Cross-posted from Christopher Booker's Telegraph blog.....
No sooner had the Queen cracked a bottle of whisky over the bow of the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy, the 65,000-ton aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, than we were being told that this was “a proud moment for the whole of Britain”, marking “the return of a sense of national ambition”, reflecting both “a past full of glory” and “a future full of potential”.
Of course, as this long controversial project reached such a symbolic moment, there were mutterings round the edges. Why would it not be until 2020 that any aircraft would be available to fly off it – the largely US-built vertical take-off F-35s, which have been through as many design changes as the ship itself? Why was its vast flight deck not equipped to handle conventional fixed-wing aircraft? Why was it not, like its US counterparts, to be nuclear-powered, but driven by diesel and gas turbines, requiring more refuelling auxiliaries than the Royal Navy can any longer provide? Equally unequipped is the Navy with ships to provide the escort cover this carrier will need.
If in many ways the resulting monster ship is like that proverbial camel – “a horse designed by a committee” – the real question is, obviously, what purpose is it meant to serve? Why was a ship almost as large as the rest of the Navy put together wanted in the first place? The real story behind this goes back to 1996, when we and our EU colleagues were discussing ways to integrate the EU’s defence efforts. Our then defence secretary, Michael Portillo, signed a “Letter of Intent” with his French counterpart setting up 23 Anglo-French naval study groups, including one on “Future aircraft carrier development”.
In 1998 this led to the St-Malo agreement between Tony Blair and President Chirac to work on a new integrated EU defence force. This led in turn to the 1999 “Helsinki goals”, centred on setting up a European “Rapid Reaction Force” able to operate anywhere in the world. A major contribution to this would be three giant aircraft carriers, two built by Britain, one by France, with other navies such as those of Spain and Italy providing the necessary escort cover.
Such was the reason why, 15 years later, we saw the first of these mighty ships launched, after skewing our defence budget to the tune of £6 billion. We didn’t hear much of the involvement in the ship’s design of the French arms giant Thales, mainly responsible for building its French counterpart. But history has now moved on. We also don’t hear much these days about the EU’s “Rapid Reaction Force”.
Thus are we left with a ship with no real purpose other than to act as the monument to yet another failed dream of EU integration. It is scarcely a “moment for pride” that we should leave our once truly proud Royal Navy equipped with little more than “HMS White Elephant”.