What do you call an aircraft carrier without aircraft?

The Ministry of Defence is currently building two aircraft carriers without knowing which planes will be able to fly from their decks, how many planes will use them, and for how many years there will be no planes using them at all. 

This was the remarkable admission at today’s Public Accounts Committee hearing from the Permanent Secretary of the MoD.

Building work on the carrier started following the signing of the contracts in July 2008.  You might therefore have thought that knowing what type of planes would use the carriers, and how many there would be, was essential when drawing up the specification for the size and features in the design.  Instead, the MoD appears to be continuing to spend money building the carriers, with a plan to then spend more money when specifications need to be changed in the future. 

This builds on the decision to sign the aircraft carriers when officials within the MoD knew there was not enough money to pay for them.  Thinking they would find the money behind the MoD sofa, after just seven months they realised that they still did not have sufficient funds.  As a result, they then delayed building work on the carriers.  This decision according to the independent National Audit Office wasted £1.6 billion.  Such a sum would pay for a lot of youth clubs.

Despite knowing they did not have the money to pay for the aircraft carriers, the Permanent Secretary did not seek a Letter of Direction (where he registers his concern at a Minister’s decision).  This was in breach of the rules that apply to Accounting Officers, as has been subsequently confirmed by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the top official in the Treasury. 

The decision to go ahead and build the carriers without having sufficient money, without knowing which planes they would take, and without knowing how many planes they would fly, was taken by Gordon Brown in order to secure jobs in his own constituency where the carriers are being built.  Taxpayers now face years of paying the costs of building carriers which, at least for their first nine years, will have no planes on them at all.  Even after this is it likely that most of the hangers will be empty, with the aircraft carriers carrying just a fraction of the number of planes they can fit in their hangars.

Over recent months money has been spent on preparing for larger, more capable F35C fighter jets which require “cats and traps” to enable them to be launched at sea.  However, if the vertical landing F35B planes are now used (as media reports suggest), then this capability will not be required.  Money spent on the “cats and traps will be wasted.  We will also be left with carriers using a less capable aircraft, which is more expensive to maintain, and out of service for longer periods.

Last year the Public Accounts Committee warned that the costs of the aircraft carrier programme was not fully understood, that there was no Senior Responsible Owner, and that there was a risk that short-term budget pressures would drive decision-making, causing greater long-term cost.  Given the lack of information to Parliament from the Permanent Secretary today on what type of planes will fly on the aircraft carriers, from what date, and in what number, I fail to understand how Parliament can scrutinise the value for money of this programme.

Even in the comedy Yes Minister, building aircraft carriers without planes to fly on them would have seemed beyond a joke.

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