U-turn on fighter jet could yet give Moray base surprise boost
THE government has been forced to confirm an embarrassing U-turn over the fighter jets which will fly from its new aircraft carriers.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday announced it will return to a jump-jet version of the joint strike fighter (JSF) – the one the government ditched in its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010.
The decision to abandon the version that required catapult and traps on the carriers could be good news for RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, with Whitehall sources suggesting that it makes it more likely the planes will be based there.
The alternative base is RAF Marham in Norfolk, but the extra noise created by the type-B jet could rule it out because of the higher number of homes nearby.
The move could also guarantee work for Rosyth, because it means that the government may now use both its carriers instead of mothballing one, as was planned in the SDSR because of the expense of fitting the cat and traps.
The carriers are due to be refitted and refurbished in the Fife shipyard.
However, the decision is embarrassing for Prime Minister David Cameron, who faced calls to apologise for his government’s “incompetence”.
When the SDSR was published in November 2010, Mr Cameron damned the type-B version of the JSF ordered by Labour as “more expensive and less capable”, saying it was part of “an appalling legacy the British people have every right to be angry about”.
Yesterday, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said that Mr Cameron had overruled the advice of his officials that it was a “high risk and high cost” option, and called on the Prime Minister to apologise.
“It is as incoherent as it is ludicrous,” Mr Murphy said. “The Prime Minister’s decisions have cost British time, British money, British talent and British prestige. Describing this government’s defence strategy as an omnishambles would be a compliment.”
The U-turn is the latest question mark over the SDSR, which critics said was out of date within months, when Britain went to war in Libya.
The plan had been seriously criticised by the Commons defence select committee, not least because of the decision to leave the UK without an aircraft carrier for a decade and the doubts over what fighter jets will fly from it.
A recent report by government auditors in the United States suggested that the type-B version of the jet decided on by the government will not be good enough to make it worthwhile going into large-scale production.
Mr Hammond told the Commons that the change in policy was the result of increasing cost estimates and delays.
Making a statement to a thinly attended Commons, he said the “cats and traps” system cannot be operational before late-2023 at the earliest, “considerably later than the date envisaged” at the time of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The estimated cost of fitting the system to HMS Prince of Wales had risen from £950 million to £2 billion, “with no guarantee that it will not rise further”.
Mr Hammond told MPs: “When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind.
“I am not prepared to accept a delay in regenerating Britain’s carrier strike capability beyond the timetable set out in the SDSR. And I am not prepared to put the [MoD’s] equipment plan at risk of a billion-pound-plus increase in the carrier programme and unquantifiable risk of further cost rises.”
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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