Carriers, Balancing the Books and Commonsense
The UK’s present secretary of state for defence must not be intending to remain long in post. His declaration that the MoD’s books are now balanced – with the added benefit of an £8bn excess to buffer any future difficulties – is the rooster crow of a man looking ahead to greater things.
How long the books remain balanced will be interesting to see. Probably until Phillip Hammond leaves and/or the government falls.
This is inexplicable, because the MoD’s ability to manage projects remains unchanged; and in the replacement for Trident project alone there are no alternative suppliers, and so no alternatives to paying up when the costs inevitably rise.
The carrier saga has been blighted by ignorance and indecision. Nobody knows how much extra it will cost to have a “proper” carrier with catapults and traps for” real” aircraft. Various figures have been bandied around, and at one point the American manufacturers chimed in saying the MoD estimates were incorrect and far too high.
So let’s look at it another way…? If we don’t have a proper carrier carrying proper aircraft, we won’t have a ship that can work with the Americans, the French or any other nations flying proper aircraft at sea. The ‘Harrier’ jump jet type aircraft now proposed for the ‘cheap’ carrier, will have a shorter range, carry less munitions and be more expensive to operate. And we have no idea of how much it will cost.
So we can say with confidence that we’ll end up with a carrier that isn’t as good as it should be, which in the world of blue water naval operations means that it’s much easier to sink – so doesn’t get used properly, which means you’ve wasted every single one of the billions it cost to buy it. Having your carrier sunk wastes all the money too.
So even though we suspect a proper carrier will cost more to start with (but nobody knows how much – or how much more), we can say with far more certainty that it will do what it’s supposed to do. This means that every single of the billions it cost the Nation is very much less likely to be wasted. As for the extra cost of a proper carrier, this is an MoD project, so it’s all going to cost more anyway, and when you’re talking such huge sums of money, the only thing that’s meaningful is whether you get something useful at the end.
The old saying “it’s better to suffer once when you pay for something good, than to suffer every time you use something cheaper that isn’t” is the maxim the Prime Minister ought to be using here. But he’s probably beset by bean-counters comparing the costs of frigates, fighter aircraft and primary schools.
Affordability isn’t the game in defence. All that kit is there to prevent a war, but when you need to use it, it’s got to be the best. The cost of losing a war is very much greater. Capability is what’s needed – something the MoD seems both to have forgotten, and to be very short of in managing itself.