A letter submitted to The Herald is being wildly shared as evidence that the new aircraft carriers are nothing more than a ‘vanity project’, but does the letter have any truth to it?

In our view, no. Below is our response to this letter. Referring to claims the vessels are a waste of money, Iain AD Mann writes:

“I COULDN’T agree more with Dave McEwan Hill’s letter (August 18) about the waste of many billions of much-needed public money on the two massive aircraft carriers.

These ships have very little relevance to defending our own waters or our interests around the world, and they are little more than a floating status symbol of the long-gone days when Britannia ruled the waves.”

They’re designed to project air power at range, not intercept trawlers.

“It will be several years before these hugely-expensive naval vessels even have any planes to carry, and of course the UK no longer has an aircraft industry capable of designing and building such sophisticated planes.”

Next year is in fact not several years. HMS Queen Elizabeth will begin aviation trials with F-35 jets in 2018. As for the claim the UK has no aircraft industry capable of designing and building these jets? Well, it did and is.

As the only Level 1 partner, the United Kingdom has garnered tremendous economic benefits from the F-35. British industry will build 15% of each of the more than 3,000 planned F-35s, in addition to a large volume of British developed aircraft systems including the electronic warfare suite.

The programme at peak will generate significant export revenue and GDP growth. The programme is projected to create and support more than 25,000 jobs across every region of the United Kingdom.

Hundreds of British software engineers with BAE have played a leading role in creating software for the F-35 aircraft that will be operational with the US Air Force later this year.

The software team at the BAE site in Samlesbury, Lancashire, has worked alongside Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 programme, to deliver the latest update known as ‘Block 3i’. There are more than eight million lines of code required for full operational capability. Block 3i equips the aircraft with 89% of the software code required.

“So we must wait until the mid-2020s before the United States produces (and sells us at vast cost) the specially designed planes the ships need.” 

We already have 11 of the jets with more being delivered. When the jet reaches peak production, the programme will be worth some £1 billion to UK industry alone, according to research by KPMG the accounting firm. An estimated 25,000 UK jobs will be sustained across more than 500 companies in the supply chain.

“Of course the years of construction of the carriers brought much-needed employment to the Clyde shipyards and Rosyth Dockyard, which was very welcome, and that is in fact the main reason why the former Labour government awarded the contracts in the first place.

It had very little to do with international defence or naval warfare, in which it is unlikely we would wish to become involved unless the Americans told us to.”

Nope. The origins of the massive and sometimes controversial Queen Elizabeth class carrier programme lie in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.

The review re-evaluated every weapon system (active or in procurement) with the exception of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines.

The report identified that aircraft carriers offered the following:

  • Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
  • All required space and infrastructure; where foreign bases are available they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.
  • A coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.

The report concluded:

“The emphasis is now on increased offensive air power, and an ability to operate the largest possible range of aircraft in the widest possible range of roles.

When the current carrier force reaches the end of its planned life, we plan to replace it with two larger vessels.”

In November 2004, while giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West explained that the sortie rate and interoperability with the United States Navy were factors in deciding on the size of the carriers and the composition of the carriers’ air-wings:

“The reason that we have arrived at what we have arrived at is because to do the initial strike package, that deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and we have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters, and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future.”

The UK is committed to both the F-35 and the Queen Elizabeth Carrier programmes, both of which are on track to enter initial maritime operating capability in December 2020 as planned.

“A much more sensible use of public money would have been to build a large number of small specialised warships to defend our own coastal waters, and especially the vast stretches of sea around our northern and eastern coasts.

These specially-designed aircraft for many years patrolled the these areas, where the naval vessels and submarines of Russia and other countries wander about freely and mostly undetected.”

The second of a fleet of five new offshore patrol vessels, HMS Medway, has been revealed by BAE Systems and is ready to be launched in Glasgow. The vessel will be moved onto the barge and then lowered into the River Clyde in the coming days.

“These no longer have the protection of the RAF planes which operated from the now-abandoned RAF Kinloss.”

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has revealed the identity of the two new P-8 Poseidon squadrons.

120 Squadron will form in April 2018 and 201 Squadron will form in 2021.

Fallon said:

“They will be based in RAF Lossiemouth in Morayshire and their names will be 120 Squadron recalling the RAF’s highest scoring anti-submarine unit in World War II. And 201 Squadron named after one of the RAFs oldest formations.

