Watchdog slams UK plan on aircraft carriers, jets

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Britain’s parliamentary public spending watchdog said today the government’s decision to scrap an aircraft carrier and build two replacements might not be cost-effective and carried significant risks.

The highly critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO) said the final cost of replacing the carriers and fighter jets would exceed 10 billion pounds (US$16 billion) and would prove unaffordable unless there was a real-terms increase in defence funding from 2015 onwards.

The decision also meant Britain would not have an operational aircraft carrier until 2020, which experts have said could leave Britain exposed in a sudden crisis.
“(The) decision has introduced more technical, cost and schedule uncertainty,” the NAO said.
“There are major risks reconstituting Carrier Strike capability after a decade without it,” it said.

Britain’s ability to fly jets from warships was a decisive factor in its 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and in May some British defence chiefs said an aircraft carrier would also have helped in the current Libya campaign.

The Ministry of Defence said it was disappointed with NAO’s unusual step of publishing the report without first agreeing the final text with the department and insisted the government had made the right decision on aircraft carriers.

The measures were unveiled last October as part of Britain’s first comprehensive military review since 1998. After the review, the government announced an 8 percent real-terms cut in the 34 billion pound defence budget over four years to curb a huge budget deficit.

It also scrapped Britain’s only aircraft carrier equipped with fast jets, and said that two new carriers would be built, although only one would be operational and the other held in reserve.

The government also cut the number of Joint Strike Fighter jets to be carried on the operational new carrier to 12 from an initially envisaged 36.
“We inherited a massive defence deficit which included a carrier project that was already 1.6 billion pounds over budget. The Strategic Defence and Security Review put this programme back on track and delivered 3.4 billion pounds of overall savings to Carrier Strike,” defence minister Liam Fox said in response to the NAO report.

However, Margaret Hodge, chairman of Britain’s cross-party parliamentary Public Accounts Committee to which the NAO reports, called report the “deeply worrying”.
“On costs, the SDSR decision radically changed the carrier concept and left the country with a gap in maritime capability for a decade,” she said in a statement.

Jim Murphy, the opposition Labour Party’s defence spokesman said the “damning report demonstrates the negligence he (Prime Minister David Cameron) and others have shown towards the accounting decisions made in the rushed defence review”.
“It is now clear the government has created their own multi-million pound black hole in the defence budget with an uncosted carrier programme,” he said.

Britain’s armed forces are among the most capable in Western Europe, with their planes and ships taking part in NATO-led operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya.