A lack of Royal Navy support vessels will hamper Britain’s new aircraft carriers, a watchdog revealed today.
A radar for the £6.2billion carriers is 18 months late and costs for their warplanes have ballooned by £1.4billion, the National Audit Office said.
It published its latest report on the vast “Carrier Strike” project which includes HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales warships.
A £1.5billion deal for three Fleet Solid Support ships to provide the carrier group with food, ammunition and explosives has been shelved amid a row over where they should be built, and whether a foreign shipyard can do it cheaper than a UK consortium.
“The MoD has made slow progress developing three new support ships, which are crucial to Carrier Strike’s operation,” says the NAO.
“It has only one ship able to resupply the carriers with the supplies they need, such as ammunition and food.
“The MoD has long been aware that this will restrict Carrier Strike, and the cancellation of a recent competition to build new supply ships – because of concerns over value for money – mean they will not be available until the late 2020s.”
Defence chiefs are still stalling on ordering all the F-35 Lightning jets they want, including planes which will fly from the carriers.
“Since the NAO last reported in 2017, the approved cost of the Lightning project has increased by 15% from £9.1billion to £10.5billion because of additional expenditure on system upgrades, integration of UK weapons and sustainment costs,” revealed the watchdog.
“The MoD is planning to review the number and types of jets it needs, but buying fewer aircraft would affect how Carrier Strike can be used.”
And the Whitehall spending watchdog said the new Crowsnest airborne radar system “which is a key part of Carrier Strike’s protection – is 18 months late”.
It added: “This will affect Carrier Strike’s capabilities for its first two years of operation.”
Commons Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “The Ministry of Defence has lofty ambitions for the carriers but hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.
“Worryingly, it still doesn’t know the full cost of supporting and operating Carrier Strike.
“It must now ensure that the three frontline commands involved sing from the same hymn sheet.
“Otherwise, the Royal Navy will be stuck with a hollowed-out capability and unable to satisfy expectations.”
Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said: “This is the latest in a long line of NAO reports to say the Government can’t get its defence equipment budgets or buying right.
“Ministers are letting Britain’s defence down.
“For the last 10 years ministers have left Britain with no capability for ship-launched aircraft to deal with military conflicts or humanitarian relief.
“Carrier Strike is Britain’s next generation defence force but despite some progress it is still undermined by the failure to secure sufficient munitions, tactical IT systems and the critical radar system, which will affect Carrier Strike’s capabilities in its first two years.
“The Defence Secretary must get a grip of these problems and guarantee this vital part of the nation’s defences.”
NAO chief Gareth Davies said: “The MoD has made good progress with the big-ticket items needed to deliver Carrier Strike, such as the carriers, the first squadron of jets and the new infrastructure.
“But it must pay much greater attention to the supporting capabilities needed to make full use of Carrier Strike.
“The MoD also needs to get a firmer grip on the future costs of Carrier Strike.
“By failing to understand their full extent, it risks adding to the financial strain on a defence budget that is already unaffordable.”
An MoD spokesman said: “Carrier Strike is a complex challenge, which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms.
“We remain committed to investing in this capability, which demonstrates the UK’s global role.
“Despite the disruptions of Covid-19, the Carrier Strike group is on track for its first operational deployment.”