The author was lucky enough to visit the CVF assembly hall in Portsmouth recently and see first hand sections of both HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS PRINCE OF WALES slowly take form. The result, to put it mildly has left him feeling genuinely impressed. Put to one side the on-going debate about whether CVF will be STOVL or CTOL, and ignore much of the argument in the press about whether we need carriers or not, and suddenly several things become extremely clear:
a. The CVF project is a clear demonstration of the skills of British Shipbuilding
b. CVF has probably saved British shipbuilders from oblivion
c. Whisper it quietly, but the CVF build looks like it is going extremely well.
d. Whisper it even more quietly, but UK military shipbuilding is looking dangerously healthy right now…
For those less acquainted with the programme, a quick recap is probably in order. The Future carrier programme was initiated in the late 1990s following the then Labour Governments Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which took the initial feasibility studies for Invincible replacements and converted this into a clear requirement for two new large carriers. Based on the required sortie generation rate, the design grew into a 65,000 tonne project, which is too large to be built at any one UK yard. Construction has been underway now for several years, although a final decision on whether it will be a STOVL or CTOL design has yet to be made – current rumour control (if you believe the media) indicates a decision after Easter. If all goes to plan, the first hull enters service in roughly 2016, and the second in the 2018-2020 time frame.
It is this authors genuine belief that CVF represents a genuinely impressive endorsement of UK shipbuilding skills. This is not an easy project to assemble – as noted, the design is simply too large to be built in one location, and no one yard could cope with the workload required. Instead, the design is being assembled from various UK yards, which are jointly working together to assemble the design in the manner of the worlds most complex 3D jigsaw puzzle. The final assembly is being conducted in Rosyth, where the ships will be put together, almost in the manner of an airfix kit!
The level of project management, design and oversight required to see this project is staggering. This isn’t just a case of putting the plans into one yard, and then letting them get on with it, its requiring hugely complex work to make sure every part is able to marry up with one another as required. This alone is testament to the need to keep warship design skills in the UK - without a world class design team, the UK could not have built CVF, its as simple as that.
The scale of the project is also stunning – the ship is being assembled from a range of what are known as ‘superblocks’ or large components which are being merged together to form the final hull. Lets be clear here, this isnt’ just a case of building some small parts – the block Humphrey saw that is nearing completion weighs in excess of 6,000 tonnes and is already running on its own electricity generation. The sizes too is phenomenal, these blocks only go up to the hangar flight deck, but are already taller than your average office block. By the time these are merged with the top of the vessel, and then the island is added, you are looking at a vessel almost as tall from keel to mast as Nelsons column, if not taller.
One thing that really struck the author was the sense of positive attitude from the construction team. There is a clear view emerging that the CVF project is generating enough work to keep all the core UK military shipyards in a healthy order book for several years to come. While its easy to look at the build programme and say that with only two carriers, and two DDGs under construction, the ship yards look empty, one has to remember the scale of work required to build these vessels. In pure tonnage terms, the work on the CVF project is the equivalent to building almost 20 Type 45 destroyers at once. When you consider the use of the superblocks, this means that all the UK yards working on the project have essentially got a guaranteed order book out for the next 5-8 years as work ramps up for both QE and the POW.
This is one reason why the MARS tanker programme award had to go overseas – UK military shipbuilding at the moment is going through something of a renaissance – there is almost too much work to be had in pure tonnage and capacity terms, and in the UK yards right now, there simply isn’t the space or capacity to build an additional four tankers. Its not a joke to say that even though BAE were offered the MARS programme on a non competitive basis, they didn’t actually bid for it due to the work they already had underway with the CVF programme.
This brings Humphrey onto his next point – the fact is that the CVF programmes existence has probably saved UK military shipbuilding as it stands now. No matter how you look at it, in 1998 when this programme was announced, there was no other credible plan B for military shipbuilding in the UK – no need for dozens of new escorts, no requirement for much in the way of RFAs at that time, and limited need for high end construction. If CVF (and in particular its modular format) hadn’t been on the horizon then, then personally this author believes that UK military shipbuilding now would really have struggled to stay afloat. There simply wouldn’t have been the requirements or orders coming in to provide the same level of workload, nor to keep the design teams busy until the need to order the T26 emerges in the latter part of this decade. In turn, this would have meant that there was little likelihood of being able to build a carrier in the future - without the yards, then the ability to build a complex vessel quickly goes away.
As such, the author would argue that CVF has not only preserved UK shipbuilding skills, but more importantly has also helped generate a clear pathway for the next generation of ship construction. Canada struggled in the 1980s when it found it had to reactivate a surface ship construction line for the Halifax class frigates, essentially having to build a design and construction capability from scratch and then shutting it down when the last of 12 escorts was completed. With no follow on capability, the indigenous capability was lost, and the next generation of destroyers and surface combatants will cost Canada far more than if any existing shipbuilding capability was already present to design and construct them.
In the UKs case, if all goes to plan, then the end of CVF construction will ramp down just as construction of the Type 26 is ramping up. This should ensure a near steady state of construction for UK yards, particularly as orders are placed for new RFA AORs in the latter part of the decade, meaning that UK yards can plan with far more certainty about their workload, which in turn ensures it is much easier to plan workforce requirements and train staff. Without CVF, it is hard to see how the same level of planning could occur, and that instead shipbuilding would be more aligned around peaks and troughs, with classes ending construction and long lean periods emerging as they waited for orders for new vessels. The dangers of this approach were highlighted with the Astute programme some years ago, where the gap between the T and A class was such that there needed to be an immense level of skill reconstitution ahead of being able to successfully deliver the project.
This brings Humphrey to his last point – namely that both the programme and the wider UK military shipbuilding sector are looking very healthy right now. The CVF project is delivering ahead of schedule, and with the scale of the project, there is the equivalent of 20 escort ships under construction right now across multiple UK yards. There is a confidence in the yards that with a return to a balanced equipment budget, then there will be follow on orders for T26 and in time new RFA and minor warship orders too. The UK has now successfully mapped out a pathway to delivering two new carriers and thirteen escort ships, plus an additional five SSNs between now and the latter part of the 2020s.
This is a hugely positive story – the RN is on course to receive two hulls that, whatever variant flies from them, will be some of the most capable and potent warships it has ever operated. UK industry meanwhile knows what the RN will be buying, and has sufficient stable work in place to ensure that over the next 15 years, it will be able to secure sufficient work to keep thousands of highly skilled workers, and thousands of small and medium businesses who do subcontracting in gainful employment. This is good for the RN, good for industry and good for the nation as a whole.
So, whisper it quietly, but this author would suggest that things are looking remarkably good for the UK warship construction sector right now…