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Defence: Carrier Strike Capability

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 10 May 2012


My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Guardsman Michael Roland of the 1st Battalion, the Grenadier Guards; Corporal Andrew Roberts of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps; and Private Ratu Silibaravi of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.

The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the carrier strike programme.

The strategic defence and security review considered the carrier strike programme, put in place by the previous Government, as part of a wide-ranging review of options for delivering effective future defence while dealing with the black hole in Labour’s defence budget and the unaffordable ‘fantasy’ equipment plan bequeathed to us by the party opposite. While the review confirmed that carrier strike would be a key capability in delivering Future Force 2020, it also recognised the unsustainability as a whole of the defence equipment plan we inherited.

The strategic decision on carrier strike which emerged from the SDSR process was to convert one carrier with catapults and arrestor gear to operate the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, facilitating greater interoperability with allies, with a decision on the future use or disposal of the second carrier to be taken at the 2015 SDSR. The decision was also taken routinely to embark 12 fast jets while retaining the ability to surge up to the previously planned level of 36 aircraft. As the House would expect for such a complex and high-value project, the strategic decision taken at SDSR was followed by the commissioning of a detailed programme of work to look at the costs, risks and technical feasibility of all aspects of the proposed solution. That study was expected to take 18 months, completing by the end of 2012.

Since I took on the role of Defence Secretary in October last year, my overriding concern, after current operations and the welfare of our Armed Forces, has been to ensure the deliverability of the MoD’s equipment plan and the achievement of a balanced and sustainable budget. That will give our Armed Forces the assurance they need to carry out the massive transformation that will deliver Future Force 2020—the concept for our Armed Forces set out in the SDSR. The carrier project is a large element of the equipment programme and I have worked closely with the new Chief of Defence Materiel, Bernard Gray, to assess the technical and financial risks involved in it.

It quickly became clear to me that a number of the underlying facts on which the SDSR decision on carriers was based were changing.

First, as the programme to convert a carrier to operate with a catapult system has matured, and more detailed analysis has been carried out by suppliers, it has become clear that operational carrier strike capability, using the ‘cats and traps’ system, could not be delivered until late 2023 at the earliest, considerably later than the date envisaged at the time of the SDSR of ‘around 2020’. Because Britain’s carriers will have all-electric propulsion, and therefore do not generate steam like nuclear-powered vessels, the catapult system would need to be the innovative electromagnetic version being developed for the US Navy. Fitting this new system to a UK carrier has presented greater design challenges than were anticipated.

Secondly, and partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the ‘Prince of Wales’ has more than doubled in the last 17 months, rising from £950 million to around £2 billion, with no guarantee that it will not rise further. Technical complexity and the cost of retrofitting ‘cats and traps’ to the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ would be even higher, making it unlikely that it would ever, in practice, be converted in the future.

Thirdly, at the time of the SDSR, there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around the STOVL version of the JSF and some commentators were speculating that it could even be cancelled. Indeed, the STOVL programme was subsequently placed on probation by the Pentagon. However, over the last year, the STOVL programme has made excellent progress and in the last few months has been removed from probation. The aircraft has completed over 900 hours of flying, including flights from the USS ‘Wasp’, and the US Marine Corps has a high degree of confidence in the in-service date for the aircraft. The balance of risk has changed and there is now judged to be no greater risk in STOVL than in other variants of JSF.

Fourthly, further work with our allies on the best approach to collaborative operation has satisfied us that joint maritime task groups involving our carriers, with co-ordinated scheduling of maintenance and refit periods, and an emphasis on carrier availability rather than cross-deck operations, is the more appropriate route to optimising alliance capabilities.

When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be; doing what is right for Britain, not burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless, as the last Government so often did. A persistent failure to observe this simple principle is at the root of many of the MoD budget problems that we inherited from the party opposite. I do not intend to repeat its mistakes. The decision taken in the SDSR to proceed with a carrier strike capability, despite the massive challenges we faced with the MoD’s budget, was the right decision. The decision to seek to contain costs by going for ‘cats and traps’ on a single carrier with greater interoperability with allies, and the cheaper CV version of the JSF aircraft, was also the right decision based on the information available at the time.

But the facts have changed. I am not prepared to accept a delay in regenerating Britain’s carrier strike capability beyond the timetable set out in the SDSR, and I am not prepared to put the equipment plan which will support Future Force 2020 at risk of a billion pound-plus increase in the carrier programme and an unquantifiable risk of further cost rises. So I can announce today that the National Security Council has agreed not to proceed with the ‘cats and traps’ conversion, but to complete both carriers in STOVL configuration. This will give us the ability to use both carriers to provide continuous carrier availability at a net additional operating cost averaging about £60 million per year. As we set out in the SDSR, a final decision on the use of the second carrier will be taken as part of SDSR 2015.

We will switch the order for JSF aircraft from CV to STOVL, which we can do without delaying delivery, and by making this announcement today we can plan on the basis of the first operational aircraft being delivered with a UK weapons-fit package. We expect HMS ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to be handed over to the Royal Navy in early 2017 for sea trials. We expect to take delivery of our first test aircraft in July of this year, and we expect the first production aircraft to be delivered to us in 2016, with flying from the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to begin in 2018 after its sea trials are complete.

We have discussed this decision with the French Government and with the United States. The French confirm that they are satisfied with our commitment to jointly planned carrier operations to enhance European-NATO capability. The United States, on whose support we would rely in regenerating either type of carrier capability, has been highly supportive throughout this review, and I would like to record my personal thanks to the Secretary of Defence, the Pentagon, the Navy and the Marine Corps for their high level of engagement with us. I spoke to Secretary Panetta last night and he confirmed the US’s willingness to support our decision and its view that UK carrier strike availability and our commitment to the JSF programme are the key factors. The Chief of the Defence Staff and his fellow chiefs of staff—all of them—endorse this decision as the quickest and most assured way now to deliver carrier strike as part of an overall affordable equipment programme that will support Future Force 2020.

This was not an easy decision to take, but our responsibility is to make the right decision on the basis of the facts available to us. Neither I nor any of my colleagues came into government expecting decisions to be easy or pain-free. I have a responsibility to clear up the financial mess we inherited in the MoD, just as we are clearing up the mess we inherited across government as a whole: to set a balanced budget and an affordable, deliverable equipment programme with manageable and bounded risk. This decision addresses one of the last impediments to me announcing the achievement of those objectives to the House, and I hope to be able to do so very soon.

But it is not just about balancing budgets, critical as that is. It is about the UK’s defence, secured by having an appropriate and sustainable military capability. This announcement delivers an affordable solution to securing that capability and, with two useable carriers, gives us the option of continuous carrier availability. It confirms the expected delivery of the first test aircraft this summer; of the first production aircraft in 2016; of the first carrier into sea trials in 2017; and of the first flight of the JSF from the deck of the carrier in 2018, with an operational military capability in 2020. It confirms the support of our principal allies, the United States and France, and that of the defence chiefs. It shows that we, at least, are not afraid to take difficult decisions when they are right for Britain. I commend this Statement to the House”.

First, I extend our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the three members of our Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf in the service of our country.

I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place. Yesterday we had the Queen’s Speech, which contained no direct reference to our Armed Forces or to defence. Today we have found out why. Defence policy is today an embarrassment for a Government who acted in haste when they came into office and were more interested in trying to score points than in embarking on a measured and considered strategic defence and security review with time for full and appropriate consultation before final conclusions and decisions were reached. They are a Government who were more interested in making unsubstantiated claims about an alleged £38 billion unfunded liability over the next 10 years, and judging by the Statement just repeated by the noble Lord, the Government’s approach has not changed on that score. They have withheld information from the Commons Defence Select Committee as to how that figure was calculated, and the National Audit Office figures did not support their claim either.

A key reason why money is now in short supply is because the growth in the economy which this Government inherited had been thrown away by them six months after they took office, has never been restored, and we are now in a double dip recession. The rushed strategic defence and security review made no real reference to north Africa, yet a few months later our forces were involved in action in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. In their foreword to the strategic defence and security review, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had declared, as they decommissioned HMS “Ark Royal” and sold off the Harriers at a knock-down price, that:

“In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential”.

Fortunately, that view was not shared by those nations which did have an operational aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister went on to assert that the previous Government,

“committed to carriers that would have been unable to work properly with our closest military allies”.

They said that they would “rectify this error” by fitting,

“a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons”.

Indeed, the Prime Minister asserted that the previous Government had got it “badly wrong”. The Government’s rushed strategic defence and security review then told us:

“Installing the catapult and arrestor will allow the UK to acquire the carrier-variant of Joint Strike Fighter ready to deploy on the converted carrier instead of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant. This version of the jet has a longer range and greater payload: this, not large numbers of aircraft, is the critical requirement for precision strike operations in the future”.

