Warning over plans for new Royal Navy aircraft carriers

HMS Queen Elizabeth Image copyright PA Media
Image caption HMS Queen Elizabeth (pictured) and sister ship HMS Prince of Wales each cost more than £3bn

Ambitious plans for the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers - each of which cost more than £3bn - will not be met without proper funding, the government spending watchdog has said.

The National Audit Office highlighted concerns over missing key elements such as aircraft and support ships.

The Ministry of Defence said it expects to meet its target of declaring an "initial operating capability" for the carriers by December 2020.

But the NAO called the target "tight".

The MoD is yet to commit the funding required for enough Lightning II fighter jets to sustain the carriers over their expected 50-year operating life, the NAO said in its report.

It also said the Navy had just one supply ship able to keep the carriers stocked with food and ammunition while on operations.

And it further warned the carriers' new Crowsnest airborne radar system - which forms a crucial part of its defences - was running 18 months late, further diminishing its capabilities during its first two years.

Aircraft carriers are often seen as a symbol and tool of global reach and military power.

But few countries can afford to build and operate them.

It's not just the Royal Navy that's staked its future on the two enormous Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers - it's the whole of UK defence.

The carriers need a small armada of ships for protection, refuelling and supplies. They need aircraft for logistics, airborne early warning and to carry out strikes.

None of this is cheap, but no one at the MoD appears to be entirely sure of the costs overall.

Remember the carriers have been built to last 50 years.

What is clear is that all the elements of Carrier Strike will take a significant bite out of the defence budget at a time when it's already under strain.

Image copyright Royal Navy

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee which follows the work of the NAO, said the Navy was in danger of being left with a "hollowed-out" capability unless the issues were addressed.

"The Ministry of Defence has lofty ambitions for the carriers but hasn't put its money where its mouth is," Ms Hillier added.

"Worryingly, it still doesn't know the full cost of supporting and operating Carrier Strike."

A MoD spokesman said: "Carrier Strike is a complex challenge, which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms.

"We remain committed to investing in this capability, which demonstrates the UK's global role.

"Despite the disruptions of Covid-19, the Carrier Strike group is on track for its first operational deployment."

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