Thursday, December 15, 2005

I don't believe this… and neither should you

Defence secretary John Reid yeaterday gave the go-ahead for the design of the two new super-carriers, awarding work to an alliance of shipbuilders, including BAE, Babcock, Thales and the VT Group.

This is the £3.5 billion programme to replace for the Royal Navy's HMS Invincible, Ark Royal and Illustrious aircraft carriers, and we are told that this announcement means that firms can now embark upon detailed design of the carriers, with the MoD spending £300 million to develop the design of the ships to the point at which manufacturing can begin.

The work, we are told, is then to be carried out across Britain in four main blocks and will represent 60 percent of the work, with the remaining 40 percent to be put out for tender.

Reid claims the decision will safeguard 10,000 jobs, although the final investment decision will not be made for 12 to 18 months, to allow the designs for the two 65,000-ton ships to progress. A date for delivery of the ships, likely to be after 2013, will be agreed next year, he says.

That, at least, is the fiction but, as we reported earlier, the fate of the key component of the carrier force – the Joint Strike Fighter – has yet to be decided.

The uncertainty stems from the reluctance of the US to release key technology in relation to the JSF, and the implications have been discussed widely, not least here and here.

Should the £10 billion JSF project not go ahead, the whole carrier project will have to be revamped as only this aircraft has short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities, which necessitate a unique design. Yet, despite the real uncertainties, today’s announcement on the MoD website is gaily accompanied by an illustration (above) showing the JSF and the specially-designed carrier.

From all accounts, however, the MoD is very far from a position of being able to confirm its continued participation in the JSF project and, therefore, at the very least, Reid's announcement seems premature. It also seems odd, as if the fate of the JSF had been settled, then surely he would have declared that at the same time.

Yet Reid is silent on the project, which suggests that there are still problems. His confident assertions on the carriers, therefore, should not be believed.


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