British independent public spending watchdog, “The National Audit Office”, has published a report into the ability of the MOD to successfully deliver Carrier Strike capability successfully. The report, published today examines how the Department has managed the programme since 2017 and how it is addressing the risks towards achieving the full capabilities of a carrier strike group. In other words, the report states concern about transforming process from a ‘show force’ to a credible carrier strike group.
Carrier Strike provides the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft from a ship to undertake a range of military tasks. The UK has been without such a capability since 2010 when the Ministry of Defence (the Department) retired the Harrier aircraft that had operated from its Invincible Class aircraft carriers.
Carrier Strike will be based around two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers– the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy – together with Lightning II jets. Depending on the type of deployment, the carriers will be accompanied by at least one destroyer, an anti-submarine warfare frigate, and ships for support and resupply.
As at April 2020, the Department had two new aircraft carriers and 18 Lightning II jets. The Department expects to have an initial Carrier Strike capability by December 2020 and is working towards its first operational deployment, with the US, in 2021. Its next milestone is to achieve full operating capability for Carrier Strike in 2023 – at which point it will be able to support two UK Lightning II squadrons (up to 24 jets) from one of the carriers. The Department’s longer-term aim is that, by 2026, it can undertake a wide range of air operations and support amphibious operations worldwide.
As at April 2020, the Department had spent £6.0 billion on the Lightning II project and received 18 jets, in line with its delivery schedule.
The Crowsnest airborne radar system will provide a crucial element of protection for a carrier strike group. Still, the initially contracted capability will not be available until September 2021, 18 months later than planned.
The Carrier Strike capability is a long-term investment, with the carriers expected to have a 50-year life. All the commands are facing pressure to make savings in their equipment programmes, including the capabilities needed for Carrier Strike. In November 2019 Air Command postponed buying a second Lightning II deployed spares pack for one year on affordability grounds. Air Command has also reassessed how frequently it can fly the jets, based on its experience of using them. It has reduced Lightning II’s future flying hours by 20% as a savings measure.
The Department may not have made sufficient provision in later years’ budgets to reflect the full costs of operating Carrier Strike. Failure to make realistic cost estimates creates a risk that the Department will face increased financial pressure in the future, perpetuating the cycle of short-term decision-making that we have seen in our reports on the Equipment Plan. There is a risk that budget provisions may not cover all of Carrier Strike’s future needs; for instance, there are doubts that budgets for future years will be sufficient to fund routine deployments and keep both carriers ready for use at short notice.