As the MOD reveals that it is putting the HMS Ark Royal up for auction, Channel 4 News learns that one the likeliest destinations is a scrap metal yard.
The vessel joins the HMS Exeter, HMS Southampton and HMS Nottingham on the website www.edisposals.com. As befitting an auction for items of this scale, the viewing will take place on both 3 and 4 May and potential buyers will have until 10am on 13 June to place their bids.
Along with their offer, bidders must submit a proposal for how they intend to use the vessel to the Ministry of Defence for approval. The website is run by the MOD’s Defence Equipment and Support arm.
Spokesman Tim Foreman insisted that the future of the Ark Royal, which was scrapped in defence cuts, was not simply a question of a sale but that the ship would go to a suitable buyer: “We need to be assured of the viability of the person or organization, including how they intend to store, maintain and dispose of the ship before the sale can be agreed upon.”
The countries you would think of who would buy it would be places like Spain, Italy or India. The fact it is advertised for sale would indicate that this has not happened. Professor Ron Smith
The Coalition Government decided to decommission the Ark Royal last year, three years ahead of when it had been planned, as part of the military cuts.
The move had instant effect, and Channel 4 News was there to see it come into port at Portsmouth for the last time in December.
In its place, two carriers are being developed but will not be in action until 2020, meaning that by the time they are afloat, the UK will have been without any aircraft carriers for a decade.
Ron Smith, Professor of Applied Economics at Birkbeck University, who specialises in defence economics, told Channel 4 News that any sale would be subject to export controls under the Department for Business and Skills, so no trade could happen with countries who have military sanctions already imposed on them.
This would similarly apply for the breakdown of equipment on the ship, for example radar and electronics.
Professor Smith suggested that the presence of the ship in this auction could indicate that the usual states who would be approached to purchase large military equipment have indicated they are not interested: “If someone was buying it as a warship it could be used as a helicopter carrier. The countries you would think of who would buy it would be places like Spain, Italy or India. The fact it is advertised for sale would indicate that this has not happened.”
The other suggestion is that the ship could be turned to scrap.
Professor Smith said: “At the moment metal prices are very high and general commodity prices are very high.”
The UK has one of the highest funded military in the world and so it is difficult to see who could afford to buy the Ark Royal, make the costly alterations and refurbishments to fit specific needs and then maintain the huge cost of accommodating the required manpower. However, Professor Smith indicated that recent events in North Africa and the Middle East could make an aircraft carrier an attractive purchase.
“Libyan events have indicated that it can be quite useful to have an aircraft carrier that you can move around. In a sense, Cameron taking salesmen with him around the Middle East on his recent tour shows the area is still a natural market.”
At the moment metal prices are very high. Professor Ron Smith considers whether the Ark Royal could be sold for scrap
Currently Tornadoes bombing Libya are flying out of RAF Marham in Norfolk, and air bases in Cyprus and Italy could be used if the action continues. However, what if a conflict begins that is out of reach of a viable air base? Would the lack of an aircraft carrier mean that the Ark Royal might be needed to come out of retirement?
Bethany Torvell of The Navy Campaign told Channel 4 News that they believe the HMS Illustrious could be a legitimate interim aircraft carrier if future conflicts would require such a naval presence: “The HMS Illustrious can be kept in service until 2015 for around £35million and would be far more a likely move than a u-turn on the Ark Royal.
“Illustrious would be perfectly serviceable as an air craft carrier and has taken part in exercises with Harriers deployed on her previously.”
The Ark Royal has been the name given to the most prestigious vessel in the British fleet for over 400 years, when the original ship, built for Sir Walter Raleigh, lead the English galleon to defeat the Spanish Armada. Torvell told Channel 4 News that she hopes the latest vessel will have as big a historical legacy as those before it and is purchased to turn into a museum piece.