The National Audit Office have released a report titled ‘Carrier Strike – Preparing for deployment’, the report examines the MoD’s management of the programme since 2017 and the risks towards achieving Carrier Strike’s full capabilities.

The NAO have identified risks to the development of UK carrier strike capabilities relating to the 18 month delay in the delivery of the Crowsnest airborne radar system.

CROWSNEST uses a high power radar to provide long-range air, maritime and land tracking capabilities that will ensure early detection of potential threats and vital surveillance for the entire fleet. This capability will be role fitted onto the Merlin Mk2 helicopters and deployed in support of various Royal Navy vessels including the fleet flagships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

What’s the issue?

According to the National Audit Office:

” The Crowsnest airborne radar system will provide a crucial element of protection for a carrier strike group, but the initial contracted capability will not be available until September 2021, 18 months later than planned.

The Department did not oversee its contract with Lockheed Martin effectively and, despite earlier problems on the project, neither was aware of the sub-contractor’s lack of progress until it was too late to meet the target delivery date.

It subsequently concluded that the sub-contractor working on the project, Thales, failed to meet its contractual commitments to develop the equipment and had not provided sufficient information on the project’s progress. The Department and its industry partners have since implemented a recovery plan and enhanced monitoring arrangements. However, further delays mean that it does not expect to have full airborne radar capability until May 2023.”

Background to the report

Carrier Strike provides the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft from a ship to undertake a range of military tasks. It is central to the government’s plans for the country’s armed forces and the first step towards Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP), which is the government’s ambition to be able to respond to conflicts and support humanitarian relief efforts anywhere in the world at short notice.

Carrier Strike will be based around two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers – the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy – together with Lightning II jets, which are being bought through the United States Department of Defense’s international programme. The Ministry of Defence (the Department) is also buying a new airborne radar system, Crowsnest, to help protect a carrier strike group. Depending on the type of deployment, the carriers will be accompanied by at least one destroyer, an anti‑submarine warfare frigate, and ships for support and resupply.

Content and scope of the report

According to the National Audit Office:

“Since 2011, we have reported four times on the Department’s progress on Carrier Strike. Our early reports covered the decisions about the type of carrier and jets that the Department bought. In 2017, we highlighted that the phase to 2020 would be crucial and there was little room for manoeuvre in the delivery schedule. In this report, we examine how the Department has managed the programme since 2017 and how it is addressing the risks towards achieving the full capabilities of a carrier strike group. We set out:

  • the background to Carrier Strike and what the Department has achieved since we last reported (Part One);
  • the Department’s progress in managing the elements of the programme that are still needed to provide the full Carrier Strike capabilities (Part Two); and
  • how the Department is addressing the challenges to achieving its ambitions for Carrier Strike (Part Three).

Our report focuses on the Department’s approach to addressing the risks to achieving the capabilities of Carrier Strike. We do not evaluate the military or wider capabilities that Carrier Strike will provide, or the plans for its operational use.”

You can read the report here.

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Another 3 years…And we want to send Big Lizzy through the South China Sea next year 😮


Honestly, you couldn’t make it up! Another example of p*** poor management jeopardising the whole carrier deployment strategy. What’s the penalty for Thales? Naff all l suspect. Embarrassing doesn’t half cover it. Heads must roll here!


The reports love to blame lack of oversight and management which is all probably true. Fact is even with the best oversite in the world if the money and talent is it available it still won’t be delivered on time with the best oversite in the world. Thales need to explain why they screwed up and take a hit on the back of it.
I haven’t seen much published on crows nests capabilities can it identify and track brahmos for example


Of course it is lack of proper project management, you’re making excuses. Another example of sublime incompetence affecting the biggest expenditure on the books.
At least the French know when to buy off the shelf elsewhere.

Ian M

There is also a fairly stinging couple of paragraphs in the report from the NAO about overall funding for the CSG IOC (aircraft, support ships etc.) It’ll be another fudge job so the MOD can announce that the carrier has met it’s IOC date.


I thought that ‘Crowsnest’ was an existing radar that had been fitted to the Seaking? Is this a totally new radar then? If so, why have they chosen such a clumsy layout. I remember LM displaying a Merlin with panel arrays on its fuselage….but this was turned down in favour of the existing Heath-Robinson contraption. What’s going on?


