The Royal Navy's pending class of two aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, could end up costing more than double what government officials initially projected, according to a BBC report today. It underscores how big a deal it was for the U.K. to decide to buy F-35C Lightning IIs, as opposed to the delayed B version. When the Brits shifted to the Cs last fall, it was read in Washington as just another blow against the B, but many Americans may not have realized the consequences it would also have in today's Austerity Britain. The Royal Navy now needs to redesign one or both carriers to accommodate the conventional C models, and that could raise the cost of the ships from £5.2 billion -- or about $8.7 billion -- to £7 billion, or about $11.7 billion.
Or it could be worse -- although there's a light at the end of the tunnel, wrote the BBC's Robert Peston:
One defence industry veteran said the final bill was bound to be nearer £10 billion, though a government official insisted that was way over the top. The Ministry of Defence and the Treasury believe that total final costs could be nearer £6bn, if only one of the carriers is reconfigured to take the preferred version of America's Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. An MoD official said no final decision had been taken on whether the first carrier to be built, the Queen Elizabeth, or the second carrier, the Prince of Wales, or both would be reconfigured. He said it would probably be the case that changing the design specification for the Prince of Wales would be the cheapest option.The Royal Navy likes to look on the bright side: It argues that the F-35C will end up being a more capable aircraft (longer range, more payload) and cheaper to buy per bird. And it will make the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales -- or whichever one is the full-fledged carrier -- an equal partner with the U.S. in a potential future conflict, launching first-day-of-the-war sorties with the same aircraft that the Americans will be flying. Assuming, of course, that Britons are willing to continue paying what it costs to field carriers and air wings.
But if that happened, it is not clear when - if ever - the Queen Elizabeth, due to enter service in 2019, would actually be able to accommodate jets (as opposed to helicopters). Whatever happens, the increase in the bill will be substantial - and is only regarded by the Treasury as affordable because the increment is likely to be incurred later than 2014/15, when the expenditure constraints put in place by the Chancellor's spending review come to an end.