LONDON // Ministers will attempt this month to finally resolve an embarrassing fiasco over what jets will fly from Britain's next generation of aircraft carrier.
To the chagrin of the nation's military chiefs, the government has already prematurely decommissioned the nation's plane-carrying carrier in a defence cost-cutting exercise. The last, the Ark Royal, was taken out of service last year, leaving the Royal Navy with just two helicopter carriers.
Two new, 60,000-tonne carriers are being built at a cost of £7 billion (Dh41.22bn) but the first will not enter service for another seven years. And because of continuing spending restraints, the second is due to be mothballed as soon as it is built.
If all this were not causing enough consternation in military circles, the government is now dithering over exactly what sort of aircraft will fly from the one, operational carrier, the Prince of Wales.
The Labour government originally opted for the short take-off/vertical landing F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), being principally developed by the United States with Britain as a junior partner.
After the Conservative-led coalition government came to power in 2010, however, the prime minister, David Cameron, abandoned this plan and opted instead for the more conventional F-35C version, which requires a catapult to be launched and arrester wires when it lands.
At the time, Mr Cameron said he was abandoning Labour's plan for the jump jet because the aircraft was a "more expensive and less capable version" of the JSF.
By the beginning of March, however, the government was ready to change its mind yet again in what Jim Murphy, Labour's "shadow" defence secretary, described as "one of the biggest public procurement messes for many decades".
Mr Cameron appeared set to revert to the F-35B after being informed by the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, that the cost of equipping the Prince of Wales with the necessary "catapult and traps" to accommodate the F-35C had risen from £1.2bn to £2bn.
The government was prepared to announce the U-turn this week but, at the 11th hour, the US government intervened and urged Mr Cameron to stick to the F-35C, which the US navy will be operating from its carriers.
American concern stems from the fact that if Britain goes back to a carrier capable of launching only the jump-jet version, US aircraft would not be able to use it in joint operations.
Sean J Stackley, the US navy assistant secretary, insisted in a letter to Peter Luff, the UK's defence procurement minister, that the catapult equipment would not be as expensive as the British believed and that the US would help with the cost of the arrester-wire system.
Mr Cameron is now having a rethink about his rethink and has ordered the government's Major Project Review Group to embark on a cost analysis, the results of which will be considered by the National Security Council on April 17.
"The Americans are worried that, if Britain goes for the jump jet version, all the grand plans for operational carrier cooperation between the US, Britain and France will go out of the window," a diplomat in London said.
"Unfortunately, the whole affair has not been handled well and gives the impression that, when it comes to ordering defence equipment, the government does not really know what it's up to. In truth, it's all about trying to keep costs down."