A former commanding officer of HMS Ark Royal today described the Government's decision to leave future aircraft carriers without aircraft as "incoherent" and "unstrategic".
Rear Admiral Terry Loughran, who was at the helm of Ark Royal from 1993 to 1994 during the Bosnian conflict, said he understood the funding pressures and rationale for scrapping the fleet flagship early.
But he said the decision to have no flight capability on aircraft carriers for up to 10 years would lead to a massive loss of skills and knowledge.
Mr Loughran, who helped design the flight capability of the next generation of carriers, said the decision to adapt the ships to host conventional aircraft rather than those with hover capabilities would lead to greater long-term costs.
He said: "Ark Royal is the best known ship's name to the nation and it's very sad to see the pride of the fleet to go in this way.
"But the ship itself is only steel and its heart is the people in it and that support will live on.
"One has to be realistic in the stringent financial situation we find ourselves at the moment.
"However, it is the scrapping of the Harriers that gives me the greatest concern and highlights that the review is far from strategic.
"The Harriers were the logical link to the Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) and I have heard Dr Liam Fox say that we have done without them before, but flying from sea is a very perishable skill.
"If we get rid of the Harriers, where in fact will the next batch of fixed wing pilots go for the next 10 years?
"One will lose a huge wealth of skill as they drift off elsewhere.
"Where are they going to go for the next 10 years? They are not going to the RAF which is facing its own cuts.
"One has mixed feelings - the nation has its aircraft carriers but it is actually incoherent to get rid of the Harriers in advance of replacing the aircraft.
"It is not the Navy that will be viewed as a laughing stock, it is the nation that will be viewed as a laughing stock to have built such a capability which reflects the (Government's defence) policy and then not to provide the aircraft to go on them."
Mr Loughran, whose last post with the Navy before retirement was Flag Officer Naval Aviation, said that the decision to scrap Ark Royal appeared to have been decided on financial and not strategic terms.
He said a future decision to mothball or sell one of the new carriers would be robbing the nation of an important strategic asset.
Mr Loughran said: "There's been a lot of 'the Navy's going to get these two carriers so they are going to have to pay for them elsewhere'. This is not truly strategic."
Mr Loughran added that the decision to adapt the new carriers to use catapult devices to support conventional aircraft would lead to extra expenses.
He explained: "Once you start to fly conventional fixed wing aircraft you have a much higher training bill, in bad weather you can't land so you need tanker aircraft."
Mr Loughran, who is chairman of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, added that the new aircraft carriers were an essential part of defending the nation which is reliant on the seas for more than 90% of its trade.
He said: "The fundamental problem is the public at large do not understand the role of the carriers, they see them as large and expensive.
"These are still small alongside the American carriers but we actually have two-thirds of the capability for one-third of the cost.
"They are a thorough defence asset, a national asset, for forging power and delivering humanitarian aid through providing huge flexibility for the whole of the armed forces."Reuse content