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HMS Queen Elizabeth Nears Completion By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

cvfGrace, space and, with each new ship powered by two Rolls-Royce Marine 36MW MT-30 gas turbines together with four Wartsila 38 marine diesels, certainly ample power and pace the largest and most powerful surface warships ever to be constructed in the UK are making excellent progress in terms of meeting all the objectives set. Having been invited to visit the Rosyth naval dockyard of Babcock International last week to look at and walk through the two new aircraft carriers currently under construction for the Royal Navy the first thing to say is that HMS Queen Elizabeth, now nearing completion, and HMS Prince of Wales, which is approximately 18 months behind her sister ship,  really are a sight to behold.

Dominating an already fascinating skyline around Babcock International’s Rosyth naval dockyard facility (I may add here that the new Forth Road Bridge currently under construction makes for an equally impressive sight alongside the existing Forth railway and road bridges) the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft being built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (BAE Systems, Babcock International, Thales and the MOD) at Rosyth will, when they are finally commissioned in 2020 and 2021/2 respectively represent a step change in Royal Navy surface ship capability. Initial sea trials are expected to take place on HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year and it is clear from my visit that although much work remains to be done to compete the fitting out of the ship that everything appears to be going to plan.

I have been impressed by the partnership nature of the CVF programme and how industry, the MOD and the Royal Navy have worked so hard to achieve the same self ends. Nowhere was this more apparent last week than by the obvious commitment to succeed and the approach to meet all the objectives set as explained by the leader of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, Ian Booth alongside the first Captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Captain Simon Petit. I am grateful to Captain Nick Walker for his excellent presentation and arrangements made for all of those who visited Rosyth last Thursday. That the programme is going very well is certainly not in doubt although there is no hiding that the Royal Navy has issues about manning the two ships albeit that the planned decommissioning of HMS Ocean in 2018 and transfer of ships company to HMS prince of Wales will assist. As with the other military services, shortage of engineers and technical staff are issues that the Roya Navy still has to address and there is no doubt that it is aware of issues that still need to be addressed.

On an unstable and uncertain world and one in which the erosion of rules based order, the increase in terrorism, extremism, insurgency and cyber-attack has grown exponentially and one in which the threat of both state and none state aggressors has combined to make us very aware of the increased level of threats that we are facing the filling of the unfortunate gap taken in carrier strike capability cannot come a moment too soon. In the complex world that we live in to know that apart from having strong air power capability provided by the Royal Air Force that is able to attack, defend, and deter the knowledge that we will soon have carrier strike capability that is immediately mobile, is flexible in terms of the availability of response it can provide, agile in terms of requirement, one that has sustained reach and importantly, can be regarded as resilient is as important as the additional defence diplomacy role that Carrier Strike capability will also provide. On the latter aspect I have long held the view that presence buys influence but if at the same time it provides freedom of action, intent without constraint and both political and military choices I am all the more content.

Manned by both Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel and eventually to be based at RAF Marham when not at sea on the carriers the Government confirmed in SDSR 2015 that the intention was to acquire 138 F-35 aircraft over the life of the programme. In terms of the here and now 48 aircraft F-35 B STOVL variants are to be acquired and operated either as a main component of Royal Air Force manned strike capability or operated on the two new aircraft carriers.

Quite apart from the capability that they will eventually provide for UK defence with its F-35 ‘B’ STOVL Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and EH-101 Merlin Mark 2 helicopters fitted with CROWSNEST airborne early warning and control technology deployed, the two carriers will be sending the important message of British presence. When commissioned into Royal Navy service only the US with its force of eleven aircraft carriers will have more carrier capability than Britain amongst NATO members. Importantly in terms of capability the two carriers will be utilised by all three principle elements of the UK Armed Forces, the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the Army. From a defence diplomacy and international presence aspect with one carrier planned to always be at sea it is surely reasonable to say that not only do they eight acres of sovereign UK territory that can be deployed around the world at any time but also that they will form a vital component for the UK in terms of delivering increased strategic effect and influence.

As you might imagine, it was with great pleasure that I and about 30 other invited individuals including several MP’s travelled to Rosyth last week to look over the now nearing completion HMS Queen Elizabeth and also, to make what was my first visit on board the sister ship, HMS Price of Wales. The latter ship is already well ahead of schedule running just eighteen months as opposed to the schedule two years behind the first carrier. Clearly much has been learned through the build process of the first carrier and this has clearly been transitioned into the second saving considerable costs.

With a displacement of 65,000 tons and a length of 920 feet (300m) it would in my view be an understatement to suggest that these ship were anything other than absolutely vast. Throughout the design and build process creating greater efficiency of operation whilst at the same time enhancing capability and learning from all the previous lessons of navy shipbuilding programmes has been the driving force. In terms of facilities, capability, design and technical excellence of the engineering and other facilities and of creature comforts provided for the 600 plus sailors who will man the ship the two carriers have no equal anywhere in the world.

Leaving the important defence aspects of the programme aside it is important to stress that the design, development and build of the two carriers has come about using UK shipbuilding facilities, UK engineering and skills and jobs through an alliance of BAE Systems, Babcock International, Thales and the Ministry of Defence. There is also a Power & Propulsion Sub Alliance formed of Rolls-Royce, Thales, L3 Communications and GE Energy that have been responsible for the design, procurement, manufacturing, integration, test and delivery of all integrated power and electric propulsion systems. Tried, tested and already in service with the US Navy on littoral combat ship the NT30 Gas Turbine is a derivative of the Rolls-Royce Trent commercial aircraft engine. With a fuel carrying capacity of 8,600 tons for both the ship itself and the deployed aircraft there are no concerns about mission duration.

