ARMS giant BAE Systems has moved to defend a £3.8bn deal to build two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, ahead of potential revelations about the controversial programme and government efforts to cut it back.
BAE, which is building the carriers in an alliance with defence firms Babcock and Thales, warned that any decision to scrap one of the vessels would have left a gaping hole in the UK’s future defence capability.
The group said construction of the carriers was so far advanced that cancelling one of them could hit thousands of jobs and strip the UK of its ability to build warships.
BAE was speaking ahead of possible publication of the contract to build the carriers and the terms of business underpinning the deal, which might emerge as early as this week following several freedom of information requests.
A BAE spokesman said: “Having got this far down the road with the carriers, suddenly to pull out would have left a huge gap in the work needed to keep skills in this country.”
The carrier programme is about £1.4bn over budget after a decision by the last government to delay entry into service of the first of the carriers.
The coalition government launched a review to allow new Joint Strike Fighter jets to use the boats after withdrawing the navy’s iconic Harrier jump jets.
The first of the vessels is due to enter service in about 2020, leaving a gap of about a decade in the UK’s carrier air strike capability.
The coalition has pulled back from cancelling one of the boats due to penalty clauses in the construction agreement, opting instead to put one of them in temporary storage.
The BAE spokesman said an agreement with the government that underpins its work on surface ships prioritised keeping shipbuilding skills in the UK and cost savings.
The spokesman said: “We’re pleased and proud to be working on the carrier programme, which is doing extremely well and is on track.”