Earlier this month the Defence Secretary announced that the MoD’s budget was in balance, for the first time in a generation. A number of tough but necessary decisions meant that the £38bn black hole inherited from the last Labour government had finally been eliminated – a major part of which was the decision to deliver Carrier Strike capability using a different type of Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jet because of unacceptable cost growth and project delays. In particular, the Government has decided to change the type of jet which will fly off the Navy’s two new aircraft carriers – from the Carrier Variant (CV) JSF to the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant.
As we set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Carrier Strike will be a key capability our Armed Forces must maintain, but the equipment plan we inherited was deeply unsustainable. At the time of the SDSR, the idea was that one of the two new carriers would be converted with catapults and arrester gear (‘cats and traps’) so it could operate the carrier variant of the JSF. A decision on the future use or disposal of the second carrier would be taken at the next SDSR in 2015. This was then followed by a detailed programme of work to look at the costs, risks and technical feasibility of this proposal.
It rapidly became clear that a number of the underlying facts on which the SDSR’s decision was based were changing. Firstly, it emerged that the Carrier Strike capability using ‘cats and traps’ would not be delivered until 2023 at the earliest – three years later than the original envisaged date of around 2020. Partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the HMS Prince of Wales carrier had more than doubled within the past 17 months, rising from £950 million to £2 billion. Additionally, at the time of the last SDSR, consideration of the STOVL variant was ruled out on account of the fact that there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around it. However in the last year there have been vast improvements to the ‘risk profile’ of the aircraft, and US Marine Corps flight trials have now taken place.
The Government came under heavy criticism and accusations of a u-turn from the Labour benches over this very complex and difficult decision – even though it has been endorsed by our military chiefs and our principal allies, the US and France. But when facts change, the only responsible thing to do is re-examine previous decisions. We simply cannot blindly pursue projects and ignore the facts of cost growth and delays.
We will not bury our heads in the sand and plough on regardless. That’s what Labour did: ordering ships without the money to pay for them while harbouring an unaffordable fantasy equipment plan and a £38bn black hole in the MoD’s finances. As well as our financial responsibilities, we have a responsibility to provide an appropriate and sustainable military capacity, and fitting ‘cats and traps’ using the Carrier Variant jet no longer represented the best way to do so.