Philip Hammond insisted he would “not blindly pursue” a key defence programme personally endorsed by the prime minister as he announced a U-turn over the type of fighters needed for the military‘s two new aircraft carriers.
The defence secretary said the delays and costs of putting the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) wanted by Downing Street on the carriers were now too great, and the Ministry of Defence had accepted “our approach must change”.
Putting a brave face on the decision, MoD officials admitted it was easy to be clever with hindsight, but rejected suggestions the about-face had been caused by the rush to complete the 2010 strategic defence and security review (SDSR).
In the review, David Cameron demanded the military buy the F35-C version of the JSF, which needs “cats and traps” to launch it from deck. He then mocked Labour for buying the less capable F35-B, which takes off like a harrier jump jet.
But the MoD has pirouetted again, with Hammond telling MPs the costs of converting the carriers to take “cats and traps” had risen so much, and the delays to the F35-C had become so great, it was right to revert back.
Defence officials said the MoD had already spent £40m-£50m to convert one of the carriers. They predicted the total cost of putting “cats and traps” on both of the new ships would total £5bn – 10 times the amount estimated in 2005.
However, a source denied Cameron’s decision could be described as a mistake. “Hindsight is an easy thing. We can all make judgments about what happened last week. We know more now than we knew then. The judgment [in 2010] was a reasonable one. It is easy from this position to say we would have made a different choice.”
The source said further analysis of costs in recent months had shown “unexpected” problems.
In his statement to the Commons, Hammond also tried to deflect criticism from Downing Street. “The 2010 SDSR decision on carriers was right at the time, but the facts have changed.”
The carrier programme has been dogged by delays and technical problems that were compounded by the decision to buy the F35-C. Though it is a better all-round fighter than its sister aircraft, putting “cats and traps” on the ships pushed up costs so much the MoD was told it would have to mothball the first of the carriers, the Queen Elizabeth, as soon as it was built.
By reverting back to the jump jet version of the JSF, which is much closer to production, the Queen Elizabeth should now be ready for operations, equipped with 12 fighters, by 2018.
The decision also means the RAF will fly the “B” version of the JSF, with each aircraft, being built by the US firm Lockheed Martin, now thought to cost between £50m and £100m.
The U-turn was supported by the heads of the three services and the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, as well as Hammond, the defence source said.
The defence secretary asked Downing Street to endorse the move in March, but was rebuffed.
During sharp exchanges at Westminster, the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, accused the government of wasting two years, and claimed the government’s approach was “as incoherent as it is ludicrous”.
Murphy called on the prime minister to apologise for his incompetence, and questioned why the government had been in such a rush to scrap the UK’s only aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, before a replacement was available.
“Standing at the dispatch box, the prime minister announced his plans to reverse Labour’s carrier strike policy, scrap the Harrier, sell Ark Royal, build two carriers but mothball one, sack trainee pilots and downgrade British power at sea.
“But this U-turn has now gone full circle and nothing has been gained. Two years wasted.”
The former Labour defence secretary Bob Ainsworth told MPs the government had taken the right decision. The U-turn had brought “some sanity” to the carrier programme, he said. “But I can’t go along with the excuse … that the facts have changed,” he said.
“The fundamental facts were there at the time and have not changed. We have been in an extremely expensive cul-de-sac for the last 18 months as a result of a shambles of an SDSR.”
Hammond said he was “not interested in trading insults about what happened in the past”.