LONDON — British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has thrown his weight behind the Royal Navy operating both of the new aircraft carriers once the new Queen Elizabeth class warships enter service starting late this decade.
Hammond said no decision would be taken before the 2015 strategic defense review on whether the second carrier would be retained for use by the Royal Navy, but the “relatively modest” additional £70 million pounds ($112.7 million) annual cost of having the two warships available is an “extremely good investment,” he told the Royal United Services Institute annual air power conference in London Nov 1.
The British government’s decision earlier this year to switch back to purchasing the short take-off, vertical-landing variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter meant there was now “a realistic possibility of both carriers coming into service,” said Hammond.
A second carrier would allow the Royal Navy to have one of its two 65,000-ton warships continuously available for deployment throughout their lifetime, of the assets he told the audience of senior military officers and industry executives. In extreme circumstances, and given a little notice, it would be possible to have both carriers available at once, he said.
Hammond also used his speech to settle a row between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy over exactly how many jets should be routinely deployed on board the aircraft carrier once it enters service.
The British F-35 fleet will be operated by a joint RAF/RN force. The exact number of aircraft to be purchased initially remains unclear, but media reports have put the figure at between 40 and 48.
The RAF has been arguing for a small number of aircraft to be routinely deployed on the carrier in the early years as the overall fleet of aircraft is built up. The number is unknown, but one RN source said it was in single figures.
Hammond appeared to end the debate, saying the RN would “routinely embark 12 jets when deployed outside home waters with an ability to surge that number higher in periods of tension.”
Land-based initial operating capability for the F-35 is scheduled for 2018, with initial flights off HMS Queen Elizabeth set for 2018, said Hammond.
The defense secretary said discussions were underway on how plans to build a new generation of nuclear missile armed submarines to replace the current Vanguard class of boats, starting 2028, could affect other programs.
Nuclear deterrent spending would cause cash spikes in the budget in the 2020s and 2030s, said Hammond.
“The question is simply whether it made sense to defer normal [program] replacement cycles while we spend on nuclear replacement and its knock on effect across other domains,” he said.