Carriers 'need more aircraft'
The Royal Navy might not be able to operate two aircraft carriers at maximum strike capability without increasing the number of jets available, service chiefs have said.
The Prime Minister announced earlier this year that the second of the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers would enter service but no decision has been made on whether to increase the number of F-35 aircraft to fly from the vessels.
First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas said if it was decided to have both ships at sea at the same time "we will need enough jets to make those carriers credible as strategic assets".
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford said the announcement so far was for an aircraft carrier to be continuously available - not for the ability to carry out strikes from it at all times.
He told the Defence Select Committee: "The announcement so far is for 100% capability of an aircraft carrier, either at sea or at readiness. Not 100% carrier strike at sea or at readiness."
Labour committee member John Woodcock said the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would be a "gigantic floating white elephant" without ordering extra planes.
Admiral Zambellas said David Cameron's announcement, made as the UK hosted the Nato summit in September, was a "strategic statement of intent".
"The smart thing that has occurred is taking it from an availability which is not guaranteed to 100%, to availability which is guaranteed to 100%," he said.
The availability of a Royal Navy carrier would allow the US Navy to deploy one of its vessels elsewhere, he said, but the cost of extra jets for that round-the-clock capability was still being assessed.
"This is really the nature of joined-up strategic behaviour that allows us to do just that," Admiral Zambellas said.
"The price of doing so in the ship terms is relatively modest, including manpower, the price in jet terms - which is a key output that the Chief of the Air Staff and myself are working towards - is still to be fully quantified depending on how many jets we take from that ship, but there's no point having the carriers without jets."
Air Chief Marshal Pulford said the planned defence review in 2015 would "address the political ambition and the financial issues of more delivering from the sea, more carrier strike in the shape of F-35 than we presently have".
Asked if the number of F-35s on order would have to be increased, the RAF chief said: " Not if your ambition for aircraft at sea hasn't changed."
Tory MP Julian Lewis asked: "If the unexpected happened and, as it happened, we had the potential for deploying both carriers, are you telling us that there wouldn't be provisional planning to be able to deploy both carriers?"
Admiral Zambellas: "I am sure the Government will consider that when it gets to the defence review. Why wouldn't you reinforce the strategic opportunity?"
US carriers had up to 50 serviceable aircraft on deck ready to fly, the Royal Navy chief said, and although the F-35 had a different level of performance, there would need to be enough aircraft on the British vessels to be "credible".
"Fundamentally we will need enough jets to make those carriers credible as strategic assets," the Admiral told the committee.
Mr Woodcock asked whether the situation of having a carrier with no planes to fly from it would be perpetuated as a result of the decision to allow the HMS Prince of Wales to enter service in 2018 alongside HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Admiral Zambellas said: " If you take the strategic opportunity to exploit the full availability of two carriers, then you are going to have to make your adjustments to your outputs. And it's not, by the way, just the jets, but also the enablement of the facilities on board that make that work."
After the hearing, Mr Woodcock said: " This is the second time in the life of this Government that we've had a situation where the Royal Navy faces operating an aircraft carrier without any planes.
"Without aircraft, the HMS Prince of Wales will be a gigantic floating white elephant, a giant missed opportunity to bolster Britain's capacity to protect itself.
"David Cameron announced the commissioning of the second aircraft carrier with great fanfare a few months ago in Newport, but he failed to mention the vital flaw that he hasn't ordered any extra planes to fly off it.
"The Prime Minister must urgently make clear when and where he is going to find the funding for new planes so Britain doesn't face costly embarrassment in 2018."