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Hutton robs forces, pours MoD cash into UK arms biz

Carriers into touch, copters & vehicles go porkbarrel

The option of the Prime Minister simply saying "send the on-duty carrier" wouldn't be there. That's a shame. If the UK had a carrier group patrolling the world, it would probably already be lurking near any likely warzone. It would be on station within days of getting orders. The vast majority of the world's population lives near the sea, so a carrier and accompanying auxiliaries packed with copters and marines are generally very much in your face. The UK's existing carriers were actually very handy in the entry phase of the current Afghan involvement, even though Afghanistan is far from the sea.

Once the carrier arrived, the skies would be ours - there are only a handful of national air forces which can resist a strong carrier air group. Once you own the air, in the era of smart weapons and airborne surveillance the serious land fighting is largely over. Tanks, artillery, missile batteries and so on can't survive under hostile skies.

The logistic hub would then be mostly on ships offshore - that's where jets and choppers would be fuelled and serviced, where troops could stand down from operations (or stage through to somewhere nicer). Bulk supplies would arrive cheaply and safely by ship. Urgent stuff flown in longhaul from the UK could be collected from regional ports by auxiliary vessels or choppers - or parachuted in if it was a real rush job.

Our people ashore would have the helicopters and close air support they'd need, could easily generate and supply forward outposts as they needed to, and would have hugely less in the way of vulnerable bases and supply lines to guard. They'd have a safe option to evacuate, too, if things went totally wrong (you can't make a fighting retreat by air, but it has been done by sea on many occasions).

So people who argue that carriers are in some way irrelevant to ordinary modern-day wars are talking through their hats - very likely hats coloured air force blue.

Alright, but what about big serious wars? Suppose someone came at us with a decent navy, or up-to-date shipkilling missiles? Often the carrier-haters will execute a volte-face and say that the big ships can't survive in a fullbore war against enemies with serious kit.

Let them come, provided our carrier airgroup has airborne surveillance planes up. These will pick out any air or sea attack far away, and the carrier's patrolling strike fighters will pounce at once - if necessary shooting down sea-skimming missiles from behind, a feat far easier and cheaper to achieve than trying to do it from ahead with a multibillion-pound miracle destroyer screen.

There is still the threat of supersonic shipkillers fired from the shoreline, but these aren't like anti-aircraft missiles - they can't be fired from the shoulder. You're looking at a massive missile vehicle and a large team of people, not an invisible insurgent-type threat. Any such hostile units will have been wiped out by our first wave, by strike jets or cheap cruise missiles, assuming such rare enemies even exist locally. Even if a few survive somehow in secret, they can't shoot unless they know just where our ships are - and every shot is a death warrant for the team firing it, so they aren't going to start popping off at random.

The UK needs carriers with strong air groups, both for the ordinary wars of every day and the ones which will hopefully never happen against big enemies. Unbelievably, the government is postponing these ships, exposing them to serious risk of cancellation. Nobody is even thinking about binning the Nimrod MRA4 subhunters, which will cost more than the carriers to buy and are no use to man or beast. Tens of billions will be spent over the next few decades running these ridiculous white elephants, the last 12 De Havilland Comets in the world: that's a major part of the reason we can't fund the carriers.

Another measure announced today is confirmation of the "Future Lynx" helicopter order from the AgustaWestland factory in Dorset, along with plenty more cash to that factory for maintenance and upgrades to helicopters it has already made. (The existing Lynxes can't actually get off the ground in Afghanistan when it's hot, so they are to be upgraded at massive expense.) Many had been hoping to see this programme axed altogether, so AgustaWestland will no doubt be heaving a huge sigh of relief.

Still, at least helicopters are useful, right? Our embattled troops in Afghanistan will be glad to have them. Perhaps the government's got something right for once.

Sadly, no, it hasn't.

The Future Lynxes are incredibly bad value for money. They will be delivered in two variants: a naval version intended to carry weapons and sensors, and a stripped-down army version capable of lifting small cargoes or parties of troops. The full 70-aircraft order is priced at £1bn, putting the aircraft at an average of £15m. The navy ones will cost more and the army ones less, but that's the average. AgustaWestland say that this will safeguard 900 jobs in Yeovil.

But our troops won't benefit in a hurry - the Future Lynxes are to be delivered from 2011, and that's only if they arrive on time. Based on previous experience, they might go operational a year or three after that.

Just by way of comparison, six months after the Future Lynx buy was first announced the US Navy ordered 10 Sikorsky Seahawk choppers, twice the size and twice as powerful as a Lynx, for £6m each as opposed to £15m. Those aircraft have already been delivered. The bare-bones army version of the same helicopter, the Blackhawk, would be even cheaper.

In other words, we could have ordered Seahawks and Blackhawks instead of Lynxes, getting bigger and more powerful choppers - and ones for which parts and support would be cheaper (the world Seahawk/Blackhawk fleet is huge, offering economies of scale the Lynx will never match). We'd be getting those aircraft right now, and our troops would be very pleased with us right now - not waiting another four years for inferior substitutes which will cost more to run.

We could then give the 900 sacked workers in Yeovil payoffs of half a million pounds each: and we would still have saved nearly a quarter of a billion pounds compared to what we are doing in reality.

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