Since 2017, the Ministry of Defence (the Department) has made significant progress in developing its core Carrier Strike capabilities, having successfully brought two aircraft carriers into service, formed the first squadron of Lightning II jets and built most of the UK infrastructure needed to support a carrier strike group. The Department did well to build the two carriers in line with its timetable and keep within 3% of the revised budget of £6.2bn set in 2013.However, its progress in developing the supporting capabilities that are essential for the carriers to operate has been much slower. In particular, 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. These issues remain unresolved after many years and there has been little discernible progress since our 2018 report.
There remains a disturbing lack of clarity about the costs associated with purchasing and supporting the Lightning II jets, as well as about how many more the Department will need or can afford in the future. Furthermore, the Department has still not developed an adequate understanding of the support and operating costs of a carrier strike group. As Carrier Strike remains a vital component of the UK’s military power, the lack of clarity is concerning, especially at a time when there is already enormous pressure on the defence budget. 2021 will be a crucial year for the Department as it examines its ambition for Carrier Strike in the light of the forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence Development and Foreign Policy, learns from its first operational deployment, and integrates the different parts of a carrier strike group.
The Department must translate its ambitions into a clear, funded plan. Otherwise, there is a real risk that it will fail to capitalise on the huge investment that the UK has already made in this capability.
As it stands the UK has two world-class aircraft carriers with limited capability because the wider debate about what the UK’s strategic capability needs has been repeatedly delayed. This debilitating lack of clarity is 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. The link between funding and delivering the major projects necessary for future capability is clear. Decisions are needed to deliver our defence capability and to avoid additional costs because of delays and uncertainty.
Published: 13 November 2020