The move comes just 24 hours after Clyde shipyards celebrated after it was revealed that building work on two new carriers will go ahead as originally planned.
Prime Minister David Cameron will announce a series of defence cuts today which he claims will do away with Britain’s “woefully inadequate” security structure, more suited to the Cold War than responding to modern threats like terrorism or cyber attacks.
He will reveal plans to scrap the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier when its sister ship the Prince of Wales becomes fully operational in 2020, leaving the UK with only one flagship carrier at sea.
Labour MP Ian Davidson, who represents the Glasgow South constituency which contains the Govan shipyard, attacked the plans.
He said: “Considering not flying planes off them is incompetence and mismanagement on a grand scale.
“It would be totally wrong for Britain to lose all our ability to project air power in support of troops, wherever in the world we need to deploy them.”
The government will unveil its Strategic Defence and Security Review this afternoon, setting out the fate of Britain’s fleet of aircraft carriers.
HMS Ark Royal, the Navy’s flagship carrier, is to be taken out of service. HMS Illustrious, another carrier, will continue as a platform for helicopters.
HMS Ocean, a purpose-built helicopter platform, will be mothballed.
The first of the two new carriers to be built on the Clyde, the Queen Elizabeth, will begin two years of sea trials in 2014. She will then be used as a helicopter platform before being mothballed in 2019.
The Prince of Wales will enter trials in 2017 and will become operational two years later but will also spend a year as a helicopter platform. After that the ship will start to carry the new Joint Strike Fighter jet and become the Royal Navy’s flagship.
A senior defence official defended the cuts and claimed the loss of aircraft carriers would not leave Britain vulnerable.
“At present, we don’t envisage we will need carrier strike capability because we have land-based aircraft that can do the job but we might need it in future,” he said.
As well as warships and fighter jets, tanks and thousands of troops face the axe in the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The government is expected to make clear that international terrorism from al Qaeda was the “most pressing threat” to national security. It will also flag up new threats such as cyber-crime, a problem that is becoming so serious that an estimated $1trillion is stolen from online bank accounts globally each year.
This follows a warning by Iain Lobban, the director of the GCHQ electronic spy monitoring agency, that Government computers were receiving 20,000 “malicious” e-mails a month. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, warned that, unless the cyber threat was addressed, it could threaten the UK’s economic welfare.
Mr Cameron is expected to announce a £500m boost to the nation’s cyber security.
“This strategy is about gearing Britain up for this new age of uncertainty, weighing up the threats we face and preparing to deal with them,” said the Prime Minister in a document released ahead of the review last night. “As a government, we have inherited a defence and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today.”
In a separate development, there were reports last night that the replacement for Trident could be delayed for up to five years and not come into service until 2028.
Angus Robertson, for the SNP, said: “The acknowledgment that the equipment we have available is still too rooted in the Cold War mind-set does make it absolutely extraordinary that renewal of Trident has been excluded from this review process.”
The Government has also drawn up a list of threats to the UK.
The threat of terrorism from Northern Ireland is placed in the “tier one” category, the most severe, along with natural disasters such as flooding and an international military crisis that draws in Britain.
“Tier two” threats include attacks using weapons of mass destruction, overseas conflict, organised crime, and disruption to satellite communications.
A conventional military attack on the UK is rated as a “tier three” priority, alongside disruption to oil and gas supplies and a large-scale radioactive release from a civil nuclear site.
In a phone call to President Barack Obama last night to explain the strategy, Mr Cameron said the UK would remain a “first rate military power and a robust ally” and that it was committed to its Nato role.