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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.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Usual risk analysis of which skills and numbers of personnel the biggest – back to issue 101, RN depth and budget is creaking

  2. Doesn’t really matter to be honest. We won’t have a resonable f35 force in till 2025, so prior to that the carriers are rather pointless.

    • Frankly thats just a wrong comment Harry. We will have a full sqn of F35s by 2018. That sqn alone is more capable than the whole Sea Harrier force we had before in so many ways. deploying that sqn along with the associated support forces will provide a carrier force projection capability not only beyond what we can do now (ie Nil), and what w ecould do 10 years ago. In an allied op we are likely to deploy at elast one USMC F35B sqn too – so such a dismal appreciation of yours simply is nonsense. Of course it will be 2023 before we can deploy 2 fully op sqns of our own…and thats not at all desirable…. but where are we going to find the extar £1BN in the net 3 years to accelrate our orders? Dont say the Overseas aid budget because thats not going to happen! The all UK weapons fit software, whether we like it or not is only just starting trials now (see latest F35B ASRAAM tests), so yes the full capability is not really with us until 2023 either. That doesnt mean what we will have will not have a potency and capability woth having and using in the right scenarios.

      • That first squadron will be an RAF one, meaning it will spend the majority of its time training and performing RAF roles, with little priority given to naval requirements.

        • Hello Dave,

          Here are three other ways to find additional funds;

          1) Cap reduction in Corp Tax at 20p (£6-8b pa)
          2) Stop Inheritance Tax giveaway (£1b pa)
          3) Amend pension triple lock to single lock against average earnings (£3-5b pa)

          None of these require cuts in services or tax rises, we just stop giving money away where it’s not needed.

          And yes, I would also halve the aid budget – but even without that the above provides an extra £10-14b pa.

          There is plenty of money in the current fiscal envelope, we just chose to give it away where it’s not needed instead of investing it.

          • Ian, I agree with 1 and 2, not 3. And Aid – it’s soft power, and there’s some variable relation with the amount spent on soft power that saves money spent on military. Don’t ask me what it is!

            But it also has returns like business spending. so it’s not a case of spending £2 billion say and getting nothing back. It is a tough one.

          • A 4% manpower shortage should not stop a ship from sailing because it should have a few extras anyway. I don’t think it’s money we’re short of, it’s the throwing away of large sums that’s the problem. Here are some examples of our bureaucraticly expensive procument system…

            – Choosing the F35B because it saved a few pennies on the ships today ignoring that it will cost more later. The B is also not as good, more expensive and STOBAR limits our choices. Also when the QEs grew to 65t tons because had to have a sortie generation rate of X we then didn’t make them nuke powered. Having 7 reactors in the Astutes and 4 more in Sucessor (same design) plus 4 in the two carriers and 1 on land for training would be cheaper per reactor and allow the QEs to carry up to 4,000t more aviation fuel.

            – Dithering over the Future Rapid Effects System to replace the old 8t Scimitars. A 20 year decision for a 40t Scout that still won’t be here till 2022. It will need ships and road transporters to get to the form up point along with loads of fuel and logistics troops to protect all of that because a 40t tank can’t self deploy rapidly like a 20t 8×8. Whilst we dithered on FRES we invaded Iraq and Afganistan and had to urgently buy Fuchs, Ridgback, Foxhound, Jackal, Husky, Panther and Bushmaster which are all very similar and none of them got purchased in really big numbers but they all got vehicle maintenance procedures and training courses prepared and delivered.

            – Building an Apache factory for £2.5bn to employ 700 people then using it for only 59 Apaches at £42m each. Buying them straight from the US (like we did for the other 8) for £12m each would not have wasted £1.8bn. At least it works though, unlike the new Merlin that can’t lift off in hot weather because it’s carrying around a spare engine all the time!

            – Setting up a 30,000 strong Joint Force Command but not eliminating the three existing commands that it was supposed to replace. Having 1,600 Lt Cols to command just 49 Infantry Battlions. Having 438 one or more star officiers when we only have 9 Army Brigades and a total UK military strength small enough to be commanded by a single 3 star officier.

            – Current projects wasting money include T26 cuts with introduction of T31 and additional River construction, Tornados supported by Voyagers bombing ISIS at £100,000 per bomb and 200 tons of fuel per night, and of course the continued existance of the RAF when the AAC over land and FAA over the sea should be enough.

          • Morning dadsarmy,

            At risk of straying; my logic for moving to single lock on pensions is the triple lock makes pensioners systemically richer than (and at the expense) of the working population which I don’t think is sustainable politics. At some point (about now IMHO) it also becomes unsustainable maths. Making pensioners wealth increase in line with working peoples standard of living from now on seems to be broadly equitable.

            Re AID, I’m a big believer in it for reasons of common humanity and like you soft power. For me the issue is the same as triple lock pensions. I can’t justify in my head the massive and GDP index protected sum (.7%GDP is almost 2% of Govt spending) to the ROW when our own public services are being cut. At some point that’s just not sustainable (and again IMHO) that point passed some time ago.

        • Harry

          All F35’s will be RAF – but they will be prioritised to the carrier force. It is probably one of the main reasons the typhoon force has been increased though renewal of the T1 kit.

          Just because the RAF own the craft – does not mean they are not going to be deployed on the most expensive asset ever built for British forces.

          It would be political suicide for the head of the RAF to do anything else than fill the carriers.

  3. Failure to meet project deadlines, failure to budgeted costs and failure to understand risk.

    Who would by a warship from BAE systems apart from the UK MOD?

    Let’s not bother with reality let’s just gloss over the truth with phrases like carrier strike, power projection and jam tomorrow

  4. Think that’s a bit harsh on BAE Mike – over the last 2 Governments there have been multiple delays that had nothing to do with them (2 carriers? 1 carrier? catapult/no catapult and so on). UK MOD is probably the major cause for delay.

  5. Agree does not matter. It is not like we have dozens of highly advanced stealth jump jets waiting to fly from hms QE. Putting her trials and in service date back is fine, narrows the gap between in service and IOC for strike carrier role.

  6. As far as BAE are concerned in a previous life I did plan, design, build and model, and what happens then is the client / customer / boss / user group comes back and says: “We’d like some changes …”.

  7. Surely if they thought everything would be perfect first time they wouldn’t bother with sea trials at all? Obviously stuff will be discovered during trials and need changing that’s not news or reason to panic. If it sinks during those trials then they can panic but this is the Olympics all over again where people assumed it would be rubbish just because we’re doing it.

  8. Will be great to see the new carriers deployed, and of course with such large complicated new pieces of kit you would expect there to be delays while testing goes on. No worries, all will be good.

    Will be excellent multi role carriers with superb aircraft on board.

    • Agree but I’ll not rest easy until we commit to Sea Ceptor or similar onboard – lack of CIWS beyond phalanx worries me silly. Pretty sure all US carriers inc Wasp’s have four sets (2 x RIM 116 + 2 x RIM-7)!

      • Hi Ian,

        I also share your concerns and it worries me even more that virtually nothing has/is being said regarding a completely inadequate self-defence suite. I’d love to see Sea Ceptor added – containerised or otherwise – but sadly I truly believe it will never happen, putting even more pressure on or scant escorts…..

  9. Agree, Sea Ceptor on the carriers would be good, have a feeling though they will be relying on the escorts for air defence.

  10. £50 Billion can be raised by using the Military as a assest and selling 10 year Military Bonds at 2% interest
    £1 Billion of interest payments each year with £5 Billion put as side to pay Bond capital of 10 yrars.
    With a bit of luck GDP will raise each yesr to cover the £1 Billion of interest payment.
    This would give us £50 Billion now still leaving a healthy Defence Budget over the next 10 years.
    This process could be used anytime in the future when we need a Military cash injection

      • The problem with this is the national debt is already too high, we can’t just keep increasing it by issuing more debt.

        • I’m all for using debt at such low interest rates for investing in military assets, transport, housing, infrastructure, energy gen etc It’s Opex current account deficit that bothers me

  11. It’s just not going to happen is it? Projection – 2025 – One carrier, 6 destroyers, 8 frigates, 7 ssns, 6 or so OPVs plus 6 minesweepers. Albion, Bulwark, etc scrapped. Second carrier sold. Anyone up for a bet?

  12. Every other country in the world has equipped it carriers with self defence weapons even the New Japanse assault ship Kaga 16 cells Mk 41 VLS 12 RUM-139 VL ASROC 2 × 20 mm Phalanx CIWS
    2 × triple 324 mm torpedo tubes we always shut the door when the horse has bolted The Uk will never learn

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