Controversial from the start, the UK’s new aircraft carrier program has endured many twists and turns. It is now 14 years since the government first defined the need for new carriers and it will be another four years before the first of the two Queen Elizabeth II-class warships is delivered. Beyond that, it will be another four years before the carrier-strike capability becomes fully operational, in 2020.
The second vessel is now being built but, on current budget projections, the country cannot afford to operate both. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has twice changed its mind on the type of F-35 stealth fighter to be operated from them.
At 65,000 metric tons displacement, the QEII and the Prince of Wales are the largest ships ever built in the UK, and are designed to support a variety of missions, such as amphibious or humanitarian operations, as well as air strikes. Described as eight acres of floating sovereign territory, they are three times the size of the three old Invincible-class carriers, which were originally designed for antisubmarine operations during the Cold War. Two of those warships have now been retired in defense cuts, along with the entire fleet of Harriers. One remains but only as a helicopter carrier.
The Invincible-class was originally designed for antisubmarine operations during the Cold War. The QE II-class replacements are designed to support a variety of missions, such as amphibious or humanitarian operations, as well as air strikes.
Between 1999 and 2002, BAE Systems and Thales UK worked on competing designs for the big ships. That work informed a decision in 2002 to buy the F-35B STOVL version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The original target for placing contracts was December 2003, with the first ship to be delivered in 2012, and the F-35Bs to follow in 2014.
Meanwhile, though, the government concluded that the development and construction task was so huge that an alliance approach between industry and the MoD was best. Politically driven considerations also played a part, especially in deciding which British shipyards would get the work. A building-block approach to construction would spread the work to some high-unemployment areas. No fewer than 16 shipyards or fabricators and 12 other major suppliers eventually contended for the big subcontracts.
The assessment phase continued with the Thales design adopted in partnership with BAE Systems. One unique feature was the two “islands” on the flight deck–one for air operations and air traffic control, the other for ship control and navigation. The carriers would be able to operate away from port for up to nine months and support air operations for up to 70 days.
Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) joined the alliance in early 2005 as the “physical integrator,” based on its expertise in the offshore oil industry. Babcock Engineering Services and VT Shipbuilding also joined in 2005. BAE Systems subsequently bought VT’s shipyard at Portsmouth.
There were protracted negotiations as the alliance members discussed the build strategy and sought assurance from each other on the risks involved. At the same time, the French government indicated interest in joining the program, since the British design met its requirements for a second carrier. France eventually decided that it couldn’t afford a second carrier.
Detailed design work continued into 2006, when a demonstration phase was launched. The carriers, which would have more than 2,500 separate compartments, were designed to be electrically powered by two Rolls-Royce gas turbines and four diesel generators. There also would be a highly mechanized weapons handling system. Long- and medium-range radars would be the same as on the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers and refitted Type 23 frigates, respectively.
The carriers would be assembled in Babcock’s shipyard at Rosyth from 25 building blocks constructed there and in five other shipyards, with some of the assemblies weighing 12,000 metric tonnes or more. Significantly, the all-steel construction would meet commercial standards, and the MoD has admitted to “a certain degree of risk with regard to shock and survivability.”
In July 2007, the MoD gave the go-ahead to build the carriers, at a “not-to-exceed cost” of £3.9 billion ($6.25 billion) including the foregoing assessment and demonstration stages. But it was another year before the incentivized target cost contract was signed. This called for the first warship to be delivered in 2014. Within six months, however, the MoD ordered a slowdown for budget reasons. This reduced short-term costs, but increased the ultimate bill. The latest target cost for the two carriers is £5.24 billion (about $8.4 billion).
Then came the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Faced with budget cuts of up to 30 percent, senior military commanders suggested canceling one or both carriers. But more than £1.5 billion had already been spent and canceling saved only £1.2 billion, partly because the government had just guaranteed shipyard work to BAE Systems for the next 15 years. In the end, the defense budget was cut by 7.5 percent and both carriers survived. But only one would enter service and it would be converted for catapult takeoffs and arrested landings so that the UK could switch its order for JSFs from the F-35B to the “more capable” U.S. Navy F-35C version. The other carrier would be mothballed or even sold.
