Navy set to keep 30-year-old ships in service over £3.6bn carrier delays
THE Royal Navy could be forced to delay the retirement of Britain's ageing aircraft carriers because of delays in the programme to order replacement vessels, the Ministry of Defence has admitted.
The decision would mean the mainstay of Britain's naval power in the next decade will be two ships which are both more than 30 years old.
The prospect of prolonging the life of HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal will only heighten concerns about the state of the Royal Navy.
Commanders led by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, have warned ministers they must spend more on the navy if Britain is to remain a global military power.
The next generation of navy ships will be built around two new aircraft carriers, which at 65,000 tonnes and 230-metres long will be the biggest military ships Britain has ever built.
But the 3.6 billion Future Carrier project has been hit by delays and bureaucratic haggling. The formal decision to place the contract to build the ships was first scheduled for 2003, but has yet to be made.
The carriers would be built in pieces, at yards including Govan on the Clyde and Rosyth in Fife, with the contracts securing thousands of Scottish jobs for up to a decade.
But despite suggestions from Labour ministers campaigning ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections next week, it is unlikely that the "main gate" contract decision for the new carriers will be made before the summer. Some fear the decision could even be delayed until after the Treasury's comprehensive spending review in October or November.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is said to be putting growing pressure on the MoD to curb the costs of the project as he tries to manage tightening public finances ahead of his expected appointment as prime minister in July.
Earlier this year, the House of Commons' Defence Committee warned Britain could be left without a working aircraft carrier due to hold-ups in the carrier procurement process.
The first of the new carriers is officially due to enter service in 2012, but Navy officers and defence industry officials believe that is now impossible.
Now, a defence minister has conceded that the government may have to delay the retirement of the two existing Invincible-class aircraft carriers until the new vessels are available.
Illustrious, the flagship of the Navy fleet, has been in service since 1982 and, according to the MoD's current timetable, is due to retire or "pay-off" in 2012. The Ark Royal entered service in 1985 and is due to retire in 2015.
Now Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister, has said those pay-offs may be put back because of problems with the Future Carrier problem.
"Our intention is for there to be, at all times, at least one ship operating in the carrier strike role until the first of the new carriers enters service," Lord Drayson writes in an MoD document seen by The Scotsman. "It is too early to say whether this will require Illustrious or Ark Royal to remain operational beyond present pay-off dates."
Lord Drayson also suggests the MoD is preparing to revise the delivery timetable for the new carriers. He states delaying the current ships' retirement "does not need to be addressed until we have determined in- service dates of future carriers".
Last night, the MoD said the "working assumption" for the delivery of the new carriers was 2012 and 2015, but conceded that a delay was possible.
• Britain and France should share the construction of the two new UK carriers and one for the French navy, Thales, a French defence firm, said yesterday.
The MoD said it was waiting for defence firms to agree a deal on carrier work before placing the final order.
MoD CHIEFS LOOK TO SCOTLAND FOR HOME PORT
BRITAIN'S next generation of aircraft carriers could sail from Scotland, Royal Navy commanders believe.
During an internal Ministry of Defence review of Britain's major naval bases, Faslane on the Clyde has emerged as a possible dock for the two new aircraft carriers.
The two serving aircraft carriers currently sail from Portsmouth, but the Naval Bases Review has sparked speculation that the English port, the traditional home of the Royal Navy, could be closed. That speculation will be fuelled by the review's provisional conclusion that it would be possible for the carriers to dock at Faslane, already the home base of the navy's nuclear submarines.
However, Faslane, officially called HM Naval Base Clyde, would require "changes in infrastructure" to accommodate the 280-metre, 65,000-tonne vessels.
The suggestion is likely to inflame the simmering political row over the future of the Royal Navy's UK facilities. The Naval Bases Review, started earlier this year, could see one of Britain's bases - Faslane, Portsmouth, or Devonport, near Plymouth - closed or downgraded.
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