The Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped along with its fleet of Harrier jets as the coalition prepares to announce cuts in the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
David Cameron will announce this afternoon the scrapping of the aircraft carrier “with immediate effect” and is also expected to confirm that the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent will be delayed.
Without HMS Ark Royal Britain will be without an aircraft carrier capable of flying jets for up to a decade while two new vessels costing £5.2bn are being built.
Spared the axe
That carrier project has been spared the axe because it would cost the taxpayer more to scrap it.
The first aircraft carrier is expected to come into service in 2016, but it will need to be converted to allow it to be used by jets from allied nations and that could take several years.
Neither of the new carriers will be used by British military jets until at least 2020 and one could be mothballed and possibly sold under future options.
“We will look at the modern threats that we face in a modern world and make sure our Armed Forces are fit to face them.” David Cameron
Defence Secretary Liam Fox insists the gap in Britain’s aircraft carrier capability will not affect its defence abilities. His reassurance comes despite warnings from Navy chiefs.
David Cameron reportedly told his Cabinet it was one of the hardest decisions he has made since becoming Prime Minister.
David Cameron addressed members of all three of the Armed Forces this morning.
He said: “We will make sure that Britain is well defended and we have a set of Armed Forces that actually are fit for the modern world. We will look at the real threats that we face today in our world, whether it’s from cyber terrorism, whether it is from international terrorism or terrorism that comes from dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland.
“We will look at the modern threats that we face in a modern world and make sure our Armed Forces are fit to face them.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “We’ve got a big announcement to make this afternoon about how we are going to equip our country for the future, to make sure people are safe and secure at a time when we face a whole range of new threats and where we’ve got a lot of big challenges, to make sure that people’s skills and livelyhoods here are protected where we can protect them, to make sure that we don’t spend money on things that we don’t need.”
HMS Ark Royal - the facts
• HMS Ark Royal celebrated 25 years in service earlier this year.
• HMS Ark Royal was built at Swan Hunter's dockyard in Newcastle.
• Construction on the hull began in 1978 and the ship was commissioned into service in 1985.
• Ark Royal entered service on 1 July 1985 and was commissioned in the presence of the Queen Mother four months later.
• The construction cost was £320m but the ship was delivered by Swan Hunter four-and-a-half-months ahead of schedule, with some mid-build alterations having been made due to lessons learned from the Falklands conflict.
• Ark Royal - motto "Zeal Does Not Rest" - is the fifth ship to bear the name.
• The first Ark Royal, originally built for Sir Walter Raleigh, became the flagship of the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
• The third Ark Royal took part in the sinking of the Bismarck.
• Ark Royal IV was the subject of a well known documentary, "Sailor", in 1978.
• The current Ark Royal helped bring peace to Bosnia in 1993/94 and, following an extensive refit and upgrade in the late 1990s, took part in the second Gulf War in 2003.
• Ark Royal is one of the Royal Navy's two operational Invincible Class aircraft carriers. The ship can support up to 24 aircraft anywhere in the world and provides a mixture of war-fighting, peace support and disaster relief capabilities.
Armed Forces cuts
All three services of the Armed Forces are facing manpower cuts, with the Army expected to lose large numbers of tanks and RAF bases could be closed and fighter jets axed.
Yesterday Cameron signalled a shift in the UK’s security priorities with the threat of international terrorism and cyber attacks high on the agenda.
Who knows who: Military big guns - who the main players are in this week's defence review
Publishing the National Security Strategy, Cameron said the current defence structure was “woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today”.
A large-scale conventional military attack was ranked only in the third tier of security threats to Britain. Labour claimed this was being used as “cover” for a “rushed” defence review.
The SDSR will underpin moves towards mobile military units, intelligence-gathering and Special Forces. This will move strategy away from tank brigades and jet fighters which dominated defence thinking during the Cold War.
An intervention by the Prime Minister kept defence cuts at the Ministry of Defence to around eight per cent rather than the 10 per cent wanted by the Treasury as part of deficit-reduction efforts. He was advised by military chiefs it could affect the Afghanistan war and Washington expressed fears too.
Cameron is expected to blame Labour’s £38bn overspend for the military having to find greater savings over the coming decade.
Dr Fox admitted personnel numbers would “inevitably… fall a bit” but he refused to discuss reports the forces could lose as many as 20,000 servicemen.
Some 7,000 Army troops have been reported, but it is predicted they will escape the most serious cuts at least while operations continue in Afghanistan.
Cameron's got it in for tanks
And this could be bad day if you drive a big tank, writes Channel 4 News Reporter Carl Dinnen.
David Cameron's got it in for the tanks. In yesterday's Security Strategy he said the UK's military equipment is "too rooted in a Cold-War mind-set ...
Main battle tanks aplenty, but not enough protected vehicles to move our forces on the insurgency battlefield."
That Security Strategy sets the scene for today's Defence Review so the big tanks could be in big trouble. Designed to fight World War 3 on the central European plains they may not be something the government wants to keep.
Obama phone call
Last night Cameron phoned US President Barack Obama to explain the strategy, assuring him Britain will remain a “first rate military power and a robust ally”, despite its defence cuts.
F35s to be acquired is reported to be falling from 138 to 40 and the number of large Navy vessels is expected to be reduced by more than a fifth from 24 to 19.
The RAF is thought to have saved its fleet of Tornados but there have been last minute pleas to save two bases in Scotland.
Politicians and union leaders warned of job losses if RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth are closed, which accounts for around 16 per cent of employment in the region.
Reports last night suggested the bases may be used to house soldiers returning from Germany, where all troops are being withdrawn.
‘New age of uncertainty’
Although the UK needed to be capable of responding to a military crisis, the NSS said the focus of diplomatic, intelligence and defence capabilities should be on preventing such crises materialising in the first place.
In a joint foreword, Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it was about “gearing Britain up for this new age of uncertainty”.
They wrote: “As a Government, we have inherited a defence and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today.
“We are determined to learn from those mistakes and make the changes needed.”
Trident decision delay
Cameron is also expected to delay the “main gate” decision on Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, beyond the present timescale of the end of 2014.
He is expected to say putting off the construction of submarines, which will significantly reduce medium-term costs, will not risk the principle of “continuous at sea deterrence”.
A technical analysis suggests the service life of the Vanguard class submarine fleet can be safely extended.
MoD sources confirmed that it would go ahead under the review with the building of the fifth, sixth and seventh Astute-class hunter-killer submarines.
Astute is seen as crucial if a Trident replacement is delayed as it ensures work for highly skilled scientists and engineers in the interim.
The Treasury has insisted the deterrent can be financed by the MoD’s budget, despite Trident not being part of the SDSR and protestations it is traditionally funded separately.
The delay will be welcomed by the Liberal Democrat coalition partners who are opposed to a like-for-like replacement and secured the value-for-money review as part of the power-share deal.
Cameron, Fox and the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup will meet personnel from all three services this morning.