How to build a ship: The State does it, or Private Enterprise does it

Way back in 1998, the Ministry of Defence decided it needed new aircraft carriers and announced a competition amongst defence contractors. In 2003, they announced a winner, and in 2007 they signed a contract worth £3.9 billion for two vessels. As of mid-2011 they are expected to cost £5 billion (widely regarded as a gross underestimate) and the first carrier will not enter service until 2020. It will not have any aircraft. When the second carrier is ready for service, the first will be sold or moth-balled. The carriers will be 932 feet long, and will displace 65,600 metric tons.

Five days ago, the US Navy announced the name of a new aircraft carrier it was building, the USS John F Kennedy. Construction had already begun in early 2011 and it is to enter service in 2018. It will be longer (1092 feet) and heavier (101,600 tons displacement) than the Royal Navy carriers, will carry 75 aircraft, and cost an estimated $10.2 billion. The US Navy currently has eleven carriers.

Today, P&O Cruises announced they are to build a new luxury cruise liner. It too will be longer (1082 feet) and substantially heavier (154,407 tons gross) than the Royal Navy carriers, will carry the same number of aircraft as HMS Queen Elizabeth (ie none), will be in service in 2015, and will cost £500 million.

So private enterprise can build a bigger, better ship at a fraction of the price and have it at sea sooner. If we had given P&O the job at the outset we’d have two carriers off Libya right now making a useful contribution to our campaign, and have a lot more money in the coffers.

The Royal Navy's new luxury cruise liner

Should economic reality trump military necessity?

These have to be the happiest of days for pacifists. With a growing sense of disillusionment with our wars and our ability to fight wars, the Strategic Defence and Security Review just heaps joy upon joy for them. Now the Royal Navy is to be saddled with two massive aircraft carriers, useless without aircraft and which the Navy must scrap much of its surface fleet to pay for. The Army and the Royal Air Force, both apparently clinging to the need to defend Northern Europe from a Soviet Pact invasion, a threat that vanished decades ago, have sacrificed everything else to keep that dream alive. All of which leaves brave men and women fighting in the front line to pay the ultimate price for years of neglect.

Who should the finger of blame point towards? The last government appointed some of the most breathtakingly incompetent ministers in our history, but if they are given no leadership from above, and they are never held to account in Parliament, is it their fault for being useless or ours for letting them get away with it? And if the Ministry of Defence is run by clowns, have our top generals and admirals been moulded by their environment or are they equally culpable for the mismanagement of the department over many years? It’s hard to imagine how any senior officer who puts the case for military need above that of political expediency can further his career.

And that is a large part of the problem. We have far too many senior officers scrambling up the greasy pole to collect more stars before retiring to a comfortable job in the defence industry which is  milking and bilking the defence budget. We already have more admirals than ships even before the planned round of cutbacks. But the bloated empire that is Whitehall will not be scaled back accordingly. It will be the soldier, the sailor, and the airman who will again bear the brunt of economic cutbacks. There will be fewer of them, with poorer equipment, and less of it. All of which ignores the fact that we are in a hot, shooting war with al Qaeda.

We need to confront terrorism everywhere. We need to tackle its radicalising influence here in the UK, and we need to be capable of responding to terrorist incidents or preferably of detecting and preventing them beforehand. We need to be tracking them down to their training camps and flushing them out of their safe havens, worldwide. That’s why we were in Afghanistan originally, that’s why we should be in the North West Provinces if the Pakistan government won’t assist. Hot spots of radial Islam in Yemen, Somalia, Indonesia and elsewhere also need to be brought into the equation and we need to deal with those politically if at all possible but militarily if not.

To do this we need more military resources, not fewer. We need more armed police or territorial army manpower ready to deal with a Mumbai-style attack wherever it might occur. That means more soldiers and army camps across Britain. We need sufficient emergency resources to cope with casualties after a bomb attack, again wherever it might occur which means more ambulances, hospitals and medics across the country. And we need intelligence gathering to tell us what the terrorists are planning. We also need to engage with moderate Moslems, to counter the extremist views being put across by radical clerics, and to reassure them that this isn’t a war against Islam.

But we also need to be able to deploy an independent army to any location in the world. Fully equipped, fully trained, and fully supported on land, sea and in the air. We should not require support from any other country to do this, but we should be ready and willing to support others should we be called upon to do so. Finally, and most important, we need the political will. Defence expenditure is not something to be weighed against other peace-time budgetary considerations. It’s not a choice between a new warship or a cross-rail link. We either spend the money and defend ourselves adequately, or we have no need for budgets for anything. This is a matter of survival, plain and simple. We are at war.

These may not be happy days for pacifists after all.  White Poppy, anyone?