By David Bond, Security and Defence Editor
FT.com -- 19 December 2017
The biggest and most expensive warship commissioned by the UK’s Royal Navy is leaking, the Ministry of Defence admitted on Tuesday. Just two weeks after the warship was officially handed over to the navy in a ceremony attended by the Queen in Portsmouth, it has emerged that the £3.1bn HMS Queen Elizabeth has a stern seal leak around a propeller shaft.
A navy spokesperson said the leak was identified during sea trials, adding that it was scheduled to be repaired “while it is alongside in Portsmouth”.
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Reports of the leak, which first appeared in the Sun newspaper, come on the same day MPs have warned that an “unacceptable” lack of transparency threatens to undermine public confidence in the British military’s F-35 fighter jet programme.
In a report published on Tuesday, the Commons Defence Committee said the MoD’s failure to “provide adequate cost estimates, either on an overall programme basis or on a per-aircraft basis” was “wholly unsatisfactory”.
“It amounts to an open-ended financial commitment which can be quantified only in retrospect,”
the report said. The MoD is confronting a funding black hole of £20bn over the next decade.
In a separate report published on Sunday, the Defence Committee said it had “serious doubts” about the MoD’s ability to make the savings required to fund its £178bn new equipment programme.
The purchase of 48 US-made F-35B jets, which will fly from the two new aircraft carriers that are expected to come into service in the early 2020s, is one of the largest elements of the equipment programme. However, the programme has been hit by multiple setbacks, including concerns over spiralling costs. Unlike other combat jet programmes, the F-35 has evolved during production, with the manufacturer Lockheed Martin fixing problems as they arise.
Stephen Lovegrove, permanent secretary to the MoD, said last month that the first tranche of 48 F-35s would cost £9.1bn by 2026, rising to £13bn by 2048. The UK has said it will eventually buy 138 F-35s but has not provided an estimate for the overall cost.
Both the MoD and Lockheed Martin say the cost per aircraft will fall during the life of the programme. The US company says the latest version costs $122.3m each, a 38 per cent reduction on the cost of the first consignment delivered to the RAF.
At the weekend, the UK took delivery of its 14th F-35 at an air base in Beaufort, South Carolina, where the aircraft is being tested. However, the Defence Committee said that while it understood the procurement process meant each lot of F-35s was subject to an individual negotiation process, it was
“simply not acceptable for the Ministry of Defence to refuse to disclose to parliament and the public its estimates for the total cost of the programme, and to suggest instead that we must wait until the mid-2030s”.
A spokesperson for the MoD said the department strongly refuted the “suggestion of a lack of transparency in the F-35 programme”.
“As ministers, civil servants and members of our armed forces have emphasised, the programme remains on track, on time, within costs and not only offers our military the world’s most advanced fighter jet but will support over 24,000 British jobs,”
the spokesperson said.
The MoD added that it would be “irresponsible” to publish in-house estimations for costs 50 years in the future. Lockheed Martin said on Tuesday it had “resolved challenges throughout the F-35’s development phase” and it would continue to “implement efficiencies and reduce costs”.