Is the UK's future aircraft carrier project a 'memorable procurement fiasco'? Professor Keith Hayward, RAeS Head of Research, provides expert comment and analysis on the House of Commons' recent report on the CVF aircraft carrier project.

[caption id="attachment_8513" align="alignnone" width="403"] Rendering of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales at sea (Aircraft Carrier Alliance)[/caption] The report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on the UK Carrier Strike force makes for sombre reading. The contract, it states, is “not fit for purpose”. The £5bn plus programme is late and over-budget; nothing new in that perhaps, but the scale of the continuing risks are breath-taking. In part this was due to switching back and forth between two versions of the F-35; from VSTOL to the 'cat and traps' conventional variant and back again. This alone incurred additional costs of £74m. But as the shift to a conventional configuration would have left one ship in 'moth balls', the outcome may now have both carriers entering service - or not, depending on future defence reviews. More telling, when the carrier (s) do enter service, they will be without adequate Airborne Early Warning (AEW) as the helicopter-based Crowsnest system will be at least two years behind. The AEW part of the carrier 'system' was always a weak link. It is vital for expeditionary operations because otherwise surveillance is limited to just the radar horizon and to meet the threat of the new generation of sea-skimming missiles a much more generous warning time is required. There is no guarantee that the carrier task force will contain sufficient support vessels of a contemporary vintage and capability. The replacements for current escort frigates, submarines, logistics vessels and other support ships will also depend on future Defence Reviews. [caption id="attachment_8515" align="alignnone" width="333"] HMS Queen Elizabeth under construction. (Aircraft Carrier Alliance)[/caption] The degree of inter-operability with US and European allies appears to be more limited than originally conceived – ‘working along side’ rather than flying off each other’s carriers. And flying the F-35B from the UK carrier – such as landing during hot weather while fully laden with stores - still appears to have a number of uncertainties that need to be resolved. More important, control over the eventual cost of the aircraft depends almost entirely on what happens in the US. At the very least, hedging against currency fluctuations will imply one form of risk. Another is the extent to which unit costs will be affected by US cuts to initial orders that would impact on the price charged. Again, long term contracting might mitigate some unpleasant surprises. [caption id="attachment_8516" align="alignnone" width="312"] Could the F-35B still be ditched due to costs? (Lockheed Martin)[/caption] More fundamentally, the F-35 programme and the F-35B in particular, is far from mature. This implies further cost escalation. One scenario – punted by Bill Sweetman in AviationWeek – is that the US bails out of the F-35B at the end of initial development, leaving the UK and Italy to build it and to take responsibility for future upgrading. This would really increase costs. The really nightmarish future has the US cutting budgets so fiercely that the F-35B is dumped even earlier and we have carriers without aircraft - very unlikely, but not impossible, as anybody who recalls the Skybolt decision back in the 1960s will appreciate. Secretary of Defence Philip Hammond says that the MoD is doing its best to bring costs under control, and unsurprisingly blames the previous government for negotiating such a poor contract. But in reality everybody and nobody is responsible for what has the potential to be a memorable procurement fiasco. One really has to say well done to several generations of military planners and politicians who wanted force projection on the cheap. [caption id="attachment_8514" align="alignnone" width="353"] Infographic showing scale of the QE Class carriers. (Aircraft Carrier Alliance)[/caption]      

Read Keith Hayward’s incisive commentary on the global aerospace secotor every month in Aerospace International.

Royal Aeronautical Society
6 September 2013