Constructed in sections on BAE Systems yards on the Clyde, Portsmouth and with large component capability built at various sites across the UK final assembly of the two carriers has and continues to take place at Babcock International superb Rosyth dockyard facilities. The industrial partnerships have worked extremely well and all the individual partners involved and engaged on the programme have been incentivised to improve performance and save cost. As industrial partnerships go CVF or Carrier alliance has worked brilliantly and that the programme is on time and on the revised budget set following inordinate delays caused to the programme by changed requirements made the MOD and by the politics of changing minds twice over whether or not Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Technology (CATS and Traps) should be fitted or then, retrofitted to the ships it is pleasing that the programme is now on budget and more ahead of schedule.

Fitted with two Rolls-Royce built controllable pitch propellers, four stabilisers, two shaflines and with the four separate Wartsila 38 diesel propulsion systems fitted to each ship and that will perform the majority of the propulsion task when speed is not of the essence, unlike the unfortunate experience witnessed in the Type 45’s and which it is now clear that insufficient power supply was designed into the programme by the MOD the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers will have an over-abundance of propulsion and power systems supply at their disposal and that is probably unequalled in any other ship that the Royal Navy has ever commissioned.

On time and on budget the first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently due to sail to what will become her home port of Portsmouth following sea trials some time during the first half of 2017. The ship is then due to be commissioned by the Royal Navy in 2020 with HMS Prince of Wales following about 18 months later.

Versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from supporting war efforts to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief. With its complement of embarked aircraft the QE Class will be the centre piece of Britain’s military capability in circumstances where we cannot, or do not wish to base our aircraft on land. The ships will act as a rapidly deployable sovereign base to deliver expeditionary air operations at a time and place of the UK’s choosing, but will also be highly capable and versatile vessels which will deliver a high profile and coercive presence worldwide to support peace-keeping, conflict prevention and other strategic aims.

From a design perspective the two carriers have increased survivability built in as a result of the separation and distribution of power generation machinery throughout each ship. The class has been designed with twin islands, dual redundancy if you like and thus there is a separated running and ship driving and mission running capability of the ship lest damage is done to one island. Highly mechanised weapon handling systems enables a streamlined crew to operate a vessel that importantly, is very much larger than the previous generation of Invincible class carriers which they in effect will replace. Each of the new carriers will have a total Royal Navy crew of 679 although they will have the facilities for a full complement of 1,600 members of all UK armed forces when the air elements are embarked and deployed.

Affordability of through life support has also been a key driver in the programme and key operational spaces can be readily reconfigured and additional equipment inserted in a cost effective and timely manner to suit the future requirements of the Armed Forces and the nation. Fuel and operating cost efficiency has also been a vital part of required programme achievement and to that end the ships will, as mentioned above, use dual based electric propulsion system that will burn less fuel and save running costs and maintenance. The ships are designed to have a 50 year life span and throughout there is included ample space to allow for additional technology capability, power and wiring requirement as and when these are required from modification aspects through the programme life.

In respect of mission systems capability each ship has a fully integrated command system, which has three functional areas: Information System that include the computing hardware, internal Networks and C4I software applications required to support effective command and control. Considerable work has been done with Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to better understand how the data repository on board will be accessed by new and legacy systems and how that repository will be configured in the future. In respect of Communications equipment required to support voice and data services the ships will have full communications and control system and a tactical C2 voice system. In terms of Air Management and Protection Systems the on-board sensors and weapon systems are in place for the management of aircraft in the air and on deck and the defence of the ship.

In terms of crew facilities there are no less than four separate galleys on board together with four large dining areas that in total will be manned by a catering staff of around 67 personnel.  The largest dining room has the capacity to serve 960 crew members in one hour. Each ship has an eight bed medical suite, operating theatre and, unusually for a Royal Navy ship, a dental surgery – all of which will be managed by 11 medical staff. These facilities can also be augmented to suit the requirements of every individual mission.

Crew facilities on board both ships will include a cinema and fitness suites in order to provide crew members, some of whom will be away from home for months at a time, a good range of recreational activities. I understand that crew members will have personal access to e-mail and the internet (when satellite communications equipment is not being used for operational purposes) and having seen the crew facilities I may regard these as being some of the best designed areas that I have ever seen on a Royal Navy ship.

With HMS Queen Elizabeth now in the final fitting out stage at Rosyth and expected sail into Portsmouth early in 2017 to begin sea trials (timing is uncertain at this stage and decisions as to when the ship will go to sea for sea trials before the end of this year remain to be made) the current expectation is that commissioning of the vessel will take place in 2020 and initial operating capability will be reached in 2023. HMS Prince of Wales will follow between 18 months and two years later.

In respect of F-35 aircraft delivery my current understanding is that while not all have yet been officially ordered about 24 of an envisaged 48 STOVL (Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing) variants will have been delivered by 2020. I will not attempt to confuse the issue by further talking about timing of future F-35 aircraft delivery and whether the other 90 aircraft that the government talked about buying through the life of the F-35 programme might be ‘A’ or ‘B’ variants. What is clear however is that much work still need to be done in terms of infrastructure to accommodate the carriers at Portsmouth and also at RAF Marham which will act as the land base for the 48 F-35 ‘B’ variant aircraft that will initially be acquired. Sadly the responsibility for delivery of the required infrastructure is in the hands of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. With 3 million cubic metres of clay, sand and gravel to be removed this is no small job. Need I say more about my concerns about DIO’s ability to deliver!

Nevertheless, on a positive note while contracts for dredging work required at HM Naval Base Portsmouth were finally awarded in November last year at least the new tugboats required, these to be operated by Serco and commissioned by them from a Dutch company are due to arrive in Portsmouth early next year. These will support movement of both carriers in and out of the Royal Navy base.

CHW (London – 15th February 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

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