WEARING fresh grey paint, HMS Illustrious steamed out of Plymouth this week under brooding skies, leaving an uncertain prospect for the workers who had completed her major refit.
The aircraft carrier, one of three remaining in the British fleet, underlined the two, often competing factors which lie behind defence spending. There is the strategic - weapons must maintain Britain's role in world affairs - and the political - they provide large numbers of jobs.
As Captain Richard Phillips explained, after sea trials and final proving of the new onboard computer, Illustrious will take up a role somewhere off Bosnia. If Bosnia has miraculously become peaceful, it will have a similar policing role elsewhere, her computer equipping her to become a command centre for the forces of several nations, now including non- Nato ones.
The political dimension is the one that concerns the workforce left watching as she headed for the open sea past Plymouth Hoe. There have been shipyards in the town since well before Drake sank the Armada, but as Illustrious departed, for the first time the order book for surface vessels has been left looking empty.
The yard employs 4,500 permanent staff, plus 200-300 casual employees. It has shed 7,000 jobs in seven years since privatisation, but is still one of Plymouth's few big employers. For locals, the town without Devonport would be inconceivable, psychologically and economically.
Only 2,500 staff are needed for submarines. Sidelines such as railway engine and big yacht refurbishment help a little, but the sums are there for anyone to do.
'With finishing the Illustrious refit, we have worked very hard and in effect stepped off the edge of a cliff,' Peter Whitehouse, business development director, said.
Britain has two remaining naval dockyards to maintain its fleet; the other is Rosyth in Fife. Last year Devonport convinced the Ministry of Defence it was more efficient than Rosyth, and won a long and bitter fight to carry out work on the Trident nuclear submarine programme, starting later this decade.
Devonport's management believed that there was room for only one dockyard with the diminished Navy. They thought they had won the right to survive and become even more efficient, while Rosyth had lost, and should close.
But to the anger of Devonport, Rosyth was given a major consolation prize, the lion's share of the work on surface vessels up to the end of the century.
There are only two refit orders coming on the open market in the next year - for a destroyer, HMS Birmingham, and HMS Cornwall, a frigate. Devonport will not even be allowed to tender.
Mr Whitehouse said: 'It's not like there's 15 ships in the next few months and you can assume you'll win about a third of them; it's like an on-of switch. You either get one or you don't'
He picked up his mobile telephone as the ship went past his office, and told his secretary to look out of the window because Ilustrious was passing. He did not say so, but they both knew it might be the last chance to see an aircraft carrier in that stretch of sea.
The Ministry of Defence has asked us to point out that contrary to our report on the Defence White Paper in Wednesday's issue, Devonport dockyard has been invited to tender for the refits of both HMS Birmingham and HMS Cornwall.Reuse content