By James Kirkup, Political Correspondent
Published: 9:57PM BST 18 Oct 2010
One of the Navy’s new £3 billion aircraft carriers will never carry aircraft and will sail for only three years before being mothballed and possibly sold, ministers will announce on Tuesday.
The Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review will also confirm that Britain will not have an effective "carrier strike" capability – a working aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets – until 2020.
David Cameron had wanted to scrap one of the two carriers, the largest and most expensive vessels in British naval history, but the review found that contracts signed by the previous government meant that doing so would end up costing the taxpayer more than going ahead with both. As a result, the two carriers will enter service, but one will be mothballed as soon as possible.
Presenting the review to MPs, the Prime Minister will blame many of its outcomes on Labour, accusing its ministers of leaving a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget and signing contracts for over-priced and unnecessary military equipment. He will also announce:
• The replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent will be delayed by a year until after the general election scheduled for 2015. He will insist he remains committed to renewing Trident but will say the delay is needed to save £750 million.
• The Army will lose 7,000 soldiers, more than 100 battle tanks and 200 armoured vehicles. One armoured brigade will be lost and the end of Britain’s 65-year presence in Germany will be signalled.
• The RAF will keep most of its Tornado fighter-bombers but lose at least 5,000 personnel. Two RAF bases will close and be occupied by soldiers returning from Germany.
• The Navy’s fleet of warships will drop from 24 to 19 and it will lose 4,000 personnel. Harrier jump-jets will be scrapped next year but no F35 Joint Strike Fighters will be available to replace them until 2020.
• Special Forces will receive a significant increase in their budget, allowing them to buy sophisticated communications technology and weapons. Recruitment is also likely to rise.
The decision on the new carriers has been at the heart of tense and prolonged Whitehall negotiations over the future of the Armed Forces.
Due to cost almost £6 billion, they were demanded by the Navy but strongly opposed by the Army and by General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff.
The final plan for the carriers was approved by the Cabinet on Monday, at a meeting in which Mr Cameron told ministers that the decisions on the future of the Armed Forces, had been "the hardest thing I have had to deal with" since entering No 10.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister will outline a timetable under which Britain’s one fully operational aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is immediately retired. The Navy’s other carrier, HMS Illustrious, will continue to function as a helicopter platform stripped of jets before retiring in 2014.
The first of the new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will enter service in 2016, configured to carry helicopters, not jets. The second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will arrive in 2019. At that point, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be put into "extended readiness", effectively mothballed indefinitely.
Government sources indicated that the Queen Elizabeth was unlikely to return to service after that, and could well be sold to another country to recoup some of the cost of building it. "There are no plans for it after 2019 and it could well be sold. No one wanted the second carrier but we had no choice," said one source. "No one is pretending this is an ideal situation, but this is what we were left with."
A senior defence source added: "This is not a perfect set of circumstances. There is no political benefit for us but it is the right thing for the country. It would have been more expensive to cancel than build the aircraft carrier."
Further angering Navy chiefs, the defence review will confirm that Harrier jump-jets will be abandoned next year but the RAF’s Tornado will be spared to operate in Afghanistan.
Scrapping the Harriers will create a "capability gap" of nine years, with Britain unable to fly fast jets from an aircraft carrier until 2020, when the new JSF enters service.
Government sources tried to play down the significance of the gap, insisting that Britain had agreements allowing RAF jets to fly from overseas bases in most strategically sensitive parts of the world. But insiders admitted that the situation was "far from perfect".
Until 2020, Britain is likely to rely heavily on allies with a carrier strike capability, most significantly France.
Mr Cameron will meet President Nicolas Sarkozy next month to discuss expanding Anglo-French military co-operation, with naval collaboration at the top of the agenda.
As The Daily Telegraph disclosed in August, one of the new carriers will be redesigned with a catapult to launch aircraft.
That means that Britain will have to pull out of plans to buy a specially-designed short take-off vertical landing model of the JSF.
Abandoning this model could jeopardise jobs at Rolls-Royce, which was helping build it, and antagonise the US, Britain’s partner in developing the aircraft.
However, the catapult system will allow the Prince of Wales to carry French and US aircraft. It also means that the new carrier will be equipped with the conventional form of the JSF, which the Royal Navy believes is more powerful and cost-effective than the jump-jet.
Navy chiefs were said to be extremely unhappy about the decision to axe the Harrier jump-jets, claiming that ministers had "underestimated the risk" from the move.
Sources raised doubt over the lack of carrier strike capability, questioning whether the RAF would be able to secure airbases for its jets if Britain needed to fight abroad.
"I can’t see Oman happy to have Tornados flying from its territory to bomb Iran," said a source.