Aircraft carrier procurement hits stormy waters again

19 March 2012

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19 March 2012 | Adam Leach

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) could make an about-turn on its decision to alter the landing mechanism on two aircraft carriers and switch from the F-35B to the F-35C fighter jets over fears of rising costs.

In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) the government elected to delay the manufacture of two Queen Elizabeth (QE) class aircraft carriers in a bid to reduce costs. At the same time it decided to switch to F-35C fighter jets and alter the landing mechanism of the carrier so US and French jets could also use it in order to get greater value for money.

However, now it seems the MoD may go back to its original plan, after critical reports emerged over the weekend. The Guardian said the alterations could cost between £1.9 and £2 billion. While The Daily Telegraph said a U-turn would cost around £250 million, which would be “embarrassing” but less costly than pressing ahead with the changes.

Commenting on the potential U-turn, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: “This would be one of the biggest public procurement messes for many decades. David Cameron has potentially wasted more than a year and squandered millions.‬”

The MoD said a reversal of the plan to change the carriers remains a possibility and defence secretary Phillip Hammond will announce his decision before the Easter recess. Regarding the changes to the aircraft carriers, a spokesman said: “The intention to move to a ‘cats and traps’ based carrier strike capability was always subject to a detailed piece of work to assess the costs and risks involved in converting a QE class carrier. That work is ongoing.” They added: “We are currently finalising the 2012-13 budget and balancing the Equipment Plan. This means reviewing all programmes, including elements of the carrier strike programme, to validate costs and ensure risks are properly managed.”

Reports also emerged over the weekend that the MoD has invited companies to take part in a consultation to look at outsourcing procurement. The Sunday Times reported that companies including Serco, Babcock, Deloitte and BAE Systems have been invited to take part in the consultation. It also reported that the aim is to have a procurement partner in place by the autumn. But the MoD would not confirm reports. A spokesman told SM: “A number of options for the future of Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) are being considered but no decisions have yet been made. Work is ongoing to examine how the DE&S can continue to run effectively until any changes associated with the Materiel Strategy take effect.”

SM reported on the proposals in November and explored the options under examination in more detail last month. 

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