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Progress made but risks apparent for QE class programme, says report

Warship Technology: May 2017

Construction of the UK Royal Navy’s new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, is nearing completion and the Ministry of Defence has clear plans to achieve an initial carrier strike operating capability by December 2020. This could, however, be delayed by technical issues which have yet to be resolved.


The inaugural sailing of the first carrier is expected in summer 2017, approximately three months later than planned because of technical issues related to the commissioning of the ship’s systems. The Ministry of Defence is assessing their impact on the overall schedule but it believes that the current target of accepting the first carrier from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (an alliance between the Ministry of Defence and industry) by the end of 2017 is achievable.


In 1998, the Ministry of Defence decided to replace its Invincible-class aircraft carriers with two larger, more versatile carriers and to replace its Harrier jets with a new generation of fast jets. Deploying a carrier and jets, with a new radar system, is referred to as ‘carrier strike’. This is the first step towards ‘Carrier Enabled Power Projection’ (CEPP), which the government considers will allow it greater flexibility in responding to conflicts, engaging with allies and supporting humanitarian relief efforts. CEPP will allow the UK to deploy military capabilities from anywhere in the world. By making a long-term commitment to projecting power in this way, the government has signalled that it intends the carriers to form a significant part of its response to changes in global security.


The two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, and will be an important defence capability for the next 50 years. Deploying the carriers will involve much of the navy’s existing fleet to protect and supply them. The Ministry of Defence is committed to buying 48 F-35B Lightning II aircraft to fly from the carriers. This is the first tranche of the 138 Lightning II aircraft that the UK has committed to purchasing over the life of the programme. These sophisticated jets will employ stealth technology, allowing them to fly in contested airspace, a significant military advantage. As well as flying from the carriers, the Lightning II jets will be used for land-based operations. The US-led F-35 programme is the largest defence programme in history.


The Ministry of Defence plans to use the Carrier Strike role from 2021. This will involve flying a squadron of up to 12 Lightning II jets from a carrier, supported by a new airborne radar system called Crowsnest to detect threats beyond the horizon. Between 2021 and 2026, the department will introduce the second carrier and a second squadron of Lightning II jets. It will complete trials and training to allow the carriers to perform a range of roles, including acting as helicopter carriers or transporting military forces. This represents the full CEPP capability.


The ministry is now close to moving from the build to the operational phase of the programme. The first carrier is nearing completion and the build of the second (HMS Prince of Wales) is progressing well. System testing is being carried out before the Royal Navy formally accepts the first carrier from the supplier by the end of 2017. The UK has a growing fleet of Lightning II jets, and is training pilots in the US. The first squadron is expected in the UK in August 2018. The Department signed a contract for Crowsnest in November 2016.


The next phase between 2017 and 2020 will be critical to establishing the capability. The Ministry of Defence must bring together the carriers, Lightning II jets, and Crowsnest with trained crews and supporting infrastructure, logistics, communications and surveillance. It needs to test and operate all these elements together in preparation for deploying Carrier Strike in 2021.


“The next three years will be critical to establishing the carrier strike capability,” said the report. “The Ministry of Defence must bring together the carriers, Lightning II jets, and Crowsnest radar airborne radar to detect threats beyond the horizon, (fitted to Royal Navy helicopters flying from the carriers) with trained crews and supporting infrastructure, logistics, communications and surveillance. It needs to test and operate all these elements together in preparation for deploying Carrier Strike in 2021.


“The Ministry of Defence has set an ambitious master schedule which brings together the interdependent schedules of the three core programmes to achieve the full capability by 2026. It has taken a number of decisions to address slippage which has compressed the schedule and added risk with limited contingency. There are operational unknowns which will only become clear during testing.” Among these is the first sailing of HMS Queen Elizabeth, followed by flying trials of Lightning II jets from the carrier at sea in 2018.


The NAO found there is increasing pressure on a few highly trained personnel to operate the capability. There is a shortage of military personnel, running at 4% below target strength of 145,560. Staffing gaps include engineering roles and warfighting specialists in the Royal Navy and engineering, intelligence and some aircrew cadres in the RAF. To minimise the impact of these gaps on carrier strike, the Ministry of Defence is prioritising it and carrying out targeted recruitment.


The Aircraft Carrier Alliance and the Ministry of Defence are dealing with potential cost growth of between 1% and 2% on the £6.212 billion (US$7.680 billion) approved cost of both carriers. The Ministry of Defence has not accepted this increase and is working with the Alliance to minimise any cost growth. It has brought forward Lightning II costs originally planned for after 2020, so that two squadrons of jets are available sooner. The total forecast spend of £5.8 billion (US$7.1 billion) on Lightning II procurement to 2020 could change if foreign exchange rates shift and the total number of jets on order globally varies.


