The RAF aerobatic team Red Arrows mark the naming of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth by Queen Elizabeth II in Rosyth, Scotland. (Photo by Chris Watt/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth has officially named the biggest warship
Britain has ever built amid uncertainty over Scotland's
coming independence referendum and future British defence
A crowd of 4,000 gathered in this Scottish port to watch pipe
bands and dancers perform before the monarch pressed a button
to smash a bottle of Scotch whisky against the hull of the
HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new aircraft carriers
worth 6.2 billion pounds ($US10.6 billion).
British Prime Minister David Cameron was in the audience
along with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, a champion
of independence in the Sept. 18 vote, and stressed the links
between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
"HMS Queen Elizabeth is the flagship of our nation's maritime
ambition," Cameron said in a statement released by his
office. "She is an investment in the future of British
security, British prosperity and our country's place in the
Britain's defence sector employs more than 12,600 people in
Scotland, according to government figures, with around 4,000
jobs directly linked to the aircraft carriers project.
The Union flag flew prominently from the 65,000 tonne ship's
mast, while a Royal Marine Band played the British national
anthem twice during the 90 minute-long ceremony.
Apart from the referendum context, the show of military might
and engineering expertise also came at a time of financial
uncertainty. It is not clear if the identical second vessel,
which is already being built, will join the Royal Navy's
The government won't decide its future until a defence
spending review in the second half of next year. Defence
experts say it could still be mothballed or sold.
Nor is it known how many U.S.-built F-35 jets it will carry.
The carrier project is already 2.6 billion pounds over the
original budget set out seven years ago.
The original plan was to buy 138 F-35s, but so far London has
only committed to 48 and bought just three for training.
The U.S. military on Thursday said it had grounded its entire
fleet of F-35 jets pending engine inspections after a fire
last month on an Air Force F-35A jet.
Even though it has made cuts, Britain remains the world's
fourth biggest military spender and Cameron says an
independent Scotland would struggle to match Britain's armed
Scottish nationalists dismiss that, saying they don't want
Britain's nuclear weapons on Scottish soil and wouldn't need
such a powerful military anyway.
Britain has cut defence spending by around 8 percent over the
last four years as part of a government plan to reduce a
record budget deficit, leaving it with an army which by 2020
will be its smallest since the Napoleonic Wars of the early
nineteenth century. The Royal Navy has also been hard hit.
It had 50,500 personnel in 1995 but now has only 33,350. The
fleet size has also shrunk. In 2005, it had 11 destroyers, 20
frigates and 11 tactical submarines. Today, it has only six
destroyers, 13 frigates and seven tactical submarines.
While Britain was one of only four NATO partners to meet
their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence
last year, both U.S. and British military officials have said
spending cuts could affect its ability to fight wars.
With a deck the size of three football pitches and a belly
that can fit a mix of about 40 jets or helicopters inside,
HMS Queen Elizabeth is meant to be a gamechanger.
"In terms of size, scale and ability to deliver increased
strategic effect and international influence, the two
aircraft carriers under construction for the Royal Navy
represent a step change in military capability," independent
defence analyst Howard Wheeldon said.
Analysts say the $10.6 billion bill for the pair built by the
Aircraft Carrier Alliance - a consortium including British
engineering companies BAE Systems and Babcock, and the UK
division of France's Thales - is good value in comparison to
the U.S., which spent an estimated $12.9 billion on its new
The decision about the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, will
be made by a new government elected in a vote in May 2015.
Britain's economy is improving but the defence budget is
likely to remain under pressure for some time.