Our nine new Poseidon aircraft are part of our plan to monitor and deal with increased threats to our country. They can operate at long range without refuelling and have the endurance to carry out high and low-level airborne maritime and overland surveillance for extended periods, helping keep us safe.

The P-8A aircraft will allow us to work more closely with our allies, improve our surveillance coverage and will provide value for taxpayers’ money.”

The first two P-8 Poseidon aircraft for the United Kingdom were ordered recently under a $2.2bn contract.

“But as usual the faceless ones at the Ministry of Defence got their priorities completely wrong. It never ceases to amaze me that UK governments can spend vast amounts of what is our money, not theirs, on vanity projects with little practical value.”

There’s no truth in any claim that the MoD haven’t made serious errors across many projects but the issues highlighted in this letter either don’t exist or are now being addressed.

The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy and will represent a significant increase in capability. The vessels will be utilised by all three branches of the UK Armed Forces and will provide eight acres of sovereign territory. Both ships will be versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from high intensity conflict to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

41 COMMENTS

  1. Why oh why do people keep banging on about the carrier programme? The ships are built and the reasoning for their existence has been talked about adnauorisum. I for one, believe their worth will be incalculable over their lifespan if future politics allows them, to continue in service with the Royal Navy.

    • Sadly because in today’s climate the fact that they are built (although technically PoW isn’t complete yet) isn’t the end of the story. There are people out there that are still saying that we can’t afford them and should sell them. I suspect that financially selling them would be practical and attractive for some future cash-strapped government. China bought an old Russian carrier and would I am sure love either one or even a pair of much more modern vessels; India too. It’s a constant concern that such voices never get support from those in power and/or that the UK never gets destitute enough to seriously consider it (1970s style IMF bailouts & 3 day weeks).

      Even selling one would be a huge disaster. I don’t really look on these as being two carriers, I look at it as the UK building one carrier but, unlike the French carrier, it’s a single carrier force with almost constant availability that won’t disappear off into refit for 18 months at a time. Having two does potentially give the opportunity to deploy both simultaneously but if we never do that I don’t take the view that we will somehow have failed and have wasted money building two. Having “the carrier” available at all times is a hugely valuable characteristic of the asset that we are developing.

      • Hopefully, post-Brexit Britain will have no option but continue to operate the carriers regardless of the temptation to sell them on. My reasoning is simple China. Soon, the world’s oceans will become the new front, and without a sizeable navy, we could be held to ransom in regards to the freedom of the seas. When we ruled the globe with a huge navy, we used its might, to impose our will. If China is left unopposed on the high seas, we too, could find ourselves compromised. I can see an increase in naval spending, and it might come at a price for the two other services?
        In regards to refits, I doubt that policy will change however, it’s better to have an asset in refit than relying on just one hull.

        • You do know there is a country called the USA that has three largest airforces in the world, the USAF, the USN and the USMC plus the largest navy and most combat effective army?

          Do not buy the China threat syndrome, they need us as a trading partner as we need them plus their the biggest foreign investor in the USA and the largest holder of US government debt.

          • China has two faces, one for open trade and, the other political strength and military experimentation. Remember the SCS islands created from nothing and for what? What I do know is their open hostility to anyone who gets too close. And you don’t see their grasp on African minerals as a point of concern? The US is acutely aware of China’s naval expansion, and I believe would not share your sanguinity about their intent.

          • China is finding its place in the world, I do not consider them to pose a military threat to the UK or our allies.

          • Couldn’t agree more Mr Saul. China could go mental and start copying Putin. But I think it’s far more likely they’ll concentrate on getting as rich as possible as quick as possible and good luck to them in that.

  2. We haven’t had a viable aircraft carrier force since 2006 when the Sea Harrier was scrapped for cost reasons.

    At the time we were told that the new T45 was more than capable of taking of fleet air defence.

    So there will be a gap of nearly 17 years before the demise of the Sea Harrier and the arrival of the F35B.

    If we can do without a carrier force for that length of time and national security was not threatened how do we justify the need for one in the future?