Do those words I have just quoted from the SDSR now represent government policy or not in the light of the Statement the Minister has just repeated, which says that the Government will switch the order for JSF aircraft from carrier-variant to STOVL? In view of the penultimate sentence in the foreword to the SDSR by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, which says:

“We must never send our soldiers, sailors and airmen into battle without the right equipment”,

has the Prime Minister now changed his view? Does he now accept that the STOVL-variant rather than the carrier-variant of the JSF is the “right equipment” for our forces?

The Prime Minister has now come to the conclusion that the previous Government’s policy is right. However, the Statement repeated by the Minister seeks to hide behind a claim that the facts have changed. Apparently it has now been found out that the “cats and traps” system cannot be delivered until late 2023 at the earliest. Partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the “Prince of Wales” has apparently more than doubled in the last 17 months, and the cost of fitting cats and traps to the “Queen Elizabeth” would be even higher. Perhaps a little more time spent on undertaking the strategic defence and security review and consulting more widely would have drawn attention to these problems of timescale and cost that the Government say have caused them to rethink their approach.

The Government had clearly decided that there was no likelihood of a problem with cost and timescale, because the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said in their foreword to the SDSR:

“We will fit a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons”.

There is nothing there about any possibility of a problem over timescales or costs, or a need to look at timescales and costs. We were also told that,

“at the time of the SDSR, there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around the STOVL version of JSF”.

The technical risk was apparently so significant that it does not appear to have been referred to in the strategic defence and security review as a reason for the Government’s decision to switch the order for JSF aircraft, a decision they are now reversing.

The fourth reason given for the change of approach is that,

“further work with our allies on the best approach to collaborative operation has satisfied us that joint maritime task groups involving our carriers … is the more appropriate route to optimising alliance capabilities”.

Surely that is the kind of issue that should be considered at the time of a strategic defence and security review, not immediately after it. No doubt it could have been considered as part of the SDSR if the Government had not been so determined to rush it through and end up with the policy U-turn that we are being told about today.

The Minister has told us in the Statement why the decision made by the previous Government on carrier strike capability was right and why the present Government’s policy has had to be abandoned. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the cost to the nation of the Government’s U-turn, and when the Government expect to make further announcements on their equipment programme in the light of Future Force 2020. Can the Minister also take this opportunity to put the record straight and confirm the National Audit Office finding that cancelling both carriers would have saved £1.2 billion but that, in government, his party agree that it is not in the national interest to do so?

At a time when cuts are having to be made, at the very least our Armed Forces deserve clarity and certainty of decision-making by the Government. On the subject of carrier strike capability that most definitely has not been the case. Since the Prime Minister took personal responsibility for this key decision in the strategic defence and security review, it is the Prime Minister’s competence that has been found wanting.

We support the policy U-turn announced today, which accepts that the previous Government’s decision was correct, but we do not support the taking of the wrong policy options previously by this Government under a rushed SDSR or the resultant waste of time and money. Let us hope that the decisions announced today will now provide our Armed Forces with the much needed clarity and certainty they deserve as far as carrier strike capability is concerned.

My Lords, it is a bit rich for the Opposition to criticise when it was they who scrapped the Sea Harriers, a decision that a senior naval officer described as,

“one of the most disastrous military decisions ever undertaken”.

It was they who pushed the in-service dates of the carriers back two years, which drove £1.6 billion of costs into the programme with no capability gain, a decision which the Public Accounts Committee said set,

“a new benchmark in poor corporate decision making”.

I could go on.

I may not be able to answer all the noble Lord’s questions but I undertake to write to him. First, he asked if the Prime Minister felt that the STOVL was the right aircraft. I can categorically say the answer is yes, under the changed circumstances since we made the decision in the SDSR. The House should be aware that we are talking about a very capable aircraft. We have spent a lot of time debating Harriers. The STOVL-variant is a very much more capable aircraft than Harrier. It has a genuine day and night capability; it is bigger, faster and can fly higher for longer, and can carry more weapons. It has low observability—that is, stealth—and greatly improved survivability. It is a fifth generation technology and its sensors and systems integration make it a high-performance tactical ISTAR asset. JCA places the UK at the forefront of fighter technology.

The noble Lord said that he felt that the SDSR decision was wrong. The SDSR was about setting a strategic direction and we remain committed to reintroducing a carrier strike capability around 2020, but the Government made clear then that if costs—or facts—changed, we would not just plough on regardless. We said that we would spend time and money examining the option of carrier conversion and that is what we have done. A “main gate” decision will necessarily be the subject of a much greater level of analysis than that conducted for the SDSR.

