The National Audit Office has confirmed that F-35 fighter jets should be flying from new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth by the year 2020, if all goes to plan.
The Delivering Carrier Strike report from the UK watchdog said: “The current target of accepting the carrier from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance by the end of 2017 is achievable.”
The Ministry of Defence has reportedly “accelerated” its purchase of F-35Bs to ensure that the Queen Elizabeth is operational by December 2020. This would bring the timescale for the carrier forward by a year from the usual predictions of reaching initial operating capability by 2021.
The MoD is thought to be budgeting around £100m each for its first batch of F-35s, hoping that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will be able to call on a shared pool of 48 aircraft by 2020.
Yet the NAO also warned that “new support arrangements to provide spares and maintain the equipment are less developed,” adding that these support arrangements have yet to be funded and could therefore restrict the carrier’s operational capability. Costs of supporting and operating the carrier strike capability as a whole are “less certain” according to government beancounters.
A shortage of personnel to operate the carriers and their jets was also highlighted by the NAO, with the armed forces as a whole being four per cent below its manning target of around 145,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. “This is creating a risk of overburdening a small number of personnel in the build-up to first operational use from 2021,” noted the NAO.
Informed sources have told The Register that the MoD is keen to speed up the deployment of Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales once delivered, in order to be seen to be delivering value for money to the taxpayer as soon as possible. This suggests ministers are growing conscious of the vast sums of money being spent on, among other things, concrete in Portsmouth.
HMS QE’s departure from Rosyth, where she is still technically the property of her builders, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, has been delayed by around three months. She is now due to sail sometime this summer. Cynics have suggested that she might slip her moorings at 2359 on Friday 22 September, which would be the latest date that she could sail without technically breaking the ministerial commitment to a summer departure.*
The NAO's full report can be read in a variety of formats via their website. ®
The Met Office has two different measures for determining the start and end of summer. Most folk use the astronomical seasons, while meteorologists tend to use the meteorological seasons. More reading at the link.