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Tuesday 3 September 2013

Britannia rules the ...oh.

ALLOW me to draw you a picture.

It is a picture of a ship. It is a big ship, designed to strike fear into the hearts of enemies and provide succour for those in need.

It is a ship that was first thought of about 12 years ago, when it was decided our existing ships were knocking on a bit and would need replacing.

The first thing we thought we would put on the ship was some aircraft, as they would make the ship more fearsome and the wars we were likely to fight in the future would probably involve places where we didn't have any handy land bases.

We agreed to build some whizzy fighter jets with our friends the Americans, and they would be capable of taking off on a ski ramp at the end of the ship and landing vertically.

The ship would last for 50 years, we predicted, and might one day have more modern planes than the ones we were building and which would take off and land using hi-tech elastic bands. So the ship would need to be able to cope with both kinds of aircraft.

What an amazing ship that would be.

After four years of faffing about we announced we would definitely build the new ship. In fact, we could afford to have two, which would cost a total of £3.9billion. Two really big, advanced, fearsome, useful ships which would last 50 years, for less than two billion each. Not a bad deal, all told, and it would be ruling the waves by 2018.


We decided how big the ships should be, and how many aircraft they should take, with the help of our American friends who told us what they'd find most useful.

Then we set to, and the ships began to be built at dockyards around the country. We handed out contracts for air traffic control software (£5m), desalination equipment (£1m), and lots of steel (£65m). It gave work to 10,000 people from 90 companies and six shipyards.

Then in 2009 some of the military began to worry if we had the right kind of plane. A year later there was a change of government and the new one felt the old plans were too expensive. They decided we didn't need two ships and that we would put one of them into storage, to be used only in emergencies or for holiday cover. Then they decided we had the wrong planes all along and we needed to have different ones.

One slightly less amazing ship. Hmm.

And because the ships had been designed, from scratch, to provide a sea base for a certain kind of plane, changing the planes would mean changing quite a lot of the ship.

The new government was in a rush and came up with this idea only at the very end of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review, so the officials asked to come up with a cost for it had no time to check their sums. The whole thing was discussed in secret at a committee chaired by the Prime Minister, which meant that people who might want to pipe up didn't get the chance.

So they told the government that entirely redesigning the two biggest warships this nation had ever constructed would cost a mere £800m, and the government thought it was a jolly good idea in order to save money and improve the things the ship could do.

An amazing ship again! Hurrah!

The government did not stop to ask itself, at any point, if £800m didn't sound a bit low to rip out two ski jumps, reconfigure two landing decks, install some big rubber bands and buy a whole new load of bombing accessories from the Americans. It also forgot to include VAT and inflation.

It took 18 months before the government realised it would cost £2bn and would mean we couldn't use the ship until 2023. It was all very embarrassing, so we changed the plans back to what they were originally.

Um. Ships! Hooray!

In the meantime, the planes we wanted to land vertically had been delayed and would not be ready until 2020. We had also just given away our last lot of vertically-landing planes, thinking we didn't need them.

The faffing about had also cost us £74m - almost a whole Gareth Bale, or enough to pay for eight Olympic-sized swimming pools each filled with 13m bags of Skittles. It might even be more.

On top of that, a radar early-warning system for use in the ship's helicopters has been delayed and won't be working until 2022. This will stop the ship going to some places, and mean we have to rely on the French and Americans for help.

As an extra problem, we have yet to sort out the costs of maintenance contracts to run the whole thing when it's launched.

The total cost is now £5.9bn, and according to their contracts the companies working on it are allowed to overspend by a further £2.5bn before incurring penalties.

Because it's now so expensive, we cannot afford to update or replace the frigates, destroyers, submarines, aircraft, supply vessels and minesweepers which the big amazing ship will be relying on and which will be 30 years old by the time she gets to sea.

And even though in order to save money we need to use both ships with the original aircraft to help balance the budget, we're still planning to mothball one of them and barely, if ever, use it.

There are 400 people paid to oversee the whole thing in the Ministry of Defence who might not have the right skills and be wasting their time in "bureaucracy and duplicated effort".

The ship launches next year, with sea trials scheduled for 2017.

So what's the picture we've got here? Two of the biggest ships we've ever built, one of which we never intend to use, costing us 150% of the original estimate and probably more.

They won't have any planes, and they won't have radar to keep them safe, for two years after they could have started work. The contracts to build them are a licence to print money and the people overseeing the whole thing don't know what they're doing.

To add insult to injury we scrapped our penultimate aircraft carrier two years ago for a mere £3m and are sending the last one - a rickety bucket of bolts that's 35 years old - to Syria in a laughable effort at making a dictator think that we're hard, and we're scrapping her anyway in the next 12 months.

It will be another eight years, at least, before we have anything to replace her.

Stand back for a moment. Squint. Put your head on one side. Does that look like an omnishambles of epic proportions to you?

It's taken 12 years to inflate our costs, hogtie the Royal Navy and fart about while achieving the square root of naff all except exposing the vast incompetence at the heart of the system that runs the bloody place.

Yet when HMS Illustrious - our final carrier - was built, it took a mere two years from order to launch and another four for active service. What's gone so horrendously wrong that it now takes six times as long?

Well, constant cutbacks and the death of the shipbuilding industry probably don't help, but there's little we can do about them. What we could do is put an accountant in charge of the Ministry of Defence and get them to go through the invoices. I'll bet you a fiver they find we're being charged for £10,000 spanners and a squillon-dollars-worth of consultants.

Then we could ban politicians from farting around with our defence, and accept that, as a nation, we're always going to want two aircraft carriers, a dozen frigates and destroyers, and at least six submarines. When one wears out we replace it and sod what the Lib Dems say.

More importantly we could end the meaningless kerfuffle of Strategic Defence Reviews which are aimed only at cutting costs while pretending all future wars will somehow be different to the last ones. They're not. Wars are all the damned same - inhospitable people in inhospitable places doing inhospitable things to one another.

Lastly, we're going to need to keep our fingers and everything else crossed that the rest of the world is nicely behaved between now and 2022.

Will you tell or them or shall I?