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Royal Navy to get two carriers - but only one air group?

OK lads, just run along the deck going 'Brrrmmm'

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MoD: "It's not true ... of course, anything can happen."

But is it true?

Not really - or anyway not yet. "It's not true," a MoD spokesperson told the Reg this morning. "No decisions have been made. The Secretary of State remains one hundred percent committed to the aircraft carriers."

Pressed, however, the MoD's representative did admit that "anything can happen... some difficult decisions will have to be made."

This is no surprise, of course. It's common knowledge that the core MoD budget is and has always been overbooked for the next decade and more - Afghan war or no. Much of the cost of Afghanistan is met by special extra funds from the Treasury, which would cease if troops were withdrawn and leave the MoD facing the same financial mess it has been facing since before 9/11.

So yes, money will indeed have to be saved - even more so with the bills from the economic crisis to be paid and government spending in general to be cut. That much is true; and indeed all the major parties have committed to a full strategic defence review following the election next year.

But there are many better ways to cut money from the MoD than crippling our new carrier force. To give just one example, our new fleet of refurbished De Havilland Comet subhunters (sorry, "Nimrod MRA4s") will cost at least £700m a year to operate. If we put the whole Nimrod force on the scrapheap for which they are so long overdue right now, by the year 2019 we will have saved the £7bn needed to buy the missing eighty-odd JSFs for our second carrier - and the Prince of Wales isn't actually going to be afloat much before then, so that's not a problem.

And you have to say, a carrier group may not be as useful as an infantryman or a cargo helicopter right now: but it would have saved both soldiers' lives and helicopters in the Falklands*. And a war like the Falklands is hugely more likely than a need to singlehandedly attack Iran or China; or a need to fight a powerful enemy submarine force. Carriers are useful for everyday wars, as well as the high-intensity ones which you hope will never happen. Any sensible taxpayer would rather have two carriers - meaning that one would always be available to fight - than a fleet of nine vintage subhunter planes.

There are many, many other such stories. We could buy cheap Sky Warrior auto-drones off the shelf rather than expensive Watchkeepers. We could equip the carriers properly and so buy cheaper F-35 C tailhook planes rather than pricey B-model jumpjets - this would save money straight off, and save a fortune on the vital carrier radar planes. Indeed, we could buy much cheaper Super Hornets to begin with, if we wanted to save a lot of cash. We could bin the expensive, feeble A400M transport and buy nice cheap C-17s instead. Rather than upgrading squadrons of Eurofighters into superbombers at a cost of billions we could buy a force of vastly more cost-effective turboprop strike planes to back our troops in Afghanistan. The list goes on.

Frankly all of this - Times story and all - is just speculation, fag-packet planning by people both inside and outside the MoD. The next piece of real news on this subject will probably come in the Green Paper to be published around the end of the year - and the final word will come in the Strategic Review by the next government.

But even if the Times plan comes to pass, one might note that the F-35 programme will run for many years and that prices will only drop as time goes by - despite the project's current worries. Meanwhile the RN would still have two big carrier-sized ships, quite capable of carrying F-35Bs and with space for the catapults that would allow F-35Cs or Hornets or what you will to fly from them.

We might have to wait until the 2020s, but even under the Times' scenario it seems likely that Blighty would eventually get its two proper carriers after all. ®

*The Welsh Guards were effectively gutted by the Argentine strike on the troopship Sir Galahad at Bluff Cove - a strike a proper air group would easily have stopped. All but one of the task force's vital Chinook troop-carrying helicopters were sunk aboard the Atlantic Conveyor, again by a strike that a proper carrier group would have nailed with ease.

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