How 13 Whitehall mandarins crippled British aircraft carriers

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The 13 mandarins chosen performed these impossible accounting miracles by ensuring that no one else, even within the MoD, knew what they were doing.

The triumvirate controlling the group of 13 was Ursula Brennan; General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defense Staff; and Bernard Gray, Chief of Defense Materiel. They made sure that only they and their chosen 10 subordinates were allowed to see the briefing they had prepared for the National Security Council.

In theory, a MoD minister other than Philip Hammond was also allowed to see the figures – Sir Peter Luff, defense procurement minister – but I have since interviewed him and he says no one told him anything.

This secrecy was lucky for Richards, Gray and Brennan as the figures they produced to back up the £2billion leaks for the catapults were not at all believable.

First, the Mandarins inflated the cost of US-made catapult equipment by over £300 million, despite written US cost guarantees. It was also claimed that buying this US equipment would mean paying substantial sales tax – but it was UK VAT!

Not only would UK VAT cost the Treasury nothing, it wouldn’t have to be paid anyway: under VAT law, a simple international agreement, which the US would gladly have signed, would have removed the responsibility.

Apart from these fictitious “costs”, the estimate of the builders for the adaptation of one of their “adaptable” ships suddenly jumped by 60% compared to the 2010 figure.

However, even all of this was not enough to reach £2 billion: the total then stood at £1.766 billion.

At this point, the 13 Mandarins decided they needed to add a substantial figure for any inflation that might occur before the catapult deals were signed, the inking they simultaneously insisted was imminent. The mandarins opted for a figure of 13.25% inflation. This, in 2012.

This meant that the new estimated cost of adapting an adaptable carrier came to – damn it – exactly £2billion. Not £1.999 billion, not £2.001 billion: £2 trillion precisely.

The exact figure that had already been leaked by “defense insiders” several months before the 13 mandarins even started working on that estimate, in fact.

A remarkable coincidence

The 13 Mandarins did not stop there. With an unexplained stroke of the pen, they drastically reduced the cost difference between the F-35B and C versions. Comparing these extremely low costs to the fictitious and inflated £2 billion catapult bill, it was simply possible to argue that canceling the catapult program would save money.

An inconvenient report from the MoD Research Office at the time, marked SECRET – UK EYES ONLY, was simply ignored.

The report stated that a much larger number of jumpjets would be needed to achieve the same combat power as a given number of F-35C catapult aircraft.

I’ve been able to view that report since, and it also states that the lifetime cost of a fleet of F-35C catapults would be over £2.4 billion cheaper than the F-35B jumpjet – more than dashing even the comical £2billion estimate for the catapults.

Richards, Brennan and Gray forgot to include the findings of this report in their briefing to the Prime Minister.

Even all this creative accounting couldn’t make a non-catapult carrier with jumpjets look any cheaper than a catapult carrier with F-18 Hornets, so the 13 Mandarins apparently ignored the existence of the F-18 (and the French Rafale).

These planes were not even mentioned in the briefing to the Prime Minister and the National Security Council.

When the 13 mandarins were then asked why these facts had not been included, they tellingly replied that they had “excluded these alternative jets because they would require catapults and arresting devices”.

Open and close. Richards, Gray, Brennan and the rest of the 13 Mandarins were not, in fact, trying to save money, except perhaps in the very short term. They were trying to kill the catapult carrier project: and in that they succeeded – at least, so far. In May 2012, the decision to cancel the catapult was announced.

As a result, last year the Queen Elizabeth, several escort ships and 3,700 sailors, airmen and marines found themselves in near unarmed danger.

Lord Richards, Sir Bernard Gray and Dame Ursula Brennan did not respond to requests for comment.

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