      • Very true, but our defence policy seems to be based on luck and fingers crossed. I don’t see that changing in the future.

        All a question of priorities, I just happen to think the UK has got its priories wrong for the past 20 or so years

    • Just lucky 🍀 we had 17 years not needing them for UK 🇬🇧 defense, but we sure could of used them in Libya 🇱🇾 and Syria 🇸🇾 and today we sure could use them to help countries under siege by ISIS militants. So yes, yes, and yes we need these. The time for debate is over.

  3. The use of the wording “There’s no truth in any claim that the MoD haven’t made serious errors across many projects ” is very poor use of the English language.

    Perhaps the author would like to explain what he actually means.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Maurice, and to those who continue to bang on about the size of the ships, I would remind you that “steel is cheap and air is free” and a smaller ship would still require the same sophisticated communications and electronics fit. Indeed one of the main cost drivers is surely the level of automation, such as the weapon handling systems, which is designed to reduce long term costs by reducing manpower. These vessels operate with a similar sized crew to their Invincible class predecessors, but are 3 times the size! How about that for value for the (taxpayers) money!

  5. First things first; the carriers are here and remind the world that the UK is a premier player in innovative engineering skills. Kudos to all concerned. They prove that the UK can do teamwork.
    Symbols are important. The carriers are a statement of Britains identity as a global maritime trading nation. Post Brexit Britain needs a brand symbol and what better than images of these carriers, beautiful ships.
    And all this is before any considerations of war fighting and humanitarian relief capabilities, which substantial, second only to the US.
    At £3billion a piece they are a bargain.

  6. The carriers are now a reality and we have to make the most efficient use of them possible.

    However the project has been a nearly 20 year saga of delay, overspend and acrimony. Numerous errors were made in there procurement, I recall Sir Peter Spencer, the former Navy officer serving as head of Defence Procurement told the Commons Defence Committee in 2004, saying the MoD was confident of the £3 billion figure because “we have very good metrics, independently verified, of what we know this carrier can be built for.”

    In December 2008, John Hutton, then the Defence Secretary, announced that the carriers would be delayed, claiming that was to align their arrival with that of the JSFs they were to carry. Yet in February 2009, Admiral Jonathan Band, then the head of the Navy, dismissed that explanation, saying the carriers were delayed because “our budget is under pressure.” But if delays were meant to save money, it was only a short-term saving. A National Audit Office inquiry later found that the delays ordered in 2008 would add £674 million to the final cost of the carriers.

    Yet in late 2009, Bob Ainsworth, then the defence secretary, ordered another delay. That added another £908 million to the cost, finally pushing it to £6 billion.

    If there was an example of how not to run a major defence it would be this.

    One would hope that our lords and masters would learned from this saga to ensure it doesn’t happened again, but I fear that has not happened.

    So let’s use the carriers, but the process to build was a bloody mess.

    • In all fairness the original plan was that France and the U.K would be doing a joint carrier project whuch would reduce the costs immensely because the more ships you build the cheaper the per unit cost. However, France decided to keep its Carrier and left the program meaning we had to shoulder the entire cost.

  7. Mike,

    It’s obvious what he means! You’re being a pedant. You’re point about our surviving the last 17 years without a carrier group being indicative of the fact that we don’t need one is illogical. It’s so illogical, in fact, that I won’t explain why.

    Cheers!

    • Nick, on grounds of national security if we can do without something for 17 years then that equipment cannot be of a high priority unless circumstances change to make it so.

      Nothing illogical in that statement, just because you may not like it does not make it untrue.

      If the author wishes to be critical of the UK MOD then say so, rather trying to use a double negative to cushion then impact of the wording.

      • On grounds of national security Trident has never been used or used to deter an impending nuclear attack.

        Thoughts?

          • It wasn’t a statement Mike it was a question.

            I could use a lot of other examples.

            Maritime patrol aircraft, we’ll probably not have to use anti-ship missiles in the gap after harpoon is retired. Does that mean it doesn’t need replaced?

            You haven’t got an argument Mike.

            You also conveniently forgot to mention the worst global recession since the 1930’s in one of your posts above.

            By all means Mike hold the government to account but don’t airbrush huge significant events that definitely did have an affect on the carrier program.

