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Navy glovepuppets minister in carrier battle against RAF

'Flat-tops will only be safe when they decommission'

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The UK's plan to build new aircraft carriers remains under threat, and ongoing attempts by the RAF to shut down the Harrier jumpjet force - eviscerating the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm - have yet to be resolved. However, the RN has managed to manoeuvre a Defence minister into endorsing the view that Britain has needed proper carriers since the Falklands.

The updates came at a press conference held yesterday in London by the navy to mark the centenary of British naval aviation, attended by senior naval bigwigs and Quentin Davies MP, minister for Defence Equipment and Support.

The whole "Fly Navy 100" initiative is a not-so-thinly veiled campaign by the navy to keep its carriers and the Fleet Air Arm alive in the face of massive MoD budget pressures and a determined push by the RAF to wipe both things out in favour of the Eurofighter.

Senior officers and MoD officials aren't permitted to discuss such matters openly, but it is fairly well known nonetheless that right now the RAF and navy are locked in a bitter dispute over the future of the UK's Harrier jumpjet force, operated jointly by the two services.

The RAF would like to get rid of the Harriers soon, before their replacements arrive, saving large sums in support and maintenance costs during the coming decade. The airmen want to achieve savings with the goal, among other things, of funding the Tranche 3 Eurofighter combat jets to their desired level - the level where the jets can become a true deep-penetration bomber, rather than a pure air-to-air fighter with "austere" air-to-ground abilities bolted on as in the case of the first two tranches.

But the disappearance of the Harriers would leave the navy with very little in the way of aircraft to fly from its existing pocket-size carriers. It would also kill off the naval fixed-wing aviation community.

Meanwhile, the UK remains uncommitted to any firm purchases of the replacement F-35B jumpjets. One may be sure that if the RAF had to choose between fully-pimped Eurofighter Tranche 3s or getting F-35Bs, it wouldn't hesitate for long. Once the Harrier force is gone, the chance that it will genuinely be replaced by F-35Bs will be significantly lower.

At the same time all major spending on the carriers has been pushed back into the next government. It's looking more and more as though that government will be a Conservative one - one without any serious interest in the welfare of the Scottish shipbuilding towns. Labour's desire to hold off the SNP in its Scots strongholds has had much to do with the carriers' survival to this point.

In other words, the ships' future is far from certain.

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