I think that the option for the panel arrays you saw was a proposed (LM) AESA radar more capable than Crowsnest that was decided against due to cost. The Crowsnest unit itself is a refresh of the current Sea King system, with better processing and suchlike on board. From that perspective, I don’t think the radar itself is very different, just the computers etc. that manage the data.
I may well be wrong though, it was a while ago that I read up on this…


Thanks for that Joe. In my former days as an engineer, I was taught that ‘if it looks right, it probably is right’. This is such an inelegant solution a beautiful Merlin with a ruddy great rubber colostomy bag strapped to it!

Daniele Mandelli

Worked well enough in Helmand in an overland role and previously in the Sea King ASCS’s though H.

It’s delayed, just like the carriers were delayed, deliberately, in 2009, which raised the costs by a billion. The usual pushing the can down the road.

I’m not so concerned by how it looks just that it works and is cost effective. I replied to your question on the rails BTW in the earlier thread.


I have to agree with Herodotus to a certain extent, I appreciate good form in design! But, as you say, it at least works / will work well.
Is there any plan in sight at all to review the way that acquisition within government departments works? I know the MOD probably don’t deserve any more control over their budget than they currently do, but the inability to move money around within budgets seems to be a major source of recurring pain in projects…

Daniele Mandelli

Dominic Cummings wants to apparently. There’s all sorts of horror stories about him. If he sorts procurement he has my support there at least.


Cummings wants to scrap the carriers he thinks they’re so vulnerable that they’re useless and no more money should be spent on them. He’s also non-interventionist and removing the carriers would reflect his agenda. Be careful what you wish for.

Daniele Mandelli

Yes, of course. Which is why I emphasised procurement. Military capability is up to professionals.


Nobody elected Cummings. Whilst I may agree with some of his opinions, his clout is too much for an un elected person/advisor. It’s deeply concerning. Post clear out of the dead wood in the civil service, I’ll be ensuring my MP knows that the guy needs reigning right in.

Jason Holmes

That was the lockheed martin offer, turned down to ‘save money and utilise existing capability’ …smells a lot like MRA4…we never learn


Oh dear, when will we learn… If vendors do not meet their obligations then they should be forced to recompense us. Perhaps in the case of LM they should offset all of their current failings with a larger discount on F35B. MOD is also at fault here, programme governance is abysmal, you can have all the meetings in the world but a good PM is worth their weight in gold. This was meant to be a value for money product that was cheaper than buying off the shelf (presumably V22) and it will almost certainly end up less than we… Read more »


Your comment about not buying something ‘off the shelf’ is oh so correct. The MOD do this time and time again. We need a bit of kit but can’t quite afford the off the shelf model so some wise guy says look we can develop and adapt this piece of kit to do it for less money only to realise subsequently that this option usually takes longer and costs even more money. Much better off just fronting up in the first instance.

BV Buster

Cough cough (WARRIOR2) cough.


Dave G

Off the shelf doesn’t always mean cheaper…. if it doesn’t meet your requirement then you may get it for less money and spend a lot more later getting it to do what you actually want. Also, if you can’t programme it or upgrade it without paying a premium to the supplier then over the life time it may cost significantly more. The problem is, up front procurement cost is very visible while whole life is not and generally comes from a different budget. The real trick is getting your requirement right (costs money up front) and knowing what you can… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Agree Pac.

Daniele Mandelli

If Thales is at fault why are they not responsible for the extra cost? Who writes the contracts in MoD?

Initial and full capability? Initial is just over a year away. Are we talking numbers or actual working radar capability?

Geoffrey Roach

How many times have we been here Daniele.
No body ever seems to get hauled over the coals. No disrespect to the NAO but is the report going to make a jot of difference with everybody covering their rear ends.


We’re one of the biggest Purchasers of defence equipment in the world, yet we seem scared s******s of defence companies, and seemingly acquiesce to them in contracts on EVERY DAMN PROJECT. Like they’d walk away if we said ‘screw any aspect of this up, you owe us big time’.

Also, if you’re buying radar that isn’t AESA now, you’re buying last generation tech. It might be an improvement, but it isn’t value for money or future proof.


Don’t knock Thales too much Daniele. I’m getting a nice pension from them….may they live long and prosper!

Daniele Mandelli



As per usual we accept contracts that if anything at all goes wrong we get shafted both on time and financially, whats the incentive for the companies to not screw up? Its a benefit to them as they just end up getting paid more bl**dy money. Something with a backbone needs to start writing and signing these contracts, we can no longer be an open cheque book.


