Report warns MoD’s aircraft carrier programme is ‘entering critical phase’
National Audit Office says department’s attempts to address delays have compressed its Carrier Strike delivery schedule and “added risk with limited contingency”
The Ministry of Defence’s multi-billion-pound proposals for two new aircraft carriers and a fleet of Lighting II fast jets protected by a new “beyond the horizon” radar system have made good progress but face a number of challenges to meet targeted deployment dates, the National Audit Office has said.
The combined programme – known as Carrier Strike – centres around the delivery of two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, which will be the largest vessels ever built for the Royal Navy, and come at a combined cost of £6.212bn. The planes – also known as F-35s – will cost a further £5.8bn and the “Crowsnest” radar £300m.
The first of the carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is due to make its first sailing later this year, and the MoD is targeting its entry into full service with planes and operational radar in 2021, with the second carrier – HMS Prince of Wales – entering service in 2026.
In its report today the NAO said the department had “taken a number of decisions to address slippage” within the Carrier Strike programme that had “compressed the schedule” but which had “added risk with limited contingency”.
The public spending watchdog said there were “operational unknowns” within the three core programmes that made up Carrier Strike, which would only become clear during testing and that technological failures may mean larger crews were required at a time when levels of highly-trained professionals were “below target strength”.
Staffing gaps included engineering roles and “warfighting specialists” in the Royal Navy and engineering, intelligence and some aircrew cadres in the RAF, the NAO said.
It added there would need to be an intensive period of training before the Navy could operate the carriers and jets together, but that the design and testing of the US-led Lightning II programme was taking place concurrently until 2019, meaning that jets already in the UK fleet may need modification.
On the project’s finance, the NAO said there was a potential growth in the cost of the carriers of up to 2%, while the cost of the jets could change if foreign exchange rates shifted, or the total number of jets on order globally varied.
NAO head Sir Amyas Morse said the MoD had made good progress with Carrier Strike and had clear plans to achieve an initial operating capability by the end of 2020, but faced a critical three years.
“It still has a lot to do as it brings together the equipment, trained crews, infrastructure and support,” he said.
“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.”
An MoD spokesman said Carrier Strike would transform the UK’s ability to “project power” around the world and welcomed the NAO’s recognition of the department’s progress on the project.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth will be accepted by the Royal Navy as planned this year and we will also take delivery of a further six F-35s in addition to the eight already delivered,” he said.
“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.”
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