Carriers still sore point for defence cuts

LIAM Fox yesterday confirmed that the Trident nuclear deterrent would be replaced, earning him a huge round of applause at the Tory conference, but the future of two aircraft carriers remains unclear.

“The first duty of the government is defence of the realm. That is why we will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent and will go ahead with the trident replacement programme,” the defence secretary said.

But Fox warned the government was approaching the defence spending review “with unavoidably constrained finances”, adding to fears that at least one of the Navy’s two aircraft carriers could be scrapped.

The government could scrap both ships, which are expected to cost some £2.5bn each to build, but fears that the impact could prove fatal for Britain’s ship building industry. Another option is building just one carrier and keeping it in a state of “extended readiness”, essentially mothballing it.

Earlier this week, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a rare intervention in national politics, and insisted that both aircraft carriers should be built as planned.

But yesterday Fox responded with a scathing attack on Labour’s handling of the defence budget.

He said: “We all know about Labour’s toxic economic legacy. There is an unfunded liability in defence of around £38bn over the next 10 years – compared to an annual budget of only £37bn.
Fox added that the UK would pay £46bn on debt interest payments next year, a sum that could purchase four aircraft carriers, 300 Chinook helicopters, 13,000 troops, 10 destroyers, 50 cargo planes, and pay for a complete refurbishment of forces’ living quarters.

Later, in his first conference speech as Prime Minister, David Cameron said the defence review would “match our commitments with the resources we’ve got”, and warned of “big changes” for Britain’s military.

Resources for the Afghanistan war will be maintained or improved, but the Navy and Royal Air Force are bracing themselves for swingeing cuts.