren't another dinosaur like the Nimrod, Eurofighter, Type 45 etc. Should we all be cheering about today's inkings, then?

No, not really. Because the carrier project has been botched about as badly as it could possibly be. We will pay the same as America pays for its hundred-thousand-ton, hundred-aircraft nuclear powered supercarriers. For this money we will get sixty-thousand-ton, forty-aircraft medium sized gas turbine ships (not "giant"**).

Gas ships can't have catapult launch - lacking the necessary steam - so our carriers won't be able to launch regular carrier planes. This will hamstring the critical radar aircraft and make them hugely more expensive. Some kind of unique, custom rotary-wing solution will be needed. This will never fly as high or see as far as a nice cheap Hawkeye (as used by the US Navy, France and many other overseas customers).

Lack of catapults means we must also buy the jump-jet version of the Joint Strike Fighter rather than the tailhook variant the US Navy are getting - again adding cost and cutting capability.

All in all, the money saved by not having nuclear propulsion will be wiped out and to spare in coming years by unnecessarily expensive and complicated aircraft. It's not as though the Navy can avoid maintaining a nuke-propulsion support and safety infrastructure, and that's where most of the cost comes. We'll be running nuclear subs as far ahead as the eye can see, to carry the national deterrent if nothing else. (Unless maybe the Libs win an election.)

And one of the main reasons the ships will cost like nuclear catapult ones while not being nuclear or having catapults is, indeed, the fact that Gordon Brown has seen to it that they are social-policy projects as much - or more than - they are technology programmes. Giving the work to British yards which have never done anything of this sort, rather than cheaper places overseas, is the reason that two big steel boxes with some gas turbines and (often imported) electronics in them will nonetheless have an eyewatering price tag.

In fact, one might suggest that £4bn is being asked to do a bit too much here. That much money could buy a couple of good carriers; it could perhaps make Glasgow, Dunfermline and Barrow into nice places to live and work; it might serve in some way to bind Scotland and England together, and ensure that Gordon Brown remained eligible to hold his present job.

Four billion can't do all those things at once to a decent standard. As a result, the carriers will be crappy; Shipyardville UK will see a bit of temporary prosperity but will be back cap in hand in a few years; Scotland will remain chippy and resentful. And Gordon may well be looking for work quite soon. ®

Bootnotes

*HMS Iron Duke, for instance, is currently assisting the US Coast Guard in seizing cocaine runners in Caribbean waters. No doubt the presence on board of Sub-Lieutenant Wales - aka Prince William - has also been invaluable.

But even if you think that Britain should be policing drug smuggling in the Caribbean - even if you truly believe that such efforts genuinely serve to cut down on drug addiction and its associated problems - this is an insanely expensive way of doing it. Using frigates to hunt smugglers isn't really a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - a frigate is no sledgehammer, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have lately shown and submarines regularly demonstrate in exercises. But drug interdiction with frigates is surely a case of using a gold brick to crack a nut.

**The ratio of tonnage to aircraft will be especially bad for our ships because of the large amounts of deck plan taken up by exhaust funnel and air intakes for the engines, which naturally need to be low in the ship. Carriers really aren't made nuclear-propelled just for fun.

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