EXCLUSIVE: Cameron in humiliating u-turn on future of Britain's aircraft carriers with return of the jump jet
Tim Shipman and Ian Drury
U-turn: David Cameron has agreed to scrap the aircraft that were due to fly off carriers and replace them with jump jets that he had previously rejected
David Cameron has agreed to perform a u-turn on the future of Britains aircraft carriers.
In a humiliating reversal, the Prime Minister has agreed to scrapping the aircraft that were due to fly off the troubled warships and replace them with jump jets which he had previously rejected.
Senior Downing Street sources say Mr Cameron has decided to follow the advice of military chiefs by abandoning plans to buy the conventional F-35C Joint Strike Fighter after costs soared by £1.8billion.
Instead, the Government will revert to the F-35B version which take off and land like the Harrier jump jet - a move they controversially axed in 2010.
The decision will be especially embarrassing for Mr Cameron because the jump jet was Labours choice and when he overturned it they derided it as an error.
But an ongoing review of the programme ordered by Downing Street has found a string of problems with buying a fleet of F-35C jets.
A senior security source said the decision has been made and will be signed off by the National Security Council in the next two to three weeks.
All the evidence points in one direction, the source said. It will have to be formally looked at by the NSC.
Mr Cameron had resisted calls by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to change the decision - which was originally announced by his predecessor Liam Fox in 2010.
But a source close to the Prime Minister said he had now been persuaded: If David has to make what are very difficult political decisions he wants to make absolutely sure that theyre the right ones.
Scrapped: The PM has followed military chiefs in abandoning plans to buy the conventional F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, pictured in a U.S. Navy test flight, after costs soared by £1.8billion
If the government had opted to press on with the refit of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, pictured in an artist's impression, it could have delayed the carriers by another seven years
No 10 officials said the rising cost of the aircraft and the fact that the conventional version of the aircraft is now badly delayed has forced the change of heart.
Pressing on with the refit could delay the £6.2billion HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales by another seven years - until 2027. This was considered untenable, militarily and politically, said one source.
The major problem with the conventional aircraft is that we would be without carrier capability for far too long, the Downing Street source said.
The cost of fitting the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth carriers with cats and traps so the F-35C aircraft can be launched and land without plunging from the decks into the sea has trebled from around £600,000.
Humiliation: Labour's Jim Murphy said the decision showed the ' the Government acted without strategy and in haste
The existing programme would also provide only one operable carrier, rather than two, because of the huge cost of installing an electromagnetic catapult system and arrester wires.
The F-35C warplanes are also too heavy to land on the deck of Frances Charles de Gaulle carrier. Compatibility with the French vessel was a key reason for ministers switching aircraft in the first place.
The latest decision will also heighten criticism of the Government for selling its fleet of 70 Harriers - instrumental in winning the Falklands War - to the U.S. for just £100million last year.
Top brass are understood to be ready to present Mr Cameron with the overwhelming case to switch aircraft even though the jump jet cannot fly as far and carries fewer bombs.
One senior official said: It [a reversion to the F-35B] is fully endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, importantly including the Royal Navy and RAF. The Prime Minister is not expected to make a formal announcement until next month at the earliest.
Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy said: This u-turn would be a humiliation for the Prime Minister.
The Government acted without strategy and in haste. The aircraft carrier programme goes to the heart of our ability to act in the world but is now confused and incoherent.
Prime Ministerial hubris has combined with departmental incompetence and left British air power at sea degraded.
An MoD spokesman said the cash-strapped department was finalising its 2012-13 budget and reviewing all programmes, including elements of the carrier strike programme, to validate costs.
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