The UK government on Thursday reversed plans regarding the fast jets that it is buying for future aircraft carriers, abandoning the conventional take-off version of the F35 and instead purchase a version with vertical take-off and landing.
Philip Hammond, defence secretary, said the government had taken the decision to avoid a billion pound overrun in the cost of creating a future carrier capability. But the decision is a blow to the prospects for future defence co-operation between the UK and France.
Mr Hammond told MPs: “When the facts change the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind.’’
But Jim Murphy, shadow defence secretary, said David Cameron should apologise for his government’s “incompetence’’. The carrier programme was “chaotic” and ministers had “squandered’’ £250m as a result of the move, said Mr Murphy.
The MoD said that the UK could, for little extra cost, operate both its future aircraft carriers at the end of this decade, rather than just one. That decision would be made by government in a future strategic defence review, defence officials said. In its 2010 defence review, the UK had said its second aircraft carrier would either be sold or mothballed.
In the 2010 defence review, the government said it would buy the conventional version of the F35, which uses catapults to get airborne and arrestor gear to land. But Mr Hammond said the estimated cost of installing the launch system on carriers had risen from £1bn to £2bn.
By moving to the jump-jet version of the F35, the UK will now get full carrier strike capability in 2020, at least three years earlier than planned, Mr Hammond said.
The jump-jet version of the F35 has less operational range than the conventional take-off version, which raises questions about whether the decision will undermine UK defence capability.
But the decision is strongly backed by General Sir David Richards, Chief of Defence Staff, and has the unanimous support of Britain’s three service chiefs.
“The person who has won the service chiefs’ respect here is David Cameron, who has taken a decision which looks a bit uncomfortable today but is in Britain’s long-term interest,” an MoD official said.
But it is a blow to Franco-British co-operation at the very moment when Mr Cameron needs to start working with François Hollande, France’s newly elected president.
France could have operated its Rafale jets on a UK carrier which integrated catapults and arrestor gear, but this will not now be possible.
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