By Thomas Harding and James Kirkup
Published: 10:22PM BST 07 Oct 2010
The Navy is set to be reduced to the smallest size in its history after admirals yesterday offered drastic reductions in the fleet in order to save two new aircraft carriers from defence cuts.
Under the plans, the number of warships would be cut by almost half to just 25, with frigates, destroyers, submarines, minesweepers and all amphibious craft scrapped.
Even if built, the new carriers could sail without any British aircraft to fly from them after admirals "mortgaged everything" to persuade ministers not to abandon the £5.2 billion programme. The ships could also be delayed for years and redesigned
to save money, defence sources have disclosed.
In a final appeal to the National Security Council, Navy chiefs yesterday offered to make cuts that would reduce the senior service to its smallest since the time of Henry VIII.
One new aircraft carrier is already under construction, but the fate of the second has emerged as the central issue of the Government's Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is supposed to frame military planning for the next decade.
With less than two weeks until the review is due to report, government spokesmen last night insisted that "no decisions have been taken" on the second carrier.
A meeting of senior Cabinet members yesterday stopped short of a formal decision on the carrier order, although insiders now believe both ships will be built. However, the timetable and the specification for the carriers remain in the balance.
Options still on the table include delaying delivery by several years and redesigning one or both ships to carry cheaper jets or even helicopters. Alternatively, the second carrier could be built but put on "extended readiness", effectively mothballed as soon as it was completed.
Army commanders and General Sir David Richards, the new Chief of the Defence Staff, have questioned the cost of the carriers and their potential military value.
The Navy has argued that having two carriers is vital if Britain is to retain its place as a top-rank military power. Its case has been bolstered by the procurement contracts for the carriers that commit the Government to place alternative work with the shipyards even if a carrier is abandoned.
It is understood that the Navy has offered to slim down to as few as 12 surface ships, leaving it with six Type 45 destroyers and six Type 23 frigates. In addition, its submarine fleet would reduce to seven Astute hunter-killers
plus the four Trident nuclear deterrent boats. With the two carriers, this would reduce the fleet by half from its current total of 42 ships.
"If we want the two carriers it means we have to mortgage everything and by that I mean reducing the fleet by almost a half," said a senior Navy source.
Navy analysts warned that the cuts would mean Britain reducing its fleet to the size of the Italian navy and almost half the size of the French.
Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, warned in a letter leaked to The Daily Telegraph last week that the Navy could lose its entire amphibious landing capability and be unable to mount even a relatively small-scale operation such as the intervention in Sierra Leone. To prevent that outcome, ministers have discussed reconfiguring the first new carrier as a helicopter platform that would also carry Royal Marine commandos. The carrier would then ultimately replace the existing helicopter ship, HMS Ocean.
Navy sources have said that the reduction would mean Britain would find it "extremely difficult" to protect sea lanes on which 90 per cent of the country's trade relies.
It would also have to drop either anti-piracy patrols in the Middle East, protecting oil platforms in the Gulf or counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean.
As well as defining strategic needs, ministers are trying to cut the £37 billion annual defence budget as part of the Coalition's deficit reduction plan. Even though those cuts are likely to be held well below 10 per cent, Dr Fox still has to fund a £38 billion "black hole" in the military order book.
The carriers are currently designed to carry specially built Short Take-Off Vertical Landing Jets, which are significantly more expensive than conventional catapult-launched fighters.
One option discussed at the council was delaying at least one of the new carriers and equipping it with a catapult.
Ministers debated that option to allow "interoperability" with other nations, including France and the US, whose carrier-based jets are catapult-launched.
A row has broken out over the fate of the Harrier and Tornado warplanes. One type of jet is almost certain to be retired early. The RAF, which controls the Tornado fleet, wants the Harriers scrapped. The Navy wants them saved. The row remains unresolved and retiring the Harriers remains a strong possibility.
That could mean carriers enter service even though Britain lacked warplanes to fly from them. To fill the "capability gap", the UK would have to borrow jets from an ally.
A No 10 spokesman said: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."