The Airfix Carrier

The Future Aircraft Carrier is the most significant UK naval contract since the Ark Royal. Not only will it be a giant ship with multiple capabilities, it will also be built using a completely new modular approach.

One of the biggest surprises to come out of the Strategic Defence Review, conducted in the early stages of the first Blair government, was the decision to build two new aircraft carriers – bigger than anything else in the current fleet.

At a time when the need for military and naval capability seemed to be decreasing, the idea of replacing the three current Invincible-class carriers with two giant ships the size of the 1950s Ark Royal was unexpected.

The logic, though, was that the two Future Aircraft Carriers, which are planned to enter service from 2012, would differ considerably from their predecessors: they would be capable of undertaking a much wider range of roles with a smaller crew.The way in which they are to be designed and built would also be very different. In the past ships have effectively been designed by the Ministry of Defence, which would then hand over a completed set of drawings to the successful tendering shipyard and say: ‘Build this’.

This time, however, in the biggest test for the MoD’s ‘smart acquisition’ policy, the two teams (led by BAE Systems and Thales of France) that are competing to become prime contractor have been given only a set of user requirements.

Both bidders have been given ‘stage II assessment contracts’ worth around £30m. It is up to the bidders, and their partners, to work out the best and most cost-effective way to meet the requirements. Trade-offs are allowed, so that if the contractors feel that relaxing any element of the specification could produce better value for money without significantly affecting performance, they can make the case. The Defence Procurement Agency’s own project team will continuously appraise the proposals of both teams until the end of the assessment contracts in November.

Most of the details of the carriers are fluid at the moment – not least because it will not be decided until summer whether the aircraft that will operate from the ships, a new naval version of the Joint Strike Fighter, will have conventional take-off and landing or short take-off/vertical landing capability. This will determine the whole shape and layout of the flight deck and hence the hull.

Although the shape of the ships should be more defined by the end of the current phase, details of the subsystems remain to be decided. What is clear, however, is that both ships are likely to be built in modules by several shipyards, and their propulsion systems look set to be electric.

Neither team has gone into details about how the ship will be split into modules, but the likelihood is that the hull will be divided vertically into a number of sections, each of which will be fitted out as completely as possible before bringing the sections together, with the superstructure possibly also built separately, like the topsides of an oil platform.

For power, gas turbines, diesels or both would be used to generate electricity which would then be distributed throughout the ship, including to the electric motors driving the ship’s propellers. This would eliminate a single vulnerable engine room and space-consuming drive shafts.

An additional challenge for the two contestants is that the MoD is calling for an unprecedented level of availability and flexibility in the range of missions the carrier will be capable of, ranging from a standard combat role to humanitarian aid.

On the following pages we outline the two approaches to the bid, and the expertise of the teams they have assembled. A year from now one of the two will be named preferred bidder and will go on to the next stage of what promises to be the most significant naval contract for many decades.

Thales: ‘the underdog’

As a French-owned company competing for a key UK warship project, Thales is widely seen as the underdog in the competition to build the carrier. At first sight there is an even bigger potential handicap: the fact that the company does not even own a shipyard.

Naturally Thales does not see it this way. ‘Thales is the number-two defence contractor in the UK,’ says Thales Naval managing director Peter Robertson. ‘We have 13,500 employees in this country, including 10,000 engineers, and our exports from it are worth over £400m a year.’ He says Thales has invested £2bn in the UK over the past decade, much of it in the long-term development of acquisitions such as the optronics division, formerly Pilkington Optronics.

And although, if it wins, the aircraft carrier would be Thales’ first prime naval contract in the UK, it has considerable relevant experience elsewhere. One of its current projects is the French Minirem intelligence-gathering ship, which will be fitted out in France but with a Dutch hull. ‘We have a good track record in the naval sector, better than the typical UK experience,’ says Robertson.

The lack of its own shipyard is no bar, Thales argues. Designing and building the ship is primarily an exercise in systems integration rather than shipbuilding; the hull will represent only a third of the total cost.

‘The hull will be 100 per cent designed and built in the UK,’ says Robertson. He adds that the company is talking to all the UK shipyards – even BAE’s – as it develops its design. ‘These are very substantial ships using technologies that haven’t been applied in the UK before.

‘No single shipyard has the capability or facilities to build the whole thing on time and to cost. Many have relatively few people on their books. Each shipyard says it can go out and get the people it needs, but can we be sure?’

Plus, he believes, recent experience counsels against putting too many eggs in one basket: ‘We’re very mindful of what can happen in the shipbuilding industry in the UK, such as the demise of Cammell Laird. In the four years before we cut steel, what else could happen?’ Instead, the ship will be built in modules in different yards and then assembled, and Thales’ focus has been to put together a team of experts embodying the best expertise anywhere in the world.

At its project headquarters near Bristol 200 staff from 36 companies work together, 24 of them outside the Thales group. They include Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the Joint Strike Fighter. The company also has expertise in electronics and weapons fitted on recent US carriers.

Devonport Management (DML) will participate in three areas. First, the shipbuilding. A modular approach is unusual in shipbuilding, at least in the UK, but common in the offshore industry, and can be done effectively provided the ship is designed on that basis from the start. ‘DML’s parent group is Kellogg Brown & Root. That is their core experience,’ says Robertson.

