Peter Hoskin

The coalition’s carrier trouble

The coalition's carrier trouble
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We will be presented with the full defence review at around 1430 today – but already its contents are spilling out across the papers. Much of it is unsurprising: a delay for the Trident upgrade, two new aircraft carriers, etc. But some of it is slightly more surprising: for instance, the immediate decommissioning of both our 80-strong fleet of Harriers and the Navy's 25 year-old flagship, the HMS Ark Royal. As Liam Fox admitted on the Today Programme earlier, those last two measures will mean that Britain loses the ability to fly jets from its carriers for up to ten years. Ruling the waves, and even the skies, has been put on hiatus.

It's clear that much this defence review has been shaped by compromise. The decision over Trident is the perfect example of a measure that will leave both sides neither wholly satisfied nor wholly unsatisfied. But the Ark Royal decision is something slightly different: a measure that has been born more of necessity than anything else, and one that will be almost universally unpopular. At the very least, it gives observers something to stick their teeth into – and the Times leads the way with a front-page headline of "HMS Ignominious: £5bn career fiasco". With the coalition deciding to protect what, to my mind, was less important spending elsewhere in the defence budget, it was ever going to be thus.

The question now is whether this says as much about the government's strategic imperatives as their fiscal ones. If so, it might be taken as another sign that Cameron intends to smooth out the more interventionist, military aspects of Labour's foreign policy – and replace them with something geared much more towards trade and business. In any case, it won't really involve carriers for a decade now.