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Cameron's F-35 U-turn: BAE Systems still calls the shots at No 10

Threat of cheap, powerful kit for UK forces warded off

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Guess who gets to set the price for putting catapults on the carriers?

Fortunately for the company, Messrs Cameron and Hammond have seen to it that this won't now happen. They say that "the facts have changed" since the strategic defence review of 2010, in which Cameron outlined the switch to catapult ships.

The "fact" that has changed, we are told, is that the cost of putting catapults into HMS Prince of Wales is now thought to be enormously more than had been estimated - it has increased by as much as ten times over, to perhaps £2bn, pushing up the cost of the carrier project by a third or a half.

This is really strange, as the carriers were designed from the outset to be fitted "for but not with" catapults. It was expected that we might want to add catapults to them at some point in their lives and they were built so as to make this easy. The only reason they didn't have cats to begin with was that their gas-turbine electric propulsion can't produce steam, and until recent years all naval catapults needed steam to work. Britain didn't have the cash to afford a nuclear-powered steam carrier like those of the US and French navies, and didn't care to spend the money to develop electric catapults. Hence we were forced into the jumpjet plan until 2010.

But the US did have the money, and electric catapults have now been developed. The next US supercarrier will have them, and indeed the US has gone so far as to pledge that if there are any technical problems with the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), the Americans will pay to sort matters out (they'll have to, in order to avoid being saddled with a 100,000-ton helicopter carrier - the USS Gerald R Ford is now well beyond the point at which she could feasibly be reverted to steam cats).

So the ships are built to take cats and the USA has paid all the development costs - and will take on any remaining technological risk. Indeed the US makers estimate the cost of the actual EMALS machinery - the only difficult part of the job - as no more than $200m, £125m). How on Earth can it be that the cost of fitting the US tech to our ships has snowballed so catastrophically, so that it will cost ten or twenty times what the machinery itself does? How can it be that we are now told it will take far longer than had been thought? How can it be that we now think there are so many risks and uncertainties in this new technology, just as the mighty USA has firmly committed its latest multibillion-dollar flagship to that new tech - and indeed, guaranteed it to us?

Who can say exactly how this happened. But it is certainly very strange that this massive shift in perception should have occurred, behind closed doors along Whitehall and in Parliament; and the new version of reality is - bluntly - not at all credible.

And it is pretty well impossible to avoid noticing that the lead contractor on the carriers - the company which gets to set the price of fitting them with catapults - is ... (drum roll) ... none other than BAE Systems plc, the company which stands to lose many, many billions if the Royal Navy gets catapult ships any time soon.

These are the perils of having more or less your entire defence-industrial base controlled by a single company.

Of course, it won't only have been BAE that didn't want to see Royal Navy catapult carriers and Royal Navy F-18s. This would also be tremendously bad news for the Royal Air Force, operator of the Eurofighter and the Tornado, which would then find itself superseded in any likely mission by the dark-blue aviators of the Fleet Air Arm. And BAE still has around 30 per cent of its employees in the UK, so it can still fire large numbers of UK voters when it needs to, which confers massive political clout. (As do its hordes of lobbyists prowling Parliament and Whitehall.)

So we won't get catapult ships. As a result, the Whitehall rumour mill whispers, it might be possible for the Royal Navy to afford both its new carriers, and get them comparatively soon. This could mean that the UK has a ship at sea all or most of the time, ready to act.

But for that, you would need some planes that could fly from it: and that means no choice but the F-35B (like idiots we sold off our non-stealth, non-supersonic - but affordable to run - Harrier jumpjets just recently, and no more will ever be made). The F-35B may be ready for duty a bit sooner than the F-35C, but it will be horrifyingly expensive for a long time - and given its complexity, it will never be cheap to buy or cheap to run like an F-18. Those who maintain and fly the Tornado and the Eurofighter need not fear that it will put them out of work: and the chance of Britain managing to afford enough F-35Bs to fill a carrier all the time any sooner than the late 2020s at the very earliest is minuscule, so having one available all the time won't really be that useful, and having a notional carrier strike capability in 2020 as opposed to 2023 won't be that impressive.

And, of course, the crucial radar aircraft without which fleet fighters at sea are effectively crippled will be another massive problem. The US and France will continue to use the excellent, catapult mini-AWACS Hawkeye E-2, but the Royal Navy will have to struggle on with radar helicopters which can't go nearly as high or stay up nearly as long - and which aren't, therefore, even nearly as good.

Just another normal day at the Ministry of Defence, then: taxpayers seen off, forces denied proper kit ... and BAE Systems laughing all the way to the bank. ®

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