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.

2 thoughts on “Carriers, Balancing the Books and Commonsense”

  1. Hello Hugh,

    I was referred to you and your website by a fan of yours. The quote you gave, “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 right on the mark. A penny wise and a dollar foolish is another similar saying in America. However, let’s not knock the “bean counters” because like Sun Tzu would advocate, you always need to consider the costs of war. You spend what you need, not what you want.

    It would be an honor if you would participate in an interview with us at Our readers would learn much from you. Email me at if you are interested.

    Thomas Huynh, founder

  2. Hello Thomas,

    I”d be very happy to talk with you. I’m also a fan of Sun Tzu, who as we both know, was talking about rulers counting the cost of going to war compared to the possible benefits, before declaring. I’m not sure what you mean about not spending what you want rather than what you need…. I don’t think paraphrasing the Rolling Stones song quite works in this context!

    But in fact you’ve given me a them for another blog so many thanks!!

    All best,


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