Britain’s ever-shifting plan for its two new aircraft carriers got a fresh infusion of logic last week when British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond — expressing a personal view — said both ships should be operational.
While the official way forward will be determined as part of the U.K.’s 2015 defense review, Hammond said he believes keeping the second ship available for operations would cost only about 70 million pounds ($113 million) a year.
When the program was born in the late 1990s, Britain was to buy two large aircraft carriers and operate them both with the short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But that plan was thrown into chaos when Britain decided in 2010 to ditch the jump-jet JSF in favor of the carrier version.
Hammond reversed that decision this year, saving the Royal Navy some 5 billion pounds by eliminating the need for catapults and arresting gear on its new carriers.
But given their build cycle, the first ship would have been completed as a STOVL carrier — and mothballed — and the second fitted with cats and traps, effectively giving the Navy just one carrier. The first ship, Queen Elizabeth, either would have been extensively modified at great cost — so much it would have been unaffordable, Hammond said — operated as a helicopter carrier or sold off.
Hammond last week said that while only one of the carriers would be in active service at any given time, the second would be ready to replace its sister during maintenance and upgrade periods and they could even sail together when needed, given enough lead time.
The Royal Navy has taken deep budget cuts, lost ships and reduced personnel from 35,400 sailors in 2010 to 30,400 by 2017.
But as Hammond makes clear, the Navy should be able to afford it, and must plan now to do so. Indeed, these giant new ships — the biggest in British history at 65,000 tons — are designed to be operated by the same 1,000-man crew as the 22,000-ton Invincible class.
After spending more than 6 billion pounds to build two carriers, the Royal Navy, and the nation it represents, will be more capable and strategically relevant if it can operate both