Further thoughts on the Review. There has been much media whoopin'-an'-hollerin' over the retiral of the Harrier force and HMS Ark Royal, and the supposition that we are now building new aircraft carriers for which we will have no (fixed-wing) aircraft.
I do think some of the initial MOD announcements were cack-handedly worded, since quite a few normally reliable commentators were confused. However, they could and should have gone to the Liam Fox's Commons statement:
"The House and the country must understand that any decisions regarding the carriers must be taken in the context of their extended service life of 50 years. The final captain of a Queen Elizabeth carrier has not even been born yet. When they go out of service, I will be 109 years old and the shadow Defence Secretary a sprightly 103. We are taking decisions now on what will be best for us as a country in the middle of the century. That is why we have taken three decisions. First, we have decided to take a capability gap in carrier strike, because we assess that the risk of not having access to basing and overflight for our fast jet force in the next decade is low. However, the same cannot be said looking further ahead.
Secondly, we have decided to install catapult and arrester gear, which will allow greater interoperability, particularly with US and French carriers and jets, and maximise the through-life utility of our carrier strike capability. Thirdly, we have decided to acquire the carrier variant of the joint strike fighter. Adding the "cats and traps" will allow us to use the carrier variant of the JSF, which has a bigger payload and a longer range than the STOVL variant planned by the previous Government. Overall, the carrier variant will be significantly cheaper, reducing the through-life cost compared with the STOVL version.
Contrary to popular belief, there will not be a new Queen Elizabeth class carrier in service without the planes to go on it, apart from in the period required by law for us to have the carrier properly crewed up and ready to accept the planes. The idea I have come across in some parts of the media-that we can get brand-new carriers and the brand-new planes to fly off them almost on the same day-simply defies the complexity of the operation involved.
When the carrier enters service towards the end of the decade, the JSF will be ready to embark on it. Yes, there will be a delay to the programme as a consequence of the decisions I have mentioned, but unlike the previous Government's delay to the carrier programme in 2008, which added £1.6 billion to the overall cost-more than the whole Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget next year-and gave us nothing in return, our delay will give us a carrier that is best configured for the next 50 years."
As I had hoped and predicted, "Dr Foxy" is shaping up to be a very good SecDef who know both his onions and his history - the points he made are absolutely correct.
In fact, going further back in history, one of the things to remember is that Britain and the RN have been in this place before and got through it quite successfully.
Just after WW2, the economy was in ruins and the currency in the toilet. The RN had more hulls in the water and on the slipways than it could possibly hope to run, or even man.
This was especially true of the carrier force. The roughly 60 escort and merchant carriers were not a real problem, since they could be sent back to the US or converted back to merchant duty. But the RN had 6 Illustrious-class fleet carriers and 6 Colossus-class light fleets in commission, plus another 14 light fleets and 2 large fleet carriers (Eagle and Ark Royal) fitting out or on the stocks.
Apart from the financial problems, this was a time of tremendous technical change: the jet was replacing the prop, and aircraft were becoming much bigger, faster and heavier. It was clear that all the ships in existence and under construction would need expensive and extensive modification to be able to operate the new aircraft; it was uncertain exactly what those modifications would be.
So, everything was slowed down. Some ships were given limited updates to operate the immediate postwar generation of aircraft; others were left half-finished in the shipyards until it became clear what would be needed for the longer term. Ark Royal was laid down in 1943, launched in 1950 and only completed in 1955; Hermes laid down in 1944, launched in 1953 and completed in 1959.
(The picture shows the scene at Harland & Wolff in 1948 - with HMSs Bulwark and Centaur laid up incomplete, and HMS Eagle fitting out in the background.)
The parallels with the current situation of our new carriers - Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales - are striking and obvious.
We have new hulls on the way.
We have a financial crisis.
We have technological uncertainty over the aircraft which will fly from these ships - we had previously settled on the "B" version of the F-35 Lightning, which can do "short take-off and vertical landing" (STOVL) like the Harrier, but this is having a troubled birth - costs are going up and it may never actually happen.
With less money to play with, we may never be able to afford to fill our new carriers with the 36 F-35Bs they were designed to accommodate. The new decision to move to the F-35C - the "catapult and arrestor" version which will be used by the US Navy - therefore looks wise. It will have greater range and payload and be cheaper. And it means we can plan (at least initially) on buying fewer of them - 12 per ship is the number currently outlined.
Since the ships are to be modified from "ski-jump" to "catapult and arrestor" configuration, they will be capable of operating the aircraft used by other folks: crucially, US and French F-35s, F-18s, E-2s and Rafales. So in a future joint operation, we would be able to fill up the spare capacity on our carriers with their aircraft.
Also, it looks very likely that the carriers will find themselves doing double duty, also filling the Amphibious Helicopter Carrier role currently performed by HMS Ocean - with fewer F-35s, there will be lots of room for "jungly" Chinooks, Merlins and Apaches. Ideally you wouldn't want to combine the roles, but needs must and so on.
The saga also illustrates the wisdom of some of the decisions taken by the last government and lobbied for by the Navy. The ships were designed and are being built BIG, because "steel is cheap and air is free", and the size allows the flexibility to multi-role and adapt. Although the original decision was to go for F-35B and STOVL, the capability to convert to F-35C and "cat and trap" was deliberately built in from the beginning - a very wise decision, and another by-product of the choice of a decent-sized hull.
So what of the future? I'm optimistic. We are going ahead and building both of the things, which is fantastic. The current doom-and-gloom about "carriers without planes" and mothballing/selling one hull is overblown. The first ship will be ready more or less when the first planes are, and as the economy recovers there will be cash to keep both ships (only one normally operating at a time, but that's what we do now) and to buy more airframes for them.
And the UK will have an incredibly flexible and powerful defence, intervention, disaster relief and deterrence asset which only a handful of other countries will possess.
Britain will bounce back. We always do; that will be the subject of the next post.