          • No it was a statement, then you asked for thoughts on that statement.

            Not really interested in your statements opinions questions or thoughts.

            Let’s just leave it at that for the sake of other posters.

      • I don’t care if you’re interested or not, it’s a public forum that you have commented on.

        We will leave it at that for now if that’s what you want because my point has been made.

  8. Having had the privilege of being a member of the launch and mooring team when she left dry dock I can say she’s a definite asset to the country and the royal navy no matter what folks think she’ll defend our country just as well as our queen as led our country with steadfastness dignity and dilligence

  9. I can not see any reason why any professional navy would think it a good idea to in any way procure OPVs. As they are by their very definition in any real conflict or incident a death trap. All money diverted to them is diverted away from real warships. There are very many reasons that both the USN and the PLAN are not tasked with nor do they procure what are essentially LE and SAR vessel. That is the province of their separate coast guards these days in both establishments a law enforcement organization. The job of the Navy is to deter or failing that wage war across the ocean and that can only be done with large scale combatants.
    To other commenters questions that are summed up by ” well we have’nt needed them this past decade why do we need them now”?. You did need them you were just living off your Italian, French ,and American allies to fulfill that role. At this time with a increasingly isolationist and bitter American electorate and military establishment to what it sees as its European allies unwillingness to defend themselves. Also one must add to the everyday American on the street their disturbing willingness to fight to the last American. Given that sentiment do you really think you should in any way base defense planning on a treaty signed by politicians now long since dead. Under those circumstances I would not be questioning the building of carriers I would instead be laying down more escorts ideally T45s and buying SEARAM not phalanx for the carriers.

    • I suspect we will see the batch 2 Rivers in the carrier task force acting as Merlin lili pads supporting close inshore force protection and extending task force screening to increase the effective range of the Merins. They are being built to a higher spec than you need for patrol work. The combat management system and the wide area information system look significant to me.
      Features over and above batch 1 Rivers:
      Watertight integrity modifications (also described as improved watertight integrity)
      Fire safety modifications
      Enhanced firefighting facilities
      Automatic emergency lights
      Flight Deck Officer position
      Domestic refrigeration modifications
      Sewage treatment plant modifications
      Ballast water modifications
      Merlin helicopter operation (ie strengthening the flight deck to be able to land a Merlin helicopter on it)
      Helicopter in-flight refuelling
      Helicopter refuelling modifications
      Changes to ship’s minimum operating temperature
      Davit modifications
      Force protection weapons modifications (replacing 2×25 mm with 2×7.62 mm Mk 44 Gatling guns)
      Installation of WECDIS/WAIS (WECDIS stands for Warship Electronic Chart Display and Information System; WAIS might stand for Wide Area Information System. This seems to be an improved version of the system fitted to HMS Clyde.)
      Install Combat Management System (CMS), and the new RN standard BAES “Shared Infrastructure” which will equip the RN’s entire surface fleet over the next nine/ten years (this integrates ship sensor, weapons and management systems using a common console system).
      Military communications modifications
      Magazine protection (if my memory serves me correctly, this involves the fitting of Kevlar armour)
      Radio equipment room modifications
      Change lighting and domestic power voltage from 115 v to 230 v
      Codification of equipment
      Provision of life saving equipment
      Replace navigation radars (fit the Kelvin Hughes Sharpeye)
      Install military GPS
      Install flight deck landing grid
      Fuel efficiency monitoring
      Provide emergency communication equipment
      Machinery space walkway

      With acknowledgments to Keith Campbell, writing in Think Defence in June 2016

      • So still less capable than either a Hamilton class much less the National Security Cutter replacing them. That the USN still decided to paint orange and white and call cutters not OPVs. That way no political penny pincher would try to deploy them to combat zones much less CSGs. And that is with a heavier armament something like anti air and in the case of the NSC a towed sonar array.

  10. Just for the record.

    When the Coalition came to power, its Defence Review zeroed in on the carriers: officials working for the new National Security Council strongly challenged the strategic value of the new ships and raised the prospect of cancelling one or both.
    Yet that raised the final controversy over the carriers: the contracts Labour signed with the shipbuilders.