Recently, the MoD reverted to the F-35B after it discovered–thanks to a £40 million study–that the cost of conversion to “cats and traps” could be a whopping £2 billion. The MoD also said that the next defense review in 2015 might provide enough funds to bring the second carrier into service.
Work on the two carriers is proceeding apace. The government’s audit body said that the alliance is working well, including the incentive provisions. Over 300 companies, not all of them in the UK, have gained contracts worth £1.6 billion. A dry dock at Rosyth has been modified into the UK’s biggest.
Some big blocks of the QEII have already arrived there from the other dockyards, floated around Britain’s coast. Two software integration facilities are up and running. Thales is leading on aviation equipment, integration of the F-35 and on power and propulsion. BAE Systems is responsible for the mission systems. The QEII is scheduled to be fully assembled in 2014 and delivered in June 2016, with the Prince of Wales following in September 2018. Sea trials should begin four months after these dates.
One key associated procurement has yet to be finalized. The carrier must also have an airborne early warning capability. The Royal Navy’s radar-equipped Sea King Mk 7s are nearing the end of their service lives. Embarrassed by its budget problems, the MoD has said little about their replacement. But Defence Secretary Philip Hammond recently announced that the “£38 billion black hole in the defense budget” has been eliminated. The MoD now plans to spend £152 billion (about $240 billion) on equipment over the next 10 years. More than £4 billion of that will be spent on ISR projects, including the carrier AEW capability that is codenamed Crows Nest.
Vexed Choice of Carrier F-35
In 2002, Britain committed approximately $3.2 billion to the development cost of the F-35, then estimated to cost $39 billion in total. That cost has risen to nearly $60 billion in current dollars, an increase borne entirely by the U.S. Meanwhile, 10 aerospace companies in the UK are supplying parts and equipment that is potentially worth billions of pounds over the life of the program. It seems like a good deal.
But while estimates of the F-35’s production cost have steadily increased, the UK’s defense budget has steadily decreased in real terms. The MoD sticks doggedly to the mantra that it doesn’t need to decide how many F-35s it will buy before 2015. But the SDSR reduced the number of F-35s to be routinely deployed onboard the new carrier from 36 to 12. The UK total may not be much more than half the originally-planned 138.
When the MoD switched to the F-35C version in 2010, it was good news for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The F-35 is also supposed to replace the RAF fleet of Tornado land-based strike aircraft. Its greater payload, range and internal weapons capacity made the F-35C a closer match to the ageing but still-very-capable “Tonka.” Moreover, the F-35C would have cost 10 to 20 percent less than the F-35B to acquire, depending on how the sums are done.
Now that the MoD has reverted to the F-35B, officials are making the best of it. The UK doesn’t have a 2,000-pound bomb, so it doesn’t matter that the F-35B weapons bay can take only 1,000-pound-class weapons. The STOVL version can be topped up by aerial refueling after takeoff, thus mitigating the range penalty. The additional cost of operating a cat-and-trap carrier, including the extra pilot training that is required, was over half that of the additional acquisition and support costs of the F-35B versus the F-35C, an senior MoD official said.
The F-35B’s development problems are also being discounted. “The F-35B is off probation now,” a senior British officer noted. Only last year, Rear Admiral Amjad Hussein told a parliamentary enquiry that “the STOVL aircraft is more complicated…it is trying to do some difficult things… it requires an awful lot of power…it probably needs to lose its stores before it can land.” Lockheed Martin program v-p Larry Lawson said earlier this year that “critical engineering challenges” on the F-35B had been solved. But the recent GAO report on the F-35 program noted that “three of the five fixes for the STOVL version are temporary and untested.”
Having recognized a few years ago that the F-35B still had a weight problem, despite the 2004 redesign, the MoD was contemplating a shipboard rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique to solve the “bring-back” problem. In a recent briefing to explain the decision to revert to the F-35B, the senior British officer confirmed to AIN that SRVL would now be further explored.
The F-35B is scheduled to make its first landing on the QE II sometime in 2018. If the switch to the F-35C had been sustained, there would have been a two-year delay. Meanwhile, the RAF’s prospective land-based operations of the F-35 have been largely overlooked in all the debate over the carriers. An RAF spokesman told AIN that the service was hoping to declare initial operating capability in 2018.