Strategic indecision and penny-pinching have clipped the wings of the UK’s aircraft carriers, thus weakening the nation’s military clout, according to an MP committee report.
It notes a “disturbing lack of clarity” over how the Navy can afford to buy and support the Lightning II stealth jets that will give the carriers their teeth, as well as highlighting problems with a lack of supply ships and a troubled radar system.
The report, published on Nov. 13, praised the Department of Defense for rapidly bringing two carriers into service over the last three years, and for sticking closely to the £6.2 billion budget.
“However, its progress in developing the supporting capabilities that are essential for the carriers to operate has been much slower,” wrote Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
“The UK has two world-class aircraft carriers with limited capability because the wider debate about what the UK’s strategic capability needs has been repeatedly delayed,” she wrote in the report summary.
The findings echo a report by the National Audit Office in June, which said the carrier strike group would be hobbled for two years due to lack of supply ships and delays to the Crowsnest airborne radar and surveillance system—the all-important electronic eyes and ears that watch for incoming missiles.
The MPs report also highlights indecision over the purchasing of the U.S.-built next-generation F-35 fighter jet, also known as the Lightning II.
The Department of Defence has already said it needs more than the 48 Lightning jets currently on order.
“It originally intended to buy 138 aircraft,” the report stated. “But [the Department’s] assumptions for using the carriers have changed since 2015 and it failed to give us a clear answer on how many more jets it now needs.”
Currently, the government is carrying out a comprehensive review of national security policy.
Like many other nations, the UK has increasingly recognised that adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and China have adopted unconventional warfare approaches, side-stepping the strengths of long-established military powers.
Militaries are also increasingly focused on building up space war-fighting capacity and integrating cyber commands into their forces.
The Ministry of Defence has mooted plans to pivot away from traditional defense and “operate much more in the newest domains of space, cyber, and sub-sea,” UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in July.
But when that review has set a new strategic course for the Navy, the problems over the carriers won’t go away, according to the MPs, because it will likely be out of step with a comprehensive spending review.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said that both the committee and the National Audit Office had recognised that “considerable progress” had been made in the last three years.
“Carrier strike is a complex challenge which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms. We remain committed to investing in this capability,” the spokesman said, according to the Telegraph.
“Despite the disruptions of COVID-19, the carrier strike group is on track for its first operational deployment in 2021.”
The UK is one of only a handful of countries in the world with a fleet of two carriers. Only the United States has more, with 11 full-sized carriers and another 9 mini-carriers.