Good News for the Royal Navy
There has been a lot of controversy in recent months over the level of defence spending and whether all of our commitments and current equipment plans are affordable. Despite this, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is pressing on with some very big ticket purchases for the Royal Navy. Just this week, a further £80m of sub-contracts for the two giant aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales were placed. Around 40% of the value of the build of the two carriers is now committed and full-scale production is proceeding.
The carriers, which will be known as the Queen Elizabeth Class, are being constructed by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) which consists of Thales UK, BAE Systems, BVT Surface Fleet, Babcock and the Ministry of Defence.
The carriers will each weigh 65,000 tonnes, be 280m long and 70m wide. A ship of this size is necessary to deliver the quantity of air power required. They will be capable of 25 knots and will have a total complement (with air group) of approximately 1500 people. Their flight decks will support an air wing capable of delivering significant offensive air power to support the battle ashore for prolonged periods of time and will be capable of carrying the widest possible range of aircraft in support of operations. They will be specifically developed to provide a base for the US/UK partnership designed Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
They will be truly impressive ships and only the US Navy will have anything bigger or more effective. They will put the Royal Navy back on the maritime map but at a huge cost. In order to afford these mammoth ships the rest of the fleet continues to be pared back. The number of frigates and destroyers is likely to fall below 25. They are the backbone of the fleet and do the donkey work of patrolling the high seas and protecting shipping and British interests across the world. They are also necessary to provide defence for the highly vulnerable aircraft carriers. At the time of the Falklands War in 1982 the Royal Navy could muster over 60 frigates and destroyers.
As well as the further orders to build the carriers the MoD this week announced the laying of the keel of nuclear-powered submarine HMS Audacious. The number of subs has also been cut back from about 30 at the time of the Falklands War to 10 now (I am not counting the Trident missile boats). However Audacious, which is the fourth boat in the “Astute” class is an impressive piece of kit.
Weighing in at over seven thousand tonnes, Audacious – which is currently under construction by BAE Systems Submarine Solutions at Barrow-in-Furness – will join sister boats Astute, Ambush and Artful to become a cornerstone of UK defence capability. Astute-class submarines will displace 7,400 tonnes dived and are 97 metres long. Capable of circumnavigating the globe in a single 90 day patrol without resurfacing, they will have six weapons tubes and massively increased firepower (including Tomahawk cruise missiles) compared with earlier attack submarines.
It is great to see these orders being placed but the MoD is facing a cash flow crisis. It simply cannot afford all of the programmes it has on the books. Unfortunately it is likely that some programmes will be delayed and trimmed in order to balance the books in the short term but a full-scale defence review after the next General Election is probably unavoidable. Without a big increase in defence spending the sums simply don’t add up.