|John Hutton ‘deceived MPs over Navy cuts’
Michael Evans, Defence Editor
John Hutton has been accused of deceiving Parliament over his explanation for a two-year delay in the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier programme.
The allegation came after Lockheed Martin, the American defence company, contradicted his account. He had said that the delay was linked to a later delivery date for the aircraft that the vessels will carry.
In a written Commons statement last month, the Defence Secretary said that construction of the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, would be put back a further one or two years in line with the expected delivery of the Joint Strike Fighter, the combat aircraft designed to replace the Harrier. The fighter project has been running behind schedule.
Under the delayed in-service dates announced for the two carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was to have been ready by 2014, will now be completed by 2015 or 2016, and HMS Prince of Wales will not be in service until 2016 or 2017.
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Lockheed Martin, however, confirmed to The Times that it had been ready to provide the combat aircraft by 2014 but had been told by the Ministry of Defence to deliver in time for a 2017 initial operating capability.
The company, which is developing the Joint Strike Fighter in partnership with BAE Systems, said that the aircraft’s assembly line was already running and that other partners in the programme would get their aircraft before Britain.
It emphasised that deliveries to the MoD would start well before 2017 to allow the Royal Navy to build up operational capability before the in-service date. “It’s true that the MoD wanted its JSF initial operating capability for 2017, although we told them we could deliver by 2014,” the company said.
Australia would have initial operating capability for the fighters in 2015, the Netherlands in 2016 and Britain and Turkey in 2017, Lockheed Martin said. Those ordered by the US Marine Corps would be operational by 2012.
Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, who recently visited Lockheed Martin’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was told of the aircraft’s production schedule, said that the only reason for delaying the carriers was to save money. “I think the statement made in the Commons last month [by Mr Hutton] was designed to deceive,” Dr Fox said.
Although Mr Hutton gave no time-scale for the delivery of the Joint Strike Fighters, the implication of his statement was that Lockheed Martin was unable to provide the aircraft by 2014.
Last month’s announcement that the in-service date for the two carriers was to be delayed was part of a package of cutbacks that included the postponement of elements of the Army’s new generation of armoured vehicles, known as FRES (Future Rapid Effect System).
In a Commons written answer ten days ago, Quentin Davies, the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, rejected the allegation that the delay in the carrier programme amounted to a cut.
“What we have done is to align better the in-service date of the two carriers with the in-service date of the new JSF aircraft designed to fly off them,” he said.
The MoD said that it did not recognise the time-scale of 2017 for the fighters. “We have not specifically asked for a 2017 delivery date,” a spokeswoman said, adding that a decision would be made next month about receiving three fighters for testing purposes.
Each aircraft will cost between £60 million and £65 million. The MoD insisted that the delay in the carrier programme would not add to the cost of the order.
The MoD is expected to place an order for up to 150 Joint Strike Fighters at a cost of about £12 billion. The development programme has cost £2 billion.