Sure there'll be a carrier. With 12 planes. In 2020. Maybe
But in fact none of this will happen until 2020, and meanwhile the existing Ark Royal and her Harriers are to disappear immediately. There will be no carrier capability at all for a decade, and we are explicitly told that the new fleet air arm may well be cancelled before it can appear, or be cut down to a single ship which will naturally only be available to operate some of the time. The written statement says:
Our current plan is to hold one of the two new carriers at extended readiness. That leaves open options to rotate them, to ensure a continuous UK carrier-strike capability; or to re-generate more quickly a two-carrier strike capability. Alternatively, we might sell one of the carriers, relying on cooperation with a close ally to provide continuous carrier-strike capability. The next strategic defence and security review in 2015 will provide an opportunity to review these options as the future strategic environment develops.
So in fact we may well see just one carrier or none: it will be the next government's decision.
Furthermore, while an F-35C tailhook jet is indeed cheaper and more capable than an F-35B jumpjet, it isn't cheap enough for the MoD in the coming decade. As planned, the new carriers were each to carry an air group of 36 jets, which would have meant buying around 150 once some were set aside for the RAF to use in landbased operations and more for training, in deep maintenance etc.
We now learn that the Prince of Wales will set sail in 2020 - if she isn't scrapped, mothballed or sold off at the 2015 review - carrying just 12 jets, indicating that the UK will buy no more than 50 F-35s in the near future. Far from an arse-kicking national flagship able to take on an enemy air force alone, we will have one which can barely provide herself with fighter cover - and one which may not be there when the call is sounded.
And it gets worse. At the moment our amphibious forces are quite well served, having both the former Harrier-carrier Illustrious and the purpose built HMS Ocean dedicated as bases for helicopters and marines - meaning that one is always available, and we can always land troops anywhere in the world should we choose to. Mr Cameron plans to get rid of one of these ships, ensuring that often we won't be able to.
A bold Prime Minister would have cut the pointless naval frigate/destroyer force down to 12 or even 10, overruling any protests so as to get the nation the capability it needs rather than the one the Navy's uniformed bureaucrats need to develop their careers. He would have preserved our amphibious ships (easily - each one costs little more than a frigate to run). He would have used the cash thus saved to fit both the new carriers with catapults - and he would not have planned to buy any F-35s at all in the coming decade, as no matter what type we buy they will be early in their production run and very expensive.
Instead this notional bold, decisive and modernising Prime Minister would have bought or leased cheap F-18 Hornets as operated by the present day US Navy. A force of 100+ Hornets would cost no more than the planned 50-odd F-35Cs, and would be more than good enough against any likely enemy. There would probably be cash over for some Hawkeye radar planes, too - if not the latest E-2Ds, surely the more economical export E-2C versions. Our fleet would thus at last have proper airborne radar, the lack of which is of far more importance than the presence of Stealth and other snazzy gadgetry in the F-35: most of our dead sailors and soldiers in the Falklands died for lack of airborne radar to pick up low-flying Argentine attackers, and the present radar helicopters are a poor stopgap at best.
That plan would have got us proper carriers and proper air groups in a few years at most, finally shifting the Royal Navy away from its focus on battling the Soviet submarine and bomber fleets of the 1960s using the weapons of the 1960s. If Mr Cameron were a proper, innovating Prime Minister that's what he would have done. If he'd managed to chop the RAF's bombers and/or trim some more tanks, it would have been even easier.
But no. With his back against the wall, Cameron has at last managed to give the abysmal Nimrod the mercy bullet it has been begging for so long. The only other things he has managed to get rid of are carrier strike and amphibious warfare - neither of them Cold War items, both very useful in all our recent real-world wars** - while the obsolete armoured juggernaut and heavy bomber forces carry on.
It can't be a coincidence that the outgoing chief of defence staff is RAF and the incoming one is Army - in effect Cameron's plans look rather as though the Army and RAF wrote them, indicating that he and his Cabinet have no more control over the MoD than their predecessors: maybe even less.
Still, perhaps Cameron has managed to tackle the even more severe scourge of porkbarrel procurement. Perhaps he has moved to end the purchasing of kit so as to create very limited numbers of UK jobs at horrific costs in terms of money, capability and time? Perhaps he really meant it when he said that the MoD will no longer be ripped off by UK and European contractors all day and every day?
Again, no. The idiotic, wildly expensive A400M transports will continue - when much more cost-effective C-17s and C-130Js are to be had for the asking. The expensive, useless Future Lynx (aka "Wildcat") light chopper, partly UK made, will live on. And perhaps the greatest boondoggle of them all, the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) deal, remains untouched.
FSTA, one might note, is a PFI deal like the Skynet comms sats. UK defence contractors allied under the name AirTanker will buy and operate some Airbus tankers, with a guaranteed income from the RAF. Naturally they expect to make a profit out of this, and within limits that's fair enough - but everyone in the aviation industry knows that this particular profit is going to be more suitably described using such terms as "outrageous", "gouging" or "profiteering". The deal is set to cost at least £10.5bn and will probably provide no more than 9 A330s. Making the usual calculation of support vs acquisition this is to price those planes at £400m each - far and away more than even the ridiculous Nimrods cost, for far simpler planes!
And on top of this, the MoD doesn't even own the aircraft - when FSTA ends they will have nothing. Even while it is going on, the chuckling AirTanker firms can rent the planes out for even more money when the RAF hasn't got any spare cash to book them.
Mr Cameron might more suitably have spent his time inveighing against Labour for signing this cretinous deal rather than the comparatively tiny carrier contract. But he didn't.
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