The noble Lord pointed out that the B aircraft was on probation for a time. That is correct. As was said in the Statement, the STOVL programme was taken off probation in the United States in January 2012 after successful sea trials in November 2011 on board the USS “Wasp”. I have photographs here of the B-variant taking off from the USS “Wasp” which I am very happy to hand out to any noble Lord who would like them. The STOVL-variant is also required by the US Marine Corps and the Italian Navy. We are very grateful for the assistance that we have received from both the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.

The noble Lord asked how much money we had wasted. As of the end of April, we had committed £39 million on conversion investigations and a further £1 million on an air-to-air refuelling study. We do not consider this money to have been wasted. Changing the variant was considered the best course of action at the time of the SDSR and these costs were necessarily incurred. Without a detailed investigation of the impact of carrier conversion, we would not have been in the position today to have identified the significant rise in estimated costs and made the decision to call a halt to this programme. I think that I have covered all the questions, but if there were any others, I will check Hansard and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. Today’s Statement marks another sad chapter in the saga of the aircraft carriers. It ill beholds the Opposition to crow and to adopt the pose that they did today in their heavy questioning.

I have three questions. First, there appears to have been some change of heart or change of plan over the second carrier. My understanding was that the second would be mothballed, or possibly even sold; now it seems to be planned to be operated much more in tandem with the first carrier.

My second question is about the overall cost of the carriers. Where are we up to with our latest forecast of the cost of the two carriers? Thirdly, will my noble friend say a little more about interoperability, particularly with the French carriers?

My Lords, we have an aspiration to use the second carrier, but this will be an issue that the next SDSR, probably in 2015, will have to consider, particularly in the light of the cost of crewing it, which we estimate to be about £60 million a year. I can assure my noble friend that it is our aspiration to have the second carrier ready to assist when the first carrier goes in for a refit, or for any other reason.

I feel uncomfortable giving my noble friend figures for the overall cost of the carriers. We are in discussions with industry and it would be wrong to reveal too many of those figures.

My noble friend asked finally about interoperability. The key intention agreed by the UK and France, which my noble friend mentioned, has always been to co-ordinate operations to ensure that when one country has a carrier in maintenance, the other has one available. Our ability to deliver this assurance will be enhanced should we ultimately decide to bring the second carrier into service. The US has made it clear that carrier availability, rather than cross-decking or the capability of aircraft, is the key issue for it.

My Lords, in welcoming this decision, which is not only the right decision but, realistically, the only possible one, could I for the sake of clarity ask the Minister to confirm three points? First, will he confirm that the initial Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to be delivered to the United Kingdom, which will be instrumented aircraft for test and evaluation flying, will be STOVL variants and that this has always been the case, because, at the time of the SDSR, it was too late to change the choice of variant for those aircraft? Secondly, will he confirm that the first carrier, now in build, is being built without cats and traps and, again, that this always has always been the case, since, at the time of the SDSR, it was too late to change that? Thirdly, will he confirm that, as a consequence, the timescales for the delivery of the aircraft capability and the carrier capability have not changed from the pre-SDSR assumptions as a consequence of this excursion into carrier variant?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for his support. He and I sat through all the SDSR meetings and had to make the original decision. I can confirm to him that the first B-variant will be delivered in July this year and that the second one, I understand, will be delivered in October this year. They are both B-variants and both test aircraft. The third one, which will be delivered within 18 months, is also a B-variant—so all the first three aircraft are B-variants.

The noble and gallant Lord then asked me to confirm that the first carrier was being built without cats and traps and that the time when it would come into operation would not change. I can confirm that that is the case.

My Lords, I, too, welcome this Statement, which must have been very difficult for the Minister to deliver. It took him 13 minutes to read out the Secretary of State’s Statement, and all he had to do was get up and say, “Sorry, you were right; we were wrong”, but he did not do that. But that is where we are.

Leaving aside all that fog about changed circumstances, I was very interested in what he said about a refuelling study. Why on earth did the Ministry of Defence need to engage in a refuelling study? It was buying the plane from the Americans. Why did not just ask the Americans what arrangements they had or did not have? I suspect that the plane will not have any refuelling capability because it will probably do damage to the stealth of the aircraft.

While I greatly welcome this decision, I still do not think that we out of risk and danger completely with the B version of this aircraft. Less than a year ago, Rear Admiral Venlet, the officer in charge of the whole programme in the United States, said that, so far, the F-35B is using more runway than desired in its short takeoffs and landings and that it cannot land vertically with as much payload as customers would like. I would be grateful if the Minister could speak to those two points. I am not too concerned about the second one, because you can always drop off fuel and ordinance that you have not used when you are trying to land, but concerns about the takeoff distance need careful attention and the Minister should explain to the House where we stand.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his measured welcome of the Statement. I have far too much respect for him to criticise him for his subsequent comments. I am not briefed on the refuelling study with the Americans; I will write to the noble Lord and put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. I am not aware of the problems of runway and takeoff associated with the B-variant. All the briefing that I have had on that from Royal Naval officers and civil servants has been very positive. They are all very happy with the plane’s performance, but, again, I will write t the noble Lord on this issue of runway and takeoff.

My Lords, I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the Statement. Will my noble friend explain what impact this decision will have on our amphibious capability and the amphibious role envisaged for these carriers?

I can assure my noble friend that we are doing quite a lot of work on this issue. Previous studies have shown that this decision may offer great flexibility in the employment of the carriers in other roles, particularly amphibious roles. The carriers are central to our amphibious assault capability and are a leading example of the expeditionary forces that underpin the core principles of the SDSR. I can assure my noble friend that there is plenty of room on the carriers to embark a good number of Royal Marines and to operate helicopters to support them. The B-variant can land on austere runways on land in support of ground troops.

My Lords, the Minister rather led with his chin on occasions in his Statement when defending his predecessor’s decision. I am going to resist the temptation and keep my hand rather firmly in my pocket. I very much welcome the Statement made today by the Secretary of State, not least because it has reverted to a decision that was taken by the last Government on perfectly rational grounds and in which I played a minor role at the beginning. My colleague the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who is here today, played a much more major part.

The truth of the matter is that it is the easiest thing in the world for a new Minister, in a fresh dawn, to overturn the recommendations and decisions of their predecessor. A lot of political kudos can be attracted to that—a degree of bravura, a sense of decisiveness, ruthless leadership and so on. It is much more difficult for a Minister in a Government to overturn completely the decision of their immediate predecessor, and it takes a great deal of courage to do that. There is no political kudos—all that can be anticipated is criticism, “egg on face” quotes, and so on.

I congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State on having made the right decisions for the right reasons this time. This is right for the Armed Forces, for the security of the country, for the Navy and above all for the people who serve in the Armed Forces. In passing this commendation to the Secretary of State, will the Minister urge him to apply the same scrutiny and rationale to various other aspects of the SDSR, which, on the evidence of today’s decision, have been taken more in haste and in the pursuit of kudos than in the interests of national security of the country?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome. This was a very difficult decision but it was right for the Royal Navy and for the country. In taking this decision, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made no criticism of his predecessor’s decision. Things have dramatically changed over the cats and traps, and obviously with the B-variant. I will take the noble Lord’s other point, on bringing the same scrutiny to other aspects of the SDSR, back to the department.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone is going to be deceived by the attempts by the Secretary of State to make party political points or to make people see this as anything other than a discreditable shambles. It is very unfortunate. The Government would have done better to have come forward with a slightly more humble line and to have confessed that they had made a mistake.

Can we hear how many aircraft the Government are now proposing to procure? We still have not heard that. Does the noble Lord accept and acknowledge that, because the B version carries a lot of its weight in the form of its own lift fan, its range is much less—400 miles against 700 miles for the CV version? Its payload is similarly reduced, and therefore more aircraft will be required to give a similar military effect. Are the Government planning to purchase more aircraft to procure the same military effect? Will the Minister also recognise that if we simply restrict ourselves to purchasing the F-35B, we will have no deep-strike bombing capability at all once the Tornados have been withdrawn? Do the Government have any plans at all to replace that lacuna in our capability, which will emerge by the end of the decade?

My Lords, again I resent this criticism. I feel that it is the noble Lord who should be a little humble, particularly when the party opposite’s last single year in office saw a staggering £3.3 billion increase in the total cost of the 15 largest defence equipment projects. The noble Lord asked me how many Joint Strike Fighter B-variants we are going to buy. In the first instance we intend to buy enough Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to build up our initial carrier strike capability. We do not intend to make final decisions on JSF numbers until our next strategic defence review, in 2015 at the earliest.

I will just re-emphasise what the Statement said. We are getting our first and second aircraft this year. We are getting the first production aircraft in 2016. The first aircraft trials at sea, when we will have three aircraft, will be in 2018. The initial operational capability will be in 2020, when we will have eight useable aircraft. This is three years earlier than would be possible with the C-variant.

My Lords, I accept that it must have been a very difficult decision to take, but clearly the sums involved point us in that direction. However, I thought that the most intriguing part of my noble friend’s Statement was that the Chief of the Defence Staff and his fellow chiefs,

“endorse this decision as the quickest and most assured way now to deliver carrier strike as part of an overall affordable equipment programme”.

I wonder what the advice to the Secretary of State from the chiefs was when he came in in 2010. I suspect that my noble friend will not illuminate that point right now.

My other point is about the question of interoperability versus collaboration. This is clearly a setback to our co-operation with the French. The lessons of Libya will have told us that it is vital that we continue to collaborate with them. Will he reassure us that we will continue to work with them to optimise our joint capabilities?

My Lords, taking my noble friend’s second question first, I can reassure her on that point. I have had a number of discussions with the French military at all levels, and am very keen on pushing our relations with it. As for the chiefs giving their support, I understand that they all put their support in writing to No. 10. I cannot answer now the question about the advice that the Secretary of State received in 2010, but my noble friend might want to have a word with the noble and gallant Lord afterwards.

My Lords, this is clearly the correct decision, but I have two questions for the Minister. The first continues the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. The decision that had been taken before was that we were going to have STOVL and run two carriers. Looking at this Statement in detail, it is not at all clear that we are really going to run two carriers. It would be dreadful if, after all this going round in circles like an oozlum bird for two years, we end up with only one carrier running. I hope that we can be more positive about the fact that we will run two in order to ensure that we have a carrier 100% of the time, because that is good for the nation and for the defence of this country.

My second point runs on from that. Perhaps the Minister could get across to the Secretary of State, and to the rest of his Front Bench, that this is good news. We have a 65,000-tonne ship because if you surge 26 Joint Strike Fighters, of whatever variant, it has to be that size. It is not because some admiral woke up and thought, “Gosh, I’ll have a big ship”. It is done for a reason. We should be very proud that this nation is building two of them. Let us get a bit of whoomph and say, “Right, we’ve made a decision, this is a fantastic thing, tens of thousands of people are working producing these things and they will protect and look after our nation for 50 years”.

My Lords, the second carrier is, as I said, an aspiration and we very much hope it will be possible. We will certainly always have one carrier at sea. The decision on the second one will have to wait until 2015, but it is our aspiration that it is going to happen. As for the noble Lord’s point about it being a good news story, of course it is a good news story and we are very proud of British industry. I was up in Rosyth and Govan a couple of weeks ago and saw the work. I am enormously proud of what we are producing up there.

My Lords, I hope there is time for one quick question from a mere accountant. Can my noble friend confirm the wise words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, about the effectiveness and competence of the new STOVL version? I believe that we shall make a major saving in the cat and trap system, although there may be some shortfall in deliverability of the particular weapons system in the distance. Can he write to me, or let me have this afternoon, a quick sum on the saving of the cat and trap system, not least the time and availability in 2017-18 of the new version?

My Lords, I will be happy to write to my noble friend. I have a lot of figures here with which I shall not weary the House. I can tell him that to convert the “Queen Elizabeth” to cats and traps after she is built would cost between £2.5 billion and £3 billion.

My Lords, are we not in danger of short-termism? Following what the noble Lord, Lord West, just said, we will, we hope, end up with two immensely useful platforms that will last for 40 or 50 years and that will be able to take all sorts of strange aircraft about which we do not yet know. Therefore, the project going ahead as it is now is most useful.

No, my Lords, I do not think that it is short-termism. We are in very good company with the B-variant. The US Marine Corps uses it; it is buying a lot of Joint Strike Fighters. The Italians are also going to buy them for their carrier. It is not short-termism at all.

My Lords, although everyone seems happy that we are now back on the right track, can the Minister give us an estimate of the extra abortive expenditure involved in the unnecessary adventure of cat and trap?

My Lords, I have already given an answer to the second question. I will read it out again, but before I do I must say that I am very grateful to the noble Lord for assuring me that we are on the right track. I said that at the end of April we had committed £39 million to conversion investigations and a further £1 million to an air-to-air refuelling study. We do not consider that money to have been wasted. Changing variant was considered the best course of action at the time of the SDSR and those costs were necessarily incurred. Without a detailed investigation of the impact of carrier conversion, we would not have been in a position today to identify the significant rise in estimated costs and to decide to call a halt to the programme.