    In September, the MoD revealed that contracts worth a total of £1.25 billion had already been awarded on the carriers, sunk costs that could not be recovered.
    Although the contracts remain secret for commercial reasons, it is understood that they contain binding “break clauses” guaranteeing the shipyards replacement orders from the MoD even if the carriers were cancelled.

    To Labour and the industry, the clauses were a sensible measure to protect a strategically important industry. To many Conservatives, they were a poison pill meant to defend the interests of shipyards in Labour heartlands: Rosyth is a few miles from Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat.

    Some Conservatives had long harboured doubts about the carrier project and the way Labour had configured the new ships. Treasury officials were appalled by the spiralling cost of the carriers and their aircraft carrier.And General Sir David Richards, the new Chief of the Defence Staff who is trusted by the Prime Minister, argued that the money for the carriers would be better spent elsewhere in defence.
    At a meeting of the National Security Council on 27 September, David Cameron asked officials to look again at the contracts for the carriers and the implications of abandoning the second ship.

    Days later, the Prime Minister gave a BBC interview where he repeatedly refused to guarantee the second carrier. His aides privately suggested he was resolved to scrap it.

    But at another NSC meeting on October 7, officials confirmed that the contracts were effectively unbreakable and cancelling the second carrier would end up costing the taxpayer even more money.

  11. We build something we can be proud of, in the UK, and all people seem to want to do is belittle it. I remember the same bs about the Apache program. Buy cheaper airframes with less capabilities. Anyone still think Apache was a mistake ? Ok we don’t build Apache, but the point remains the same. Can’t wait for all the neysayers to eat their words the first time the carrier does what it’s designed for. To control a large bit of the ocean, and protect British citizens where ever and whenever it needs to god bless QE and all who sail in her.

  12. the carriers are almost here and so now we need to try and make the most of them.

    However in the world of limited defence budgets and huge holes in the front line equipment across all forces, I am pretty sure if you made a list of all the equipment we have and need for a realistic high end or low end conflict, the carriers would be near or at the bottom of the list. The reason that so few nations have them is they know they are the cheery on the top of the cake, and that you don’t put it there until the rest of the cake is in place. Redirect the cost of the carriers to other needs and I suspect a lot of the holes could be plugged, not least the lack of sailors.

  13. They weren’t a vanity project…. they were pork-barrel spending by Labour’s Caledonian Mafia to keep the free folk north of the wall happy.

  14. Misplaced antiamericanisms run through modern Britain in the left and right of politics. For the right its suspicion stemming from Yorktown through Suez and Basra. For the left it is tied up with a desire for a multipolar world and now more than ever strongly influenced by Brexit and the EU (more multipolarity). Relying on the yanks while reserving the right to sneer at them has become a chronic condition in some Brits. History, context, facts and reason should suffice though. Endless stuff.

  15. The campaign to scrap these white elephants must continue. We need a force of OPVs to genuinely defend our coastline against many threats. These ships must be sold. They are unsustainable.

    • Sold to who? The only people with that kind of cash are the U.S. the Chinese and Russians possibly Japan. No one else spend anywhere close to that on the their Navy budget. Of those possibility’s the U.S. wouldn’t be interested, the Japanese are to protectionist. And selling them to China or Russia would likely result in their sinking on route to customer.
      The current largest threat to both the U.K. and continental European countries coastlines is this constant belief. That continuous cuts in defense spending will continue to be picked up by someone else (the U.S.A). OPVs cannot conduct or support counter terror ops with air strikes nor can they play destroyer or attack sub and hunt boomers in the arctic. OPVs are the most useless thing a navy could acquire. That would be why in the U.S. they are painted orange and white and given to DHS.
      You do not plan for the war you want you plan for the worst.

  16. @Elliott

    “OPVs cannot conduct or support counter terror ops with air strikes nor can they play destroyer or attack sub and hunt boomers in the arctic.”

    Why on earth should we in this country wish to do these things?

    • Because at the moment you can barely defend yourself. It is both immoral and the height of ignorance to think that people an ocean away will always defend you be they Canadian, American, or even someone closer the French. Sovereignty means accountability and responsibility for ones own safety.
      Before you say there are no threats in this world. Remember how many attacks there have been. Also every state on Earth has a perfect record on predicting the next conflict. They always get it wrong.
      On what you wish- “You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky

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