Analysis The UK government has confirmed to shipbuilding executives that it will shortly place orders for two large new aircraft carriers, after years of uncertainty. But the move has been accompanied by renewed wrangling over Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts, and seems likely to foreshadow cuts to some other major equipment programme.
The Financial Times reports that Amyas Morse, MoD commercial director, telephoned BAE Systems and Vosper Thorneycroft (VT) this week with the carrier news. The intention is that BAE and VT, the last serious firms left standing in British shipbuilding, will effectively merge their shipyards in a joint venture to build the carriers.
The difficulty with this is that the carrier bills will start coming in swiftly - over the next few years - and the MoD budget is already heavily overbooked. A partial accounting solution has apparently been agreed, under which the MoD will be allowed to shift money between years and accounts in a fashion not normally permitted by the Treasury. But something will have to give eventually - and in exchange for temporary leniency, it appears that the MoD must now grit its teeth and save some money elsewhere.
"We are determined to do more to support our people," an MoD spokesman told the FT.
"We need to better prioritise... the equipment programme to better support the front line."
This means buying things which are actually useful for modern wars of the type Britain has fought almost continuously since the end of World War II, and which seem set to continue indefinitely. That is, mainly low-intensity land battles against enemies without major air or naval forces (though they may occasionally have small navies, small air forces and large numbers of old-fashioned land units, as in the Falklands or Gulf I and II).
Carriers will be handy for this type of war. So will the new generation of army vehicles - the Future Combat Systems - which have likewise got the nod in Whitehall. Mainstream politicians like Gordon Brown and his Tory rivals also consider that Trident nuclear-missile submarines are worth having, which means that the now-building Astute-class attack subs are also pretty safe. It seems certain that enough Astutes will be ordered to keep the Barrow submarine yard open until it can begin work on the Trident replacement.
But that still leaves plenty of stuff on the current MoD shopping list which would mainly be useful against some enemy which had a serious air force and/or navy but didn't have any nukes* - a fairly rare kind of country already, and set to get rarer.
The MoD could get rid of the new Nimrod MRA4 subhunter planes, for instance, which have tripled in price and are running years late. It could cancel the third tranche of enhanced Eurofighter Typhoon superjets, and force the RAF to use the 144 it has already ordered. (under current plans many would be discarded.) The MoD could stop buying horrifically expensive, not-very-good Type 45 destroyers after the six on order are built; the only thing they might be good for is defending aircraft carriers against ship-killing missiles and six will be plenty for that. (The carriers can actually look after themselves pretty well anyway, if they have the right planes.)
There are also some things which will be reasonably useful but which could be bought much more cheaply and quickly - for instance, the Future Lynx choppers from AgustaWestland. Hundreds of millions would be saved by axing them and buying bigger, better, cheaper copters from Sikorsky - and these would be delivered faster as well.
All that would more than sort out the MoD's finances, and leave plenty over; but it would mean a bloodbath for the UK's domestic arms industry. Blighty's arms makers, until lately, felt that their place at the tax trough was safe under the benevolent rule of Lord Drayson - the recently ousted MoD procurement minister.