When, on Friday July 4th, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll presses a button or pulls a lever at the Rosyth Naval Dockyard on the Firth of Forth sending a bottle of fine Islay Malt whiskey directly onto the bows of the largest and most powerful ship ever built for the Royal Navy, a new era of carrier strike capability will have been born. 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 and delivery, defence diplomacy and in the unmatched ability and skills of the UK industrial base.
With the official naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers under construction by BAE Systems and Aircraft Carrier Alliance partners about to take place the first ship in CVF programme is entering a new and very important final construction stage ahead of planned Royal Navy commissioning in 2017. The official ceremony is not just a landmark in the plan for future UK defence capability it is, as the most complex warship ever built in the UK, one that should also be considered a triumph not only for UK manufacturing, but for the partnership between the MOD and the defence industrial base. Indeed, it is a time that industry, military and the nation as a whole really should be proud of the enormity and scale of what has been achieved in the CVF programme.
I do not intend to go into the history of politically induced delays that clearly impacted on cost of the CVF programme or indeed, into the perceived merits or otherwise of carrier strike capability. My view is that in this particular week we should be celebrating real achievement, real triumph and real industrial success by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance rather than posturing more criticism on past defence decisions by government.
I take the view that we are where we are in terms of future defence capability and affordability but I also believe that in a fast changing geo-political world we will, perhaps sooner than we currently imagine, turn a corner in terms of realisation that we need to spend more rather than less on defence capability, and for the important role that we play in NATO and in defending dependent territories, not to mention disaster relief assistance and of how we wish to project ourselves. Ten years from now I believe that we will look back on decisions to rebuild and deploy carrier strike capability as having been the absolute right one to take.
Clearly, during the CVF process there have been many politically induced mistakes not least some of those made in SDSR 2010 such as the immediate scrapping of HMS Ark Royal V and the Harrier GR9 force that left a huge gap in air and maritime force capability. Similarly the decision to reverse the original intention not to fit ‘cats and traps’ to the carriers proved to be one that provided an unacceptable degree of additional risk. That the SDSR 2010 decision to retrofit an EMALS system of ‘cats and traps’ was itself to be reversed two years later is in my view to be praised. Summing up, I would have to remind that CVF is not alone in having suffered political indecision. Indeed, it may be useful to remind that each and every UK aircraft carrier programme since 1944 has met with political hostility and indecision. That HMS Hermes, HMS Ark Royal lV and indeed, the three Invincible Class carriers of which HMS Illustrious is now the last still commissioned had been built at all may be regarded as a miracle. However, when we recall the many subsequent achievements of what all these fine ships delivered in their time, let that act as a useful reminder of the importance of carrier strike capability, for the deterrent force capability offered, defence diplomacy and projection or for the role played in NATO.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
Providing EIGHT acres of sovereign UK territory that can be deployed around the world, the two carriers which are 280 metres in length, have a range of 10,000 nautical miles and displacement of 65,000 tonnes are the largest and most powerful ships ever to have been constructed for the Royal Navy. Initially carrying a range of helicopters from 2020 the capability of HMS Queen Elizabeth will be enhanced with as the first STOVL versions of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning 11 aircraft operating from the massive deck. The Royal Navy’s upgraded fleet of carrier borne AgustaWestland Merlin Mk 2 helicopters are to be fitted with Crowsnest, an early-warning system using high power radar to provide long-range air, maritime and land tracking capabilities. Crowsnest will be an integral part of future carrier operations. The carriers will also be fitted with Phalanx, a radar-controlled Gatling gun that fires 20mm shells at a rate of 3,000 rounds per minute.
While the first of the two new carriers is about to be formally named, the mid-section of the second carrier HMS Prince of Wales, known as Lower Block 03, is due to arrive in Rosyth during July. A point worth making here is that considerable efficiency savings have been made due to lessons learned from the construction of the first ship. Two years behind the first of class ship the current plan in SDSR 2010 envisaged that HMS Prince of Wales would, when completed in 2019 move through a process of “extended readiness” that could extend several years. A final decision on the second carrier along with the number of F-35B variants likely to be ordered has been left to SDSR 2015. I will not speculate further but my hope is that both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will be commissioned for the carrier strike capability role as opposed to one of the ships potentially being sold. Much will also depend on whether the government seeks to increase defence spending, as it would need to do, if we are to remain over a desired 2% GDP spending limit.
