Watered down?

The chief naval architect on the UK’s fleet of new aircraft carriers has warned that the vessels will be ‘pared’ down as the result of a cost trade-off process in progress with the MoD.

In an exclusive interview with The Engineer magazine, Simon Knight of BMT Defence Services, contracted to Thales, said his team has been compelled to remove from the design some functionality such as sophisticated command and control systems, in order to get the price of the project down. He also confirmed that his team is looking at reducing the length of the ship for the same purpose.

The MoD awarded the contract to build the two 60,000-ton vessels jointly to BAE Systems and Thales. BAE Systems is prime contractor and the ships will be built to Thales’ designs.

The aircraft carrier project caused controversy earlier this summer when BAE Systems was reported to have told the MoD that project costs had risen from £2.8bn to £4bn. It was said that unless the budget was increased the vessels might have to be smaller and their aircraft -carrying capability cut from 48 to as little as 20. This would be a serious blow to the plans for the future of the Royal Navy fleet.

At the time, BAE Systems and the MoD played down the reports, and said that a final price would be agreed at ‘main gate’ in April next year – the point at which the contract is signed.

However, as Knight explained, the cost of the project has increased because it was decided to amalgamate features of the two separate bids made by BAE and Thales. Certain mission systems specified by BAE Systems, including command and control technologies, would be placed in the platform designed by Thales. ‘Those were the most expensive systems and that meant the price went up,’ said Knight. It is these more expensive systems that will now be taken out of the design.

‘What we are trying to do now is to see if we can get the price down and one of the trade-offs is to look at if we can have a smaller ship. But principally we are trying to take out some of the excess functionality.

‘What we almost had before was a ship that could be a frigate in terms of its self-defence capabilities, and that could be a command-and-control ship in terms of its communications. It was the Holy Grail in terms of [a ship that had] everything, and we are trying now to pare it back to just the aircraft carrier role.’

If the ship is shortened from the original 290m, Knight said the amount of space devoted to crew accommodation might also be affected. The Royal Navy’s problems in recruitment and retention of personnel prompted Knight to include in the Thales bid only four-berth cabins in an effort to improve conditions onboard. The size of the overall crew was also to be kept at a minimum thanks to the use of automation technologies in areas such as weapons and stores handling. Some of these systems will also have to be scaled back in order to reduce the ships’ final price, said Knight.

Knight, who was chief naval architect on the Astute programme from 1996 to 1998, also warns that MoD procurement practices could delay the whole project. He said that the demands made by the MoD ‘stakeholders’ (the various aircraft carrier experts) on the design team to justify at length every decision could hold-up what is a relatively tight schedule. There are two years after ‘main gate’ in which to complete the design work. The first steel will be cut in 2006, which leaves three years to build the ship before it is due to be launched in 2009 to begin sea trials.

‘When the carrier was still at the bidding stage it was almost easier. We could say to the MoD and its stakeholders that we would choose what we felt to be best. Now that it’s no longer a bid the MoD and all its stakeholders are talking to us much more and demanding that we justify everything fully on paper, from engine choice right down to the type of piping material, to all the individual stakeholders, and we just can’t do that. We are going to spend years trying to sort this out, which is part of the reason why the submarine programme has gone adrift.’

The MoD dismissed all of Knight’s points, and a spokesman denied that the carrier project was adrift. ‘The programme is still in its assesment phase, with the MoD, Thales and BAE Systems working closely together to work out the right balance of performance, time and cost,’ the spokesman said. ‘Nothing will be fixed until we award the demonstration and manufacture contract, as originally planned, next Spring.

‘What is certain is that we will deliver the overall capability requirements that the Royal Navy needs, as set out when we announced the future carrier programme in the strategic defence review five years ago. Our target in-service dates for the two carriers remain 2012 and 2015.’