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Hammond’s £350 million sub deal designed to sink F-35 debacle?

At Plymouth’s Devonport Dockyard, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond today announced that the MoD has signed off a £350 million refit of a Vanguard class submarine, securing 2,000 jobs as a result.

Defence contractor Babcock has been awarded the upgrade contract, supporting half of those 2,000 jobs as HMS Vengeance is fitted with a new reactor core, missile systems and an improved IT infrastructure.

“As well as securing 2,000 UK jobs, this contract will ensure the nuclear deterrent submarine fleet can continue to operate safely and effectively to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent,” Hammond said.

He goes on to assert the deal signifies the government’s commitment to investing in the UK’s defence industry as laid out in the MoD’s White Paper on procurement.

“Our White Paper published earlier this year said we would support key sovereign capabilities in British companies that help us to protect our national security and this contract with Babcock is evidence of that commitment.”

On today of all days, finding a prescient example of the MoD’s successful procurement process is no accident.

At 2.30pm today there was a Defence Questions session at the House of Commons where Labour MP’s lined up a string of questions about the Joint Strike Fighter programme. There comes the obvious question then, is the HMS Vengeance announcement meant to be a diversion as the coalition is pressured to clarify which F-35 variant the UK is actually procuring?

Alison Seabeck MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Minister, made a quick judgement, assuming that Hammond would not be present in Westminster today. “Instead of giving an important statement to Parliament on the future of the carriers the Secretary of State has travelled to Plymouth to tell us something which he could have signed off in Whitehall,” Seabeck said in a statement yesterday. But Seabeck was wrong; the Defence Secretary was present and made it clear that a final decision on the F-35 variant had not yet been taken.

Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy wrote for PoliticsHome earlier today demanding answers:

“To give the country confidence in the Government’s handling of the defence equipment programme and budget as a whole Ministers today need to answer serious questions. We must know how much reversal would cost, how many pilots have been trained with skills which could be wasted, whether we will ever achieve year-round carrier capability and when new jets will enter service to restore British firepower at sea.”

An announcement on whether the government was reverting on its decision to buy the F-35C carrier variant over the F-35B STOVL version was expected today. That decision has now been delayed until after Parliament’s Easter recess. Philip Hammond is thought to favour a U-turn on the cheaper F-35B variant. The QE class aircraft carrier programme has been the subject of much derision over the last few years, not least when it was revealed that of the two being build only one of them would in fact be put into active service while the other would be on “extended readiness” due to budgetary constraints. One advantage of reverting back to the F-35B variant is that both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Price of Wales could potentially be operational.

During the Defence Questions session, James Arbuthnot, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, said that many would “applaud” Hammond’s decision to revert back to the F-35B variant as it will save £2 billion.

In the telegraph yesterday a Whitehall source revealed that the numbers are playing a significant role in MoD’s deliberations over the JSF programme and that Hammond is right to push for this U-turn. “There will be short-term pain for the Government, but in the long run it is by far the best option. Adapting the carriers is skewing the defence budget out of shape.”

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