Home and now docked in Portsmouth Naval Base for the first time – a moment that all those that have worked so hard to design and build the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth; those in the Royal Navy who will sail the ship; those that have responsibility for the overall capability that she will eventually deliver and that are in command of the ship together with all those who, for whatever reason it may be, have observed or been part of the development of the ship have been waiting for.
This is undoubtedly a moment for all of us to cheer, a moment to savour and one to be very proud not only of the capability that has been delivered by UK sovereign industry to the MOD bit also of what by working so closely together, of what the MOD through DE&S, industry through the Aircraft Carrier Alliance that includes BAE Systems, Thales UK and Babcock International, and the Royal Navy itself have achieved since the first steel of this great ship was cut in 2009.
For me personally and having been on board HMS Queen Elizabeth and her still in build sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, it isn’t just the capability and potential of what the two ships offer to the UK that matters, it is also that they represent the art of the possible meaning UK industry at its best, UK engineering and skill. The result is unsurpassed technology and engineering that I can only describe as being absolutely remarkable. UK industry is alive and well and nowhere better can it be better demonstrated than what you can see for yourself in HMS Queen Elizabeth now being home in Portsmouth Naval Base.
As the largest ever ship built for the Royal Navy, arrival of the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth into Portsmouth Naval Dockyard this morning begins a process of increased readiness ahead of the ships eventual commissioning. Her arrival in Portsmouth today, earlier than had originally been intended but saving considerable cost by avoiding going back into Rosyth for standard maintenance, follows seven weeks of intense sea trials that have taken place since she left Rosyth on the 27th in June. The period of standard maintenance in Portsmouth Naval Base is expected to last around six weeks before the vessel continues her test and commissioning programme ahead of being formally handed over to the Royal Navy by the end of this year.
The arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth to what will be her permanent ‘home port’ this morning has apparently gone without hitch. To facilitate this massive Royal Navy capability has required much effort and investment by the MOD through the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) in the Portsmouth Naval Base. To that end, the DIO has invested over £100 million in new infrastructure, facilities modernisation and harbour dredging requirements in order that the Portsmouth base can receive and accommodate a ship of this size.
Within the approach channel to Portsmouth, the inner harbour area and berth has been extensively dredged in order to make them sufficiently deep and wide enough for the new carriers to sail through and berth. An area of approximately 157 hectares has been dredged and I am told that this equates to the size of around 200 football pitches. In addition, the 278 metre jetty which was built in the 1920’s and where the ship is now alongside has been significantly upgraded. To achieve this required 3,300 tonnes of new steel work and a total of 2,500 metres of reinforced concrete. External to the inner harbour, new navigation lights have also been installed together with a frequency converter in order to convert the 60 Hz electrical frequency to that of the carrier’s 50 Hz design requirement. Finally and importantly, a significant part of the Portsmouth Naval Base including accommodation blocks and other facilities have been upgraded.
It is genuinely hard to find words that have not yet been used to describe the importance of what has occurred in Portsmouth this morning. The arrival of this magnificent vessel and that will be the flagship of the Royal Navy is important not just because Portsmouth will be her home port but also because the now completed ship demonstrates a commitment to strengthening of UK presence through the Royal Navy.
Even without intended F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft on board and that will, when equipped and deployed, form the basis of future ‘carrier strike, HMS Queen Elizabeth already demonstrates a formidable capability and presence in her own right.
Arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth is testament to the skills of 10,000 people involved in her build and what the UK defence industry can and has delivered. It is also testament to how industry, through the Aircraft Carrier Alliance in partnership with the MOD and the Royal Navy can achieve when they all work together for the self-same ends in order to provide the nation with the maritime capability that it needs on time and on budget.
Formed originally in 2003, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance which has from the outset been responsible for the design, development and build of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers programme has consisted of BAE Systems, Babcock International, Thales UK and the Ministry of Defence (MOD). However one wishes to look at it this has been a hugely successful collaborative industry partnership, one that despite issues based around political decisions and changes that needed to be accommodated, has delivered superb maritime capability for the Royal Navy. A unique industry/government partnership and one that in my view provides the correct basis for future naval shipbuilding capability delivery.
In respect of detail, HMS Queen Elizabeth was built in sections by six separate shipyards – BAE Systems at Govan and Portsmouth, Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, the Appledore shipyard in Devon, A&P Tyne in Tyne & Wear and was assembled at the Babcock International yard in Rosyth, Scotland. Steel for the first of two new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth was cut in July 2009 and that of the second, HMS Prince of Wales in May 2011. The ships are powered by two Rolls-Royce Marine 36MW MT-30 gas turbines together with four Wartsila 38 marine diesels. The ships are 900 ft long.
Key to the success of the programme and its delivery on time to the MOD have been the Carrier Alliance Management Board, consisting of Sir Peter Gershon (Chairman), Vice Admiral Simon Lister (Vice Chairman), Ian Booth (Managing Director) John Hudson (Managing Director, BAE Systems – Maritime) Ed Lowe (VP Thales UK Defence Mission Systems) Henry Parker (MOD Head of Defence Acquisitions) and John Howie (Babcock International Divisional CEO).
In an unstable and increasingly more uncertain world, one that the erosion of rules based order, one in which the increase in terrorism, extremism, insurgency and cyber-attack has grown exponentially and one also in which the increased threats from both state and none state aggressors combines to make us increasingly aware of potential threats we face the filling of the carrier strike capability gap cannot come a moment too soon.
In this more complex world, possession of strong air power capability is more essential than ever. The Royal Air Force has long been able to attack, defend, and deter but in this more dangerous world restoring carrier strike capability is essential for the UK. To be operated by pilots of both the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force, the standing up of two F-35 Lightning ll squadrons, – 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and 617 Squadron RAF – when not at sea on the carriers these F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ STOVL variant aircraft will be based at RAF Marham.
The basis behind ‘carrier strike’ capability is that it can provide immediate mobility and flexibility in respect of availability and delivery of response. Carrier Strike will if properly funded provide, agility, sustained reach and resilience along with the equally important facets of presence and defence diplomacy. Presence buys influence but if at the same time it also provides freedom of action, intent without constraint and both political and military choices I am all the more content. That is what Carrier Strike will provide.
SDSR 2015 confirmed an intention for the UK to acquire a total of 138 F-35 aircraft over the life of the programme of which at least 48 will be F-35 B STOVL variants. So far the UK has taken delivery of 11 F-35 Lightning ll aircraft and by the end of the year all 14 aircraft that have so far been ordered will have been delivered.
In addition to operation of F-35 Lightning ll aircraft ‘Carrier Strike’ capability will include deployment of EH-101 Merlin Mark 2 helicopters fitted with CROWSNEST airborne early warning and control technology.
CHW (London – 16th August 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785