Initiated in 1999 as the CVF project the history relating to final design agreement and contract award of the two aircraft carriers is long and highly complicated. In 2003/4 it looked quite possible that France might also join the programme but due to a variety of political and industrial complications this idea eventually subsided. Following several years of discussion and delay, planning arrangements that would lead to an eventual formal go-ahead for the CVF programme began to be put in place during 2005. In December of that year then Defence Secretary, John (now Lord) Reid announced formal plans for construction of the carriers by the Carrier Alliance. Further political debate on the issue continued and further progress did not occur until the 25th July 2007 when another Defence Secretary, this time Des Browne, confirmed the intention to place orders for the carriers. Eight months later in February 2008 then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown confirmed that the carriers would be built but once again, no date or indication of timing was given. However, in the same month Babcock International was awarded a £35m contract to modify and enlarge the No 1 dock gate at Rosyth in order to accommodate final assembly of the carriers. Indeed, various orders for material supply and equipment also occurred at that time and in July 2008 it was confirmed by the Government that orders worth £3bn had been signed, rather ironically on-board the now scrapped HMS Ark Royal V, between the MOD and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance.
Having personally visited BAE Systems Glasgow yards twice over the past three years to witness at first hand progress on the modular based construction process development I have on both occasions been hugely impressed. While the UK had retained requisite design and construction skills for the building of Royal Navy warships due to the size of the planned two carriers and the limit in terms of certain capacity; BAE Systems’ decision to adopt a modular construction approach proved to be perfect. Having gained much experience in this method of build process, particularly through the Type 45 Destroyer programme, there was in fact little choice but to go down the modular construction route, simply because neither Govan nor Scotstoun yards had an existing slipway long enough to build a full hull the size that the CVF ships had been designed.
Modular sections of the CVF ships were constructed at Govan and Scotstoun on the Clyde, and at BAE’s other shipyard in Portsmouth (formally part of VT), with final assembly taking place at Babcock International’s yard at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. On completion and fitting, the massive modular sections are then moved by barge to Rosyth for placement and final assembly. The build arrangement required significant investment on the part of the partners particularly in widening the entrance at the Rosyth dockyard facility. The CVF programme has sustained over 7,000 jobs over the period construction so far peaking at a higher level than this. Over 100 UK companies have been involved in supply.
The current projected cost of the two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers following contract revisions recently agreed is put at £6.2bn.
With the naming of the ship by HM Queen Elizabeth 11 on Friday, and the subsequent floatation (sometimes rather strangely referred to as flooding), it is anticipated that, following integration and fitting out completion, the first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will begin sea trials in 2017 and subsequently be handed over to the Royal Navy later that year. It is also anticipated that flights of the F-35B (STOVL) aircraft that are planned to be purchased from Lockheed Martin by the Government will occur in 2018.
Carrier Strike Capability
While the number of aircraft proposed to be acquired has never formally been confirmed, the belief is that 48 Joint Strike Fighter F-35 B STOVL variants will be acquired by the MOD.
So far the UK has ordered and received two operational test and evaluation (OT&E) aircraft (BK-1 and BK-2), and one training aircraft (BK-3). Another OT&E aircraft (BK-4) is believed to have been ordered. The intention is I believe that when all four aircraft have been delivered BK-1, BK-2, and BK-4 will transfer from Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida to Edwards Air Force Base in California later this year where it is proposed that they stand up as 17 (Fighter) Squadron for OT&E duties. BK-3 will remain at Eglin Air Base as part of the wider training fleet.
It is widely expected that the MOD will confirm purchase of 14 F-35B Lightning aircraft for delivery in 2016 and which are expected to be based at RAF Marham during the current month. These aircraft, purchased under Main Gate 4, are intended to allow 617 Squadron to stand up initially at Beaufort Pilot Training Centre, Marine Corp Air Station in South Carolina before the personnel and equipment is transferred to a revamped RAF Marham in April 2018. Initial operating capability is planned for December 2018.
The second UK F-35B unit will be formed by 809 Naval Air Squadron and which my understanding is that, as currently occurs in the US with the 50/50 joint Royal Air Force and Royal Navy shared basis of training personnel, will operate as combined unit with 617 Squadron.
As mentioned earlier, during 2018 F-35B operation on the first Royal Navy (HMS Queen Elizabeth) class carrier will commence, with a full operational capability both land and marine set for 2023. A decision on whether both carriers will be fielded will be announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review [SDSR] in 2015. While the programme of record remains at 138 aircraft, no firm numbers will be announced until the SDSR in 2015.
CHW (London) 30th June 2014
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS