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.
Under the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept, the operational freedom of a carrier group relies on support ships providing munitions and stores where and when they are needed. However, delays are posing risks to the programme say the NAO.
What’s the issue?
“The Department has been slow to develop the solid support ships which are crucial to operating a carrier strike group. Carrier Strike relies on the sustained availability of munitions and stores, such as ammunition and food. However, the Department has only one ship able to resupply a carrier group, which slows the tempo and reach at which this can be done. It has long been aware that this will restrict the operational freedom of Carrier Strike but has not yet developed a solution.
In November 2019, the Department stopped the competition to build three new support ships due to concerns about value for money. It believes this will delay the introduction of new ships by between 18 and 36 months, making it uncertain the first new ship will be operational before the existing support ship leaves service in 2028. The Department will also incur additional maintenance costs while it uses its existing support ship as an interim solution.”
The Department has long known that deploying Carrier Strike will depend on two types of support ship:
• tankers supplying oil and water; and
• solid support ships, carrying food, ammunition and general stores.
In April 2020, the MoD was reviewing its options and the impact on the delivery schedule. It has recognised that achieving full capabilities of a carrier strike group depends on the new support ships being available from the mid-2020s. However, the MoD now expects there will be a delay of between 18 and 36 months to the new ships entering service, meaning the first ship would be operational between October 2027 and April 2029.
The NAO say that the MoD will need to assess the impact of any delay when it considers whether it has met the final CEPP programme milestone for full operating capability in 2026.
“In the meantime, only one of the three current Royal Fleet Auxiliary solid support ships is capable of resupplying the carriers. RFA Fort Victoria entered service in 1994 and is due to retire in 2028, having already been extended beyond its 25-year service life. The Department has allocated £2 million to modify RFA Fort Victoria so it can replenish the carriers at sea and in 2016 budgeted up to £42 million to operate the ship to 2028. Having only one support ship with limited cargo capacity slows the tempo and reach at which the Department 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.”
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.”