This is very disturbing! The whole idea behind the choice for Crowsnesr was that it was far simpler to do with less risk, and here we are again………. are we going to cancel next years deployment due to lack of AEW? Or team up with a US Carrier and let them provide it????? This really is pretty embarrassing for the UK!


OMFG what an absolute cluster! The NAO thankfully don’t pull any punches, which is refreshing for a change. The slow buy of F35s was always well known, as its deliberately set so we don’t spend additional money on initial upgrades. But cutting spares kits from 3 to 2, is just asking for trouble, especially as the maintenance cycles of the aircraft are still in their infancy. The issues come later with Crowsnest being delayed. Merlin’s out of servicer date in 2030, with no announcement of a replacement. Only one solid support ship that can resupply a carrier. Ammunition safety cases… Read more »


Just typical, we want to punch above our weight but we can’t be arsed to do it properly. What an absolute fluster cluck.


Yes everyone is correct but Boris got his paint job so who is really in charge. The fairies I guess as always.


“The Emperor has no clothes”… This is the answer and we all know it…

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Does the RN have any of the old AEW helos left? Not ideal but a heck of a lot better than nothing.


They were retired on 27/09/2018 and 3 were flown and 1 trucked to HMS Sultan in Gosport to await disposal. Probably been scrapped by now,
? Even if by chance someone had been wise enough to place them in storage, it might take a bit of doing to get them airworthy and operational. Plus of course the embarrassment………


You would think that if anyone was vaguely rational they would have put them in storage until the new system was up and running, just in case something happened in the meantime and the capability was needed.


You would think that. In fact you would have thought they would have been maintained in service until such time crowsnest actually became operational.


The sensible thing to would be to have found the best of the remaining airframes and the used the others for spares to keep a handful air worthy, just in case.


Yes, but that’s the sensible thing to do………..I wonder if the Mk7 airfames still exist in storage?


Is it possible to bring the Sea King AEW back into temporary service, at least until 2023? Have they actually been scrapped or merely retired?

Rob N

Yes we will have to wait 3 year to put a second rate system into operation!

We should have bought V-22s with an ESA radar.

I just hope we have got some of the old Sea Kings and their kit still operational to use next year. The whole thing makes me sick to think we are deliberately buying antique kit to protect our sailors. Who ever made the call should get the push. No more jobs for the boys we should have bought state of the art to protect such valuable assets.

Glass Half Full

“We should have bought V-22s with an ESA radar” – but that assumes there would have been no problems with a new radar system on a new-to-AEW aircraft platform, since AEW V-22 doesn’t exist today. Given the problems with just about every military development program nowadays I’d say that would be an optimistic assumption, especially when we are having problems with a system that largely existed already. I could see the cost of a V-22 AEW capability being well over £1bn too, because the UK would be funding all the RDT&E of a brand new system. BTW, not to excuse… Read more »

Rob N

True but it may be better then trying to get an has-been system into front line service. Even if they had to go with Merlin there were more advanced radar options. The worst one was chosen. Why was that? Lowest bid? Jobs for the boys? Now thanks to rank incompetence we have no AEW. We should just bite the bullet buy some V-22s and buy a radar solution off-the-shelf (but not using an antique searchwater radar). Yes it will cost money but that is better then the current offering. The current solution should be canceled and an emergency operational requirement… Read more »

Andy P

Very much ‘spitballingI’ here but is there a STOL option that could be used in the short term ? We were pretty quick to throw the Sea King AEW together, just wondering if there was a small(ish) alternative, I doubt there’s a navalised version of say the Skyvan but something along those lines. I guess they’d maybe be too big for the lifts, dunno, just flapping my intellectual gums.


Its all well saying that the Mod should have been aware of the delays but its a subcontractor the responsibility for communication lies with the prime contractor and Lockheed Martin said they didn’t know about the delay at Thales so Lockheed is displaying a more severe lack of oversight than the government.


The Defence Equipment Plan has a paragraph on Crowsnest. Under-performance by the contractor during the development phase of the Crowsnest Airborne Surveillance and Control programme resulted in an In-Year underspend in FY 2018/9 of £46.01 million. A recovery action plan has been enacted and the project is being re-baselined to deliver an incremental capability to support the Carrier Strike Group 21 deployment. I suppose the MoD think “incremental” sounds positive, something being added. To me an increment is something small and starting from nothing you don’t get very much. Maybe just a roll out onto the deck for a photo… Read more »


We are turning into a laughing stock . Do you think Americans will allow There F35s and staff on our carriers without decent eyes in the sky .