Cost forecasts
The forecast costs of supporting and operating carrier strike are less certain. Support and maintenance costs to March 2021 are forecast at £1.3 billion (US$1.6 billion). Contracts, however, have not been let, and requirements will continue to be refined as the equipment is used. Historically, the Ministry of Defence has underestimated the costs of supporting its equipment. Operational costs up to March 2021 are estimated to be £0.6 billion (US$0.7 billion).


Introducing carrier strike will fundamentally affect how the Royal Navy works. It will need to move away from deploying single ships to using a significant proportion of its fleet to support and protect the carriers. Before the Ministry of Defence can operate the carriers and jets together as carrier strike, there will be an intensive period of training, trials and further work. This period is crucial to ensure crews can safely operate the equipment and give the Ministry of Defence confidence the capability works as intended. It has examined the feasibility of deploying carrier strike before December 2020 and advised against it in anything other than an operational emergency.


The NAO noted that the Ministry of Defence has made decisions that could limit how its uses carrier strike. The carriers and Lightning II jets rely greatly on technology for military advantage. Technological failures on the carriers might mean that larger crews are needed or place greater pressure on existing personnel. The design and testing of the US-led Lightning II programme is happening concurrently until 2019, increasing the risk that jets already in the UK fleet need modifications. This could reduce the number available for forming the first squadron in readiness for first carrier-based deployment in 2021.


The Ministry of Defence has accelerated its purchase of Lightning II jets, which will support pilot training, but the number of pilots will be just sufficient up to 2026 with limited resilience in the event that personnel decide to leave the services. Additionally, it is relying on an unusually high level of simulator-based training for pilots which, if not sufficiently realistic, could limit how well prepared pilots are to operate the jets. It has decided to fit Crowsnest radar systems to Royal Navy helicopters that are already in demand, rather than buying new aircraft. High helicopter demand could limit the availability of Crowsnest to protect the carriers.


“The department has made good progress and clear plans to achieve an initial carrier strike operating capability by December 2020, but it still has a lot to do as it brings together the equipment, trained crews, infrastructure and support,” said the NAO. “Problems in any of these areas could mean use of the carriers is delayed or reduced. The programme will shortly move into a high-risk period of trials, testing and training which may affect plans and increase costs. The closely timed sequence of tasks offers no further room for slippage and there remain significant risks to value for money.”


Difficult decisions ahead
“To achieve its plan, the Ministry of Defence needs to coordinate many tasks across the Commands. It will have to make difficult decisions to accommodate the demands that use of the carriers will place on existing equipment and manpower, particularly for the Royal Navy. It has put in place arrangements to support these decisions, but they will only be fully tested as the capability is introduced.


“The next three years are critical as the programme moves into a high-risk period of trials, testing and training. The technology is innovative and operational unknowns, which will only become clear during testing, may affect plans and increase costs. To recover earlier delays, the ministry has already compressed the timetable and is running some testing in parallel with other tasks. The closely timed sequence of tasks offers no further room for slippage and there remain significant risks to value for money,” said the NAO.


“The department should maintain a realistic view of the aggregate risk and review the master schedule and key milestones regularly. This will help to mitigate the risk of the schedule driving poor decision-making that does not make operational sense or that leads to greater risks or compromises elsewhere,” the report said, noting that it also needs to guard against over-ambition and robustly resist any pressure to bring operational dates forward. “In assessing any decision to use elements of Carrier Strike before December 2020, the department should set out the risks of doing so, the impact on achieving the full capability and the wider impact on defence,” the NAO said.


“It needs to make the decisions needed to integrate carrier strike into wider defence capability within the department’s next annual planning round. This will help identify where there are conflicts such as overcommitting equipment or differing views on deployment. Clarity about these issues will be important for ensuring that current programme plans are realistic.”


Stategic oversight
The Ministry of Defence needs to set out arrangements for long-term leadership and oversight of the CEPP capability. Even after reaching the milestones of carrier strike and CEPP, there will still be a need for strategic oversight and a forum for discussing issues across the Commands and wider department. It also needs to build more resilience into its workforce model and continue to monitor workload and time away from base, and ensure that personnel have enough support. In the longer term, the department needs to maintain efforts to recruit and train extra personnel. It also needs to promote formal and informal sharing of lessons learned, and ensure transfer of learning to other complex defence programmes such as the nuclear enterprise.