Luke Coffey previously served as a Special Adviser to Liam Fox in the Ministry of Defence. Follow Luke on Twitter.
The Government made the right decision to change from the Carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) back to the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the JSF. However, this is not because David Cameron and Liam Fox were both wrong when they agreed in 2010 that the Carrier variant of the JSF was better for the Royal Navy—which it is, but because the assumed cost of equipping the carriers with this variant has unreasonably increased out of control.
When the Coalition Government was formed in May 2010 it was no surprise that it would want to examine all the options for Britain’s future aircraft carriers. During the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) a number of options were considered for the carrier programme, including the option of cancelling the programme altogether. Many supported this latter option. However, it was soon clear that the contracts signed by the Labour Government meant that cancelling the carriers would cost more than building them. Furthermore, as a maritime nation, Britain needed them. Cancelling them was not an option.
As clearly stated in the 2010 SDSR the Carrier variant of the JSF is a more capable aircraft. It has a longer range, it can carry a heavier payload if needed and it has a cheaper through-life operating cost. This is why the Carrier variant was chosen over STOVL. However, there was one catch with choosing the Carrier variant —catapults and arrestor gear, commonly known as “cats and traps”, had to be first installed on the carrier.
During the SDSR process Ministers were told by MoD officials that the estimated cost for installing “cats and traps” on just one of the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers was between £350m to £500m. Although installing “cats and traps” meant a slight delay to the carriers it seemed to be worth it. There was a view that for once decisions needed to be taken in the long-term interests of defence and not in the short-term interests of politics. The carriers will be in service for 50 years. To put this into the proper context, the last Captain of a Queen Elizabeth Class carrier has not yet even been born. Delaying by a few years to get the best capability that will span half a century seemed like the right thing to do. Some MoD officials even suggested that the savings made from the reduced through-life running cost of the Carrier variant meant that the “cats and traps” will pay for themselves overtime.
We now know that this decision was based on poor advice to Ministers. Only 12 months after the SDSR was published the estimated cost of installing “cats and traps” on one carrier had increased to £2 billion—more than the Foreign Office’s annual operating budget. Sadly, I saw similar examples of this play out time and again whilst working in the MoD. Advice would come up to Ministers that would regularly change or simply be incorrect. This would make Ministers hesitant to make definitive statements on matters of policy for the fear that they would later be told that what they said was wrong. Many times, especially during the pressure cooker environment that preceded the SDSR’s publication, officials would tell Ministers more of what they wanted to hear, instead of what they needed to hear. How else could you explain a cost estimate that increases by almost 300% in only 12 months?
There is a lot of discussion on how the change back to the STOVL variant will impact the interoperability with the U.S. or France. In practice it won’t. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) flies STOVL aircraft off their Assault Ships which, although not considered to be an aircraft carrier by American standards, is still larger than any European aircraft carrier currently in service. With the STOVL variant of the JSF there is still scope for UK-US interoperability and cooperation. Frankly, it hardly matters to the Pentagon what variant of the JSF the UK chooses as long as the UK stays committed to the JSF programme.
The concerns about French interoperability are even more tiresome. The rhetoric about interoperability with the French was largely window dressing for the 2010 UK-French Defence Treaty. After the recent election of Francois Hollande I suspect that UK-French defence cooperation will be placed on the backburner anyway. Yes, in theory, the Carrier variant would mean that a British plane could land on a French carrier and vice-versa but this would be the extent of the interoperability. In practice, with the UK flying JSF, and the French flying Rafale, it is not practical to operate two different types of fast jets from the same aircraft carrier for logistical reasons.
Due to poor advice from a few officials inside the Department the MoD will pay a reputational price in the eyes of the public while the Ministers will pay a political price at the Dispatch Box. It is likely that the officials in the Department who were actually behind this debacle will pay no price at all. Those who failed to estimate the actual cost of “cats and traps” to the tune of £2 billion, a level of incompetence that has forced a Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, should be at least removed from their positions, if not fired.
Nevertheless, Ministers can delegate authority but not responsibility. Regardless of the incorrect estimates that were given by officials, Ministers are still responsible for what goes good and bad inside their Department. This is why seeing Philip Hammond at the Dispatch Box taking responsibility for a problem, and offering a solution to fix it, was so refreshing. If his Labour predecessors did the same when they were in power the MoD wouldn’t be in the poor financial state in which it finds itself today.
Labour’s biggest complaint seems to be that the Government has wasted £50 million by changing the variant of JSF. What Labour doesn’t tell you is that the UK spends £50 million every 9 hours on debt interest payments as a result of the economic incompetence of Gordon Brown’s Government—a Government in which the Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, was proudly a member.
The STOVL variant of JSF may not be as capable as the Carrier variant but it is better to have a good capability than no capability. Flying a fifth-generation fighter, regardless of what variant it might be, will place the UK in the Premier League of air power capability—ahead of both Russia and China.
Beyond the perceived embarrassment of the so called “u-turn” we should judge the Government on what it is actually doing. It is ensuring that two carriers, instead of one, could be operational; that the in-service dates for these carriers are brought forward by almost half a decade; that the UK will operate some of the most advanced fast jets in the history of warfare; and that the British taxpayer will save almost £2 billion in the process.
If the Opposition, which is up to its eyeballs in hypocrisy after its habitual mismanagement of the carrier programme whilst in Government, does not agree with the Government’s decision then what are they proposing instead? The answer is nothing. The Opposition lacks a strategy, a plan and all credibility on defence.