So the Type 45 air-defence destroyers are going to need open-heart surgery to fix their defective power plants – further starving our shrunken navy of desperately-needed cash.
Such a pity, then, that at the behest of UK industrial interests we chose, in the late 90s, to pull out of Project Horizon – a collaboration with France and Italy to build just such a destroyer. The French and Italians had between them, already developed far-and-away the best anti-air missile; so we kept that, and set about building our own vessel to mount it on. The avowed aim was to keep the ship ‘cheap and cheerful’ – little more than a barge to carry the missile system.
The sequel is predictable. The navy wanted a bit more of this and a bit more of that. With no partners to restrain them, Type 45 grew into the largest and most expensive destroyer ever: years late, its intended numbers have had to be halved because of cost over-runs. And now the cutting-edge power system sold to a credulous customer by industry turns out not to work.
The Franco/Italian destroyer, by the way, came in on time and close to budget and has already provided years of service with the original power systems going strong.
But, when it comes to eyes bigger than the belly, our navy has form. If current frigate and destroyer number are much reduced, this is largely down to the exorbitant costs of the two, exorbitantly large, new aircraft carriers currently under construction – for which, famously, we have not yet been able to afford aircraft to put on them. These were always intended, at 40,000 tonnes plus according to the 1998 defence review that announced them, to be bigger than the Falklands-era carriers that preceded them (under 30,000). But steel is cheap and air is free, the Navy cheerfully decided – so the behemoths now emerging have mysteriously swelled to 70,000 tonnes. With no single British yard capable of building such monsters, they have had to be built in pieces and assembled in new facilities, No wonder the costs of the whole project have grown by a factor of 3.
And let’s not even start on the disaster which has been the Astute hunter-killer submarine programme.
So no wonder the navy is so short of operational hulls. But to blame this situation on the stinginess of the tax-payer does rather take the breath away.