DML’s second area of expertise is the ‘work-up’. This is a period of technical and engineering trials, which can last two years or so, after the ship has been built and has passed its sea trials. This is when the aircraft are embarked and the crew is familiarised with the ship’s systems – in short, says Robertson, it is the process of ‘turning it into a warship’. Finally, DML will be involved in life support as it is with navy submarines.

Alstom will be providing expertise in electric propulsion and power distribution, bringing to bear experience on Type 45 destroyers and elsewhere. Electric propulsion has been chosen because of the flexibility it allows on where components are placed in the ship. It also helps with damage control by eliminating vulnerable drive shafts and gearboxes.

Raytheon is a partner on external communication, with experience on US carrier programmes. BMT is helping with the ship’s design.

The new carrier will have to be much more flexible than any previous aircraft carrier, capable of carrying strike aircraft, airborne early warning aircraft or helicopters, and taking part equally effectively in combat missions or humanitarian aid. But the key requirement is substantially higher availability to the fleet. ‘That poses all sorts of challenges,’ says Robertson.

Achieving this flexibility with a smaller crew implies that more automation will be needed in operating the ship’s systems. But Robertson sounds a warning note: ‘We’re taking a cautious view. Can we use expertise from the civil marine sector? Any technology has to be such that you aren’t prevented, for instance, from getting the weapons up because a sensor has failed. If a trivial failure can stop the ship fighting that is unacceptable.’ The answer, he suggests, is likely to lie in using ‘simple, robust technology’.

Though both potential prime contractors have assembled multidisciplinary teams, under smart procurement none of the partners is assured of winning the work it is helping to design in the current assessment phase. Each aspect will be tendered for during the next phase.

Perhaps most unusual of all is the fact that even at the end of the current contract there will be no bid price: just a ‘cost model’. This, along with a shipbuilding strategy and the picture the Defence Procurement Agency will have built up of the team’s ability to manage risk and work together, will be taken into account in the decision.

‘The cost model will become more factual with time,’ says Robertson. ‘We’re filling the computer model with data day by day. By the end the DPA will have a very clear and objective view on who has won.’

In the end, though, Robertson believes that one criterion matters above all. ‘Flexibility should be the real issue to decide this procurement.’

The design will be progressively refined, as subcontractors compete for work on the subsystems. Though all the equipment will be competed for internationally, Robertson says, ‘We surprised ourselves when we looked at the fit-out. There is nothing that can’t be supplied in the UK.’ He adds, though, that under competitive procurement inevitably some of the equipment will be supplied from overseas.

‘We’re not going to try to wrap ourselves in the national flag. We’ve assembled an international team whose great strength is international competence. Thales has strong credentials as a UK company, but whether we win it or BAE there will be no significant change in the number of jobs created.’

BAE: the home favourite

Like Thales, BAE Systems stresses the international expertise of its team. ‘We could have done the whole project internally but we’ve actively gone out and canvassed ideas. We take the view that the best person for the job gets it,’ says Mark Kane, managing director for the BAE Systems bid.

It is no coincidence, he adds, that the three companies at the heart of the successful Joint Strike Fighter bid – Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman – are also at the centre of the aircraft carrier project, and have considerable experience of system integration.

Kane estimates that the ship is likely to be around 300m long, with a displacement of 58,000 tonnes and a 72m-wide angled flight deck. If the new Joint Strike Fighter has a short take-off/vertical landing capability, the ship might be slightly smaller, but Kane points out the advantage of a larger model is that it would give more flexibility, allowing future aircraft of different types to operate from the carrier.

‘We’ve agreed with the MoD that we’ll do a certain amount of twin tracking. If anything can be generic that’s fine but at certain points the variants diverge. We’ll take both designs to a level of maturity by the third quarter of this year.’

As well as conventional take-off and STOVL variants, various hybrid designs are also possible. For example, a STOVL hybrid would have some steam catapults and arresters needed for conventional aircraft, while a conventional take-off hybrid would have a ramp at the front of the flight deck for STOVL planes. ‘We’re trying to keep as much flexibility for as long as possible,’ Kane says.

BAE’s team is a similar size to Thales’ and includes Rolls-Royce, for its expertise in propulsion and marine systems. Vosper Thornycroft is working on build strategy with BAE’s own shipyards, and Alenia Marconi on defence and information systems.

Lockheed Martin is involved because of its success with JSF and its expertise in ship/air integration. Northrop Grumman provides experience in communications and airborne early-warning aircraft; while Qinetiq, the privatised Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, is researching technology across the board. For the build, discussions are under way with Swan Hunter.

Kane also expects the carrier to be built in modules. ‘The modular approach has a lot of economic arguments for it as well as social benefits. Because it’s so large I can see three shipyards at the very least participating. We’re taking a UK view on shipyard resourcing.’

BAE is also leaning towards full electric propulsion. ‘Because of the demands for power in a carrier this size, full electric propulsion provides the maximum flexibility and survivability. There is no need for a large engine room – you can site the turbines around the ship,’ Kane says.

He does not think being seen as the UK contender provides any advantage. ‘There’s no bias from the DPA, I can assure you,’ he says.

He feels smart procurement has worked well so far. The MoD and BAE Systems are working closely to come up with an optimum solution,’ Kane says.