Opