Alex Massie

Latest Defence Fiasco: I See No Ships

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There's a decent discussion to be had on defence priorities and on the future of both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Furthermore, you can argue about the number of aircraft carriers this country might need. There's a case for saying that the resources devoted to the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers could have been more usefully employed elsewhere. But if there's a case for scrapping the carriers there's also a case for building two of them or, though this is not on the cards, three "super-carriers". What makes no sense, however, is building just one aircraft carrier.

And yet that's where we seem to be. Actually, it's worse than that. Current plans - to apportion this cockamamie proposal with a level of thought and sense it hardly deserves - are to build both carriers but use one of them, the Prince of Wales, as a helicopter-carrying amphibious commando ship. This, then, creates the worst of all possible worlds: maximum cost and minimal force projection. It is madness.

The reason given is that the Joint Strike Fighter is going to be too expensive to equip two carriers. But because we've sunk so much money into the carriers already they need to be built. Of course we've also sunk billions into the JSF too. Current policy - again it it can be called that - is to build an aircraft carrier and then refuse to stock it with planes.

Building one carrier only makes almost no sense at all. Apart from anything else, the demands of training and, in due course, refitting means that it won't be available all the time. Better hope we don't have to go to war on Wednesdays.

Furthermore, since you need, I think, to organise defence planning on a series of worst-case scenarios - with, therefore, layers of redundancy and a degree of stockpiling - the consequences of something disastrous happening to the Queen Elizabeth are so great and so severe that, paradoxically, they create an incentive to never actually use the damn ship because the risks of losing it may be outweighed by the benefits of actually deploying it. In that sense, then, having one super-carrier is actually worse than having none. It chews up resources while actually limiting flexibility. (That's why three carriers might, if we are going down the super-carrier route, make more sense than two: it provides cover for something going wrong.)

The headline numbers on these things are, sure, eye-popping. But these ships and the planes to fly from them are designed to last for 30 years or so. Put in that context the money is less of a problem.

As I say, there's a case for rethinking pretty much every aspect of future defence needs (and spending) but this half-cocked absurdity seems, amazingly, the very worst of all possible approaches. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that it's the path we're merrily determined to follow.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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