What a glorious photo opportunity: the new pride and joy of British sea power, HMS Queen Elizabeth, largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy, this week sailed from the Firth of Forth for sea trials.
Here is a 21st-century ‘castle of steel’ to strike terror into the nation’s enemies.
Except the ship is nothing of the sort. HMS QE and its half-built sister, Prince of Wales, are giant embarrassments. They are symbols of almost everything that is wrong with British defence policy.
Their principal promoter 15 years ago was the First Sea Lord, now Admiral Lord West of Spithead, who went on to become a Labour security minister, and more recently an enthusiastic writer of letters to newspapers, explaining why ‘his’ carriers are wonderful.
He urged that, if Britain was to be a modern sea power, a worthy ally of the U.S., we needed giant platforms to carry the American F-35 fighter then under development.
Some of us said from the outset that the new carriers reflected delusions of grandeur, and that the F-35s looked like becoming much too pricey for Britain’s status as a medium-sized nation.
How much smarter it would have been to build a couple of cheap ’n’ cheerful naval platforms from which to launch drones and low-tech aircraft. For that, one could almost have welded steel plates on top of tanker hulls, to create acceptable flight decks.
Anyone could have seen that defence was destined to remain under huge pressure. And it should have been taken into account that the cost of the ships and their planes would soar, as it always does.
What the Navy urgently needed was a large flotilla of small, simple ships to guard our shoreline and look after our interests overseas in regard to piracy, illegal immigration, terrorism and so on.
But no, the admirals — West and his successors — were insistent: only the behemoths would do. There were still enough sensible people in the Ministry of Defence to prevent this lunacy coming to pass, but for one misfortune: in 2007, Gordon Brown became Labour prime minister. In case you failed to notice, he was, and remains, a Scot.
I doubt Brown would have spent sixpence on the aircraft carriers, except for one fact: he cared passionately about Scottish shipyards, and creating jobs in marginal constituencies. When contracts were signed for the new ships, Rosyth on the Firth of Forth became their birthplace.
For the past decade, convoys of dumper trucks filled with Scottish currency, almost all provided by English taxpayers, have headed north to fund the carriers’ construction. The original budget was £4 billion, and the monsters were scheduled to enter service in 2015.
Today, costs are already over £6 billion and counting, while until at least 2020 Queen Elizabeth will do little beyond hosting ballroom dancing classes for her crew, as extensive sea trials are carried out.
Because of ballooning costs, her sister carrier, Prince of Wales, would almost certainly have been cancelled, but the canny Scots ensured that penalty clauses meant it would cost less to complete than abandon the ship. (end of excerpt)
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