Select Committee on Defence Second Report



The Ministry of Defence plans to replace the Royal Navy's current strength of three aircraft carriers with two larger, more versatile carriers capable of carrying a more powerful force, including new carrier borne aircraft to replace the Harrier. This report analyses the progress of the Future Carrier and related Joint Combat Aircraft programmes.

On the Future Carrier programme, there is a serious risk that the two carriers will not enter service in 2012 and 2015 as originally planned. The main investment decision (Main Gate), which precedes the Demonstration and Manufacture phases, was originally planned to be taken in December 2003, but there is now no target date for this decision, although it is possible that an intermediate decision may be imminent that will serve as a partial Main Gate. Further delays are likely to impact upon the original In-Service Dates for the new carriers.

Procurement of the aircraft carriers is being undertaken under a novel 'Alliance' approach consisting of MoD and three commercial companies. This approach was announced almost three years ago, but some fundamental issues still remain to be resolved before the Alliance Agreement can be finalised.

The optimum shipbuild strategy for the carriers has yet to be decided. Delays to the letting of construction contracts for the two carriers are already impacting upon UK shipyards: this is threatening jobs and the survival of some UK shipyards. If work on the carriers is significantly delayed, it will coincide with a number of other naval shipbuilding programmes, putting pressure on the UK's naval shipbuilding capacity and perhaps forcing work abroad. We will need to know that the Ministry of Defence has addressed capacity issues in its Defence Industrial Strategy, which we have not seen when finalising this report.

On the Joint Combat Aircraft programme, the Joint Strike Fighter, a US-led programme, has been selected as the aircraft to operate from the new carriers. Weight problems on the variant of the Joint Strike Fighter which the UK is procuring have been mitigated, but risks remain and must be monitored closely.

The target In-Service Date for the Joint Strike Fighter was 2012 to coincide with the entry into service of the first new carrier. This has now been revised to 2014. If the first new carrier enters service in 2012, there is a risk that the Royal Navy will have a new carrier but no new aircraft to operate from it.

It is vital that the UK gets all the information and access to technology it requires from the US to have 'Sovereign Capability'—the ability to maintain the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and undertake future upgrades independently. The UK must receive adequate assurances that it will get all the information and access to technology it requires before the programme is too far advanced. If these assurances are not given, it is questionable whether the UK should continue its involvement in the programme.

Key issues remain to be resolved on both programmes. Delays to one or both programmes could result in a capability gap for the Royal Navy. In order to bridge the gap, it is likely that the lives of the current carriers and carrier aircraft will need to be extended. For this reason, decisions on the programme are needed as soon as possible.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 21 December 2005