The lower block of a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier is assembled. (BAE Systems)
LONDON — Britain’s Ministry of Defence is considering changes to the way the construction of the Royal Navy’s 65,000-ton aircraft carriers is run, according to defense sources.
An independent team of senior executives and others appointed by the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) arm of the MoD have been working for months on recommendations to sharpen the focus in the way the 5 billion-pound ($8 billion) program is managed once the integration and test phases get underway, they said.
The indication of possible changes comes days after the government reverted to an earlier plan to operate F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on the carriers and abandoned its 2010 decision to use the catapult-launched F-35C.
The source said the changes being contemplated by DE&S bosses are primarily aimed at management structure requirements as the program moves from bolting the carrier modules together to requirements for controlling costs and schedules as the warships enter the integration and test phases.
The program to build the two biggest warships ever constructed in Britain is being run by a joint industry/MoD team known as the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA).
BAE Systems, Babcock, Thales UK and DE&S are members of ACA and provide high-level executives to the alliance management board.
Creation of the innovative alliance strategy was announced in 2003, with the aim of exploiting the resources and strengths of the participants to agree on performance targets. Part of the arrangement means the partners will share in the benefits if they reduce costs.
It is unclear at this stage just what changes are being recommended, but it is believed they do not advocate a fundamental overhaul of program management.
An MoD spokeswoman said the work is a “routine internal review of the procurement and project control processes in place on the [Queen Elizabeth]-class project to ensure they are suitably efficient and robust to allow us to deliver this complex project on time and to cost.”
An increasing number of the modules that make up the warships, many weighing thousands of tons, are arriving at Babcock’s Rosyth yard in Scotland from shipyards around the British coast.
By the end of this year, virtually all of the modules for the first of the two Queen Elizabeth-class warships will be available for assembly at Rosyth.
The first warship is expected to be handed over to the Royal Navy in early 2017 for sea trials, with flying expected to begin in 2018 and an initial operating capability in 2020.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told Parliament on May 10 that the plan to purchase the F-35C had been axed due to what he said was unacceptable cost growth, and delays in the plan to convert one of the two carriers to be able to operate the catapult-launched variant of the fighter.
The previous Labour government originally opted to purchase the STOVL version of the aircraft to fly off the carriers. But that decision was overturned in favor of the F-35C by the new government in a rapidly assembled defense and security review in late 2010, months after it entered office.
Hammond said the estimates for converting one carrier had doubled from the original figure of nearly 1 billion pounds to 2 billion pounds.
A senior defense source said part of the cost growth came from a decision that the electromagnetic aircraft launch and recovery system (EMALS) be purchased through a government-to-government foreign military sale rather than directly from U.S. manufacturer General Atomics, which is what the government preferred. That accounted for around “150 million pounds, about 7 percent” of the increase in conversion costs, the source said.
The source added that sticking with the F-35C would have delayed getting the carrier strike force into service for at least three years, to 2023.
An MoD spokeswoman said the delay was sparked by a number of issues, including EMALS’ complexity and the extent of the reconfiguration needed to accept the system.
Hammond said the MoD had spent around 40 million pounds conducting design work to convert a carrier to operate the electromagnetic system to launch the F-35C.
Total costs of the now aborted move to the F-35C, including some payments to General Atomics, will approach 100 million pounds, Hammond said.
The government has been criticized for rushing the decision in 2010 before it had sufficient data on the likely cost and time implications of switching jet variants.
Hammond, in justifying the move back to STOVL, said the facts had changed since the 2010 decision.
Those include the U.K.’s greater confidence in the F-35B, to be used by the U.S. Marine Corps, because it has been taken off probation by the Pentagon and risks were reducing.
Without the switch back to STOVL, other defense capabilities would have had to be cut to accommodate budget constraints, he said.
The government also said in 2010 it would forgo having the ability for a continuous presence at sea, and on cost grounds it would convert only one carrier to use the catapult and arresting gear required to launch F-35Cs, mothballing or selling off the second warship.
Now, with no conversion costs for cats and traps, the country is holding out the prospect of having a continuous presence, with the second carrier providing capability while the first vessel is in maintenance.
The MoD admits there is no decision on budgeting for the crew or support for a second carrier, and said the next strategic defense and security review planned for 2015 would decide the issue.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies here, said the move smacked of short-term financial expediency.
“The return to the B-model appears financially driven, with the U.K. willing to trade the better range and payload performance of the F-35C to avoid the increasing cost of modifying a carrier with cats and traps,” he said.
The shift, 18 months after selecting the F-35C, raises questions as to how the 2010 decision was reached, and how quickly some of the assumptions have proved to be “wrong,” Barrie said.
“The ability to introduce the second carrier into service is obviously welcome though, at present, this is only an ambition, and will be dependent on [the] 2015 [review],” he said.