'Debilitating Lack Of Clarity' Over Royal Navy's Aircraft Carriers, MPs Warn

The Public Accounts Committee has said Government indecision could hamper the operation of the Royal Navy’s £6.4bn aircraft carriers.

There is a "debilitating lack of clarity" over the Royal Navy's Carrier Strike programme, MPs have warned.

In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) accused ministers of being unclear over what they want the carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – to achieve.

The Commons public spending watchdog warned the Ministry of Defence's (MOD) "failure to fund several key supporting capabilities will restrict how it can use the carriers for many years".

Highlighting problems with the Carrier Strike programme, the cross-party committee said: "The new Crowsnest radar system has been delayed by 18 months because of poor contractor performance and inadequate departmental oversight.

"The department also lacks the support ships it needs to supply the carriers and has not yet developed a long-term solution to move people and goods to and from a carrier group."

The committee also highlighted a "disturbing lack of clarity" over costs for purchasing and supporting the F-35B Lightning II jet aircraft that will operate from the carriers, as well as the number the UK will need – or can afford – in the future.

The UK has ordered 48 of the aircraft so far and had originally intended to purchase 138, although its assumptions on how the carriers will be used have changed since then.

Further problems could be caused by the Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy now coming ahead of the delayed multi-year Whitehall spending settlement.

According to the panel, there has been "little discernible progress" since its 2018 report on the programme, despite it being a "vital component of the UK’s military power".

The UK has ordered 48 F-35Bs so far.

An MOD spokesman said the committee and the National Audit Office had recognised that "considerable progress" had been made since their last reports.

The spokesman added: “Carrier Strike is a complex challenge which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms. We remain committed to investing in this capability.

"Despite the disruptions of COVID-19, the Carrier Strike group is on track for its first operational deployment in 2021."

John Healey MP, shadow defence secretary, said "the Defence Secretary must get a grip of these problems".

"The Carrier Strike capability is central to our national defence but it is being undermined by the Government’s incompetence," he added.

While the PAC praised the MOD for the delivery of the aircraft carriers, it said the department must set out its ambitions in a "clear, funded plan – and deliver it", adding: "Decisions are needed to deliver the UK’s defence capability and to avoid yet more additional costs because of delays and uncertainty."

HMS Queen Elizabeth is set to deploy on operations for the first time next year (Picture: Royal Navy).

The committee’s chair, Meg Hillier MP, said: "As things stand the UK has two world-class aircraft carriers with limited capability because the wider debate about the UK’s strategic defence capability – and funding – has been repeatedly delayed.

"This debilitating lack of clarity threatens our national defences yet it’s not likely to be resolved when the strategic defence review and the comprehensive spending review look likely to be out of step with each other once again."

She added: "The MOD and the nation it’s responsible for defending cannot afford for this rare beacon of success, in delivering the two carriers, to descend into yet another failure to deliver defence capability.

"The MOD must recognise that is a real risk, a real risk to a vital part of our national defences, and it must demonstrate now a clear plan to capitalise on the massive investment the UK has already made – and deliver Carrier Strike."

Cover image: HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales alongside each other in Portsmouth (Picture: Royal Navy).