LONDON — Britain’s Royal Navy took delivery of two new aircraft carriers, but a government report on the ships achieving operational capability has laid bare some obstacles toward making a fully effective carrier strike group.

In a report released June 25, the National Audit Office pointed to delays in developing the Crowsnest airborne early warning radar and contracting to build the logistics ships destined to support the 65,000-ton carriers as ongoing problems for the Royal Navy. The NAO also raised questions about future funding.

The Ministry of Defence is making slow “progress in developing the crucial supporting activities that are needed to make full use of a carrier strike group, such as the Crowsnest radar system and the ability to resupply the carriers. In addition, it has not established a clear view on the future cost of enhancing, operating and supporting carrier strike, which creates the risk of future affordability pressures,” the NAO said.

Added the head of the watchdog: “The MoD also needs to get a firmer grip on the future costs of carrier strike. By failing to understand their full extent, it risks adding to the financial strain on a defense budget that is already unaffordable.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two carriers built by British industry in a £4.6 billion (U.S. $5.7 billion) program, is already undertaking extensive sea trials, with its F-35B jets ahead of a planned first deployment next year.

The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is also conducting sea trials but is some months behind its sister ship. The warships are not expected to be operated simultaneously.

The NAO said the Lockheed Martin-led program to install Crowsnest radars on Royal Navy Merlin helicopters is running 18 months late and will impact how the British carrier strike force is initially deployed. The watchdog said the MoD is working to come up with an acceptable baseline radar by the time HMS Queen Elizabeth undertakes its initial deployment next year.

“As at April 2020, the Department [the MoD] expected to achieve initial Crowsnest operating capability in September 2021, some 18 months later than planned,” the NAO reported. “As this is later than the December 2020 milestone for declaring initial operating capability for carrier strike, the Department is working to provide a credible baseline radar capability for the first deployment with the United States in 2021. It expects to recover some lost time to declare full operating capability in May 2023, 11 months later than planned. However, the existing timetable contains no contingency to accommodate any further slippage. The delays will affect how the Department can use carrier strike during this period.”

British and U.S. Marine Corps jets will be based on the carrier during its first deployment, partly because the U.K. does not have a sufficient inventory of available jets. Eighteen of the aircraft have so far been delivered for use by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force

Lockheed Martin secured the Crowsnest contract in 2017, with Searchwater radar supplier Thales and helicopter builder Leonardo as subcontractors.

Crowsnest is a key element in the protection of the naval strike group, giving air, maritime and land detection and tracking capabilities.

The NAO said the delay “has been caused by a subcontractor, Thales, failing to meet its contractual commitments for developing equipment and not providing sufficient information on the project’s progress. Neither MoD nor its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, were aware of these problems until it was too late, reflecting MoD’s ineffective oversight of its contract with Lockheed Martin.”

A Lockheed Martin UK spokesperson said the company is working to deliver the Crowsnest capability in time for HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment.

“As prime contractor for Crowsnest, we understand the fundamental component that this program delivers to the UK’s Carrier Enabled Power Projection. We will continue to ensure that the program develops in line with our requirement to deliver the Crowsnest capability to support the first operational deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth,” the spokesperson said. “We will work with our industrial partners and the MoD to address any developmental issues which arise, including the deployment of additional resources, if necessary, to maintain program timescales and deliver this critical capability to the Royal Navy.”

Thales UK did not respond to Defense News’ requests for comment by press time.

An F-35 takes off from the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Dane Wiedmann/Lockheed Martin)
An F-35 takes off from the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Dane Wiedmann/Lockheed Martin)

The NAO partly blames the setbacks for why the MoD faces a “tight timetable” to develop full operating capability for a strike group by 2023. But the watchdog also highlighted the Fleet Solid Support program as another obstacle.

The MoD had targeted 2026 for when the first of up to three logistics ships could provide ammunition, food and general stores to the carrier strike group, but that timeline has extended by up to three years as a result of ongoing uncertainty over the schedule to compete and build the vessels operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

The MoD abandoned a competition to build the ships late last year, saying it was concerned about obtaining value for money. At the time, the program was mired in controversy over whether the contract should go to a British shipyard consortium or awarded to a foreign company. That issue remains unresolved.

No date has officially been given for restarting the competition. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the parliamentary Defence Committee earlier this year that he thinks it will relaunch in September, but that has not been confirmed.

Defence Committee Chairman Tobia Ellwood was particularly critical of the failure to provide the necessary support ships, noting that without them, the carriers’ capability would be seriously undermined.

“It’ll be hotched and potched, only available for short operational journeys,” he told the Daily Telegraph on June 26. “It will be for display purposes only, and that’s a very expensive toy.”

Britain has only one solid support vessel, RFA Fort Victoria, that can replenish a carrier at sea. It entered service in 1994 and is due to retire in 2028, having had its life expectancy extended.

The NAO report said the limitations of RFA Fort Victoria would have a knock-on effect to carrier operations.

“Having only one support ship with limited cargo capacity slows the tempo and reach at which the Department [the MoD] can replenish a carrier group. In addition, the Department will have restricted options for deploying the carriers for much of 2022 because RFA Fort Victoria will be unavailable due to major planned maintenance work,” the NAO said.

Responding to the report, an MOD spokesperson said: ”Carrier strike is a complex challenge, which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms. We remain committed to investing in this capability, which demonstrates the U.K.’s global role.

“Despite the disruptions of COVID-19, the carrier strike group is on track for its first operational deployment.”