The deployment of supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth could face further delays due to crewing issues and complex technical problems, the National Audit Office has warned.
According to the report, any delay could come from issues in retention of crew, the vessel is reportedly already largely crewed. The purpose of the report is to identify potential risks in implementing carrier strike capability.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:
“The Department has made good progress and clear plans to achieve an initial Carrier Strike operating capability by December 2020, but it still has a lot to do as it brings together the equipment, trained crews, infrastructure and support.
Problems in any of these areas could mean use of the carriers is delayed or reduced. The programme will shortly move into a high-risk period of trials, testing and training which may affect plans and increase costs. The closely timed sequence of tasks offers no further room for slippage and there remain significant risks to value for money.”
The NAO found that there is ‘increasing pressure on a few highly trained personnel to operate the capability’. There is a shortage of military personnel, running at 4% below a target strength of 145,560.
Staffing gaps include engineering roles and warfighting specialists in the Royal Navy and engineering, intelligence and some aircrew cadres in the RAF. To minimise the impact of these gaps on Carrier Strike, the Ministry of Defence is prioritising it and carrying out targeted recruitment.
The report states:
“Increasing awareness of Carrier Strike as the equipment is completed may lead to demand for it to be deployed earlier than December 2020. The first carrier is expected
to sail during 2017 and the first squadron of jets will be flying from the UK in 2018.
But before the Department can operate the two together as Carrier Strike, there will be an intensive period of training, trials and further work. This period is crucial to ensure that crews can operate the equipment safely and to give the Department confidence the capability works as intended. While the equipment could be used together before these trials are complete, this could carry safety risks or limit how the equipment could be used.
It would also disrupt the Department’s planned schedule. The Department has examined the feasibility of deploying Carrier Strike before December 2020 and advised against this in anything other than an operational emergency.”
The Ministry of Defence however is confident that it has personnel required for HMS Queen Elizabeth:
“With sea trials expected to start in the summer, we recognise that there are challenges ahead and remain committed to delivering the full range of joint F-35 and carrier operations by 2026.”
It emerged recently that HMS Queen Elizabeth will now sail for sea trials in Summer instead of Spring as previously expected.
The news of the slip started to pick up traction when Former shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones MP enquired in Parliament about sea trials being moved back from Spring to Summer:
“In the 2015 SDSR and again in December of last year, in the first annual report of the SDSR, the government were very clear that the sea trials for HMS Queen Elizabeth would begin in spring of this year.
In response to a parliamentary question last week, she informed me that they would no longer take place, but would take place in summer of this year. What are the reasons for this, and what is going to be the operational service date for Queen Elizabeth?”
Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence Harriet Baldwin said:
“I would just like to confirm to him that she will commence her sea trials this Summer, and she will enter into the same programme so that she can sail into Portsmouth later this year.”
Defence secretary Michael Fallon said:
“It has always been our intention that Queen Elizabeth should be accepted into the Royal Navy before the end of this year. We are not giving specific dates as to when the sea trials are likely to commence.
The Queen Elizabeth will set out on those sea trials when she is ready to do so.”
Defence Procurement Minister Harriett Baldwin faced the Commons Defence Committee today, she was asked Madeleine Moon what was behind the delay and responded by saying:
“The carrier is due in Portsmouth this year but what I can’t give the committee is the specific days of the week. By the very definition of what you’re going through when you’re going through trials is that you’re potentially in that trial process have to make some corrections to something, that’s the whole point of a trial.”
The minister added that the crew was ready.
In such complex engineering projects, this type of occurrence isn’t a cause for concern nor is it unusual. HMS Queen Elizabeth, after all, is essentially a prototype and the Ministry of Defence can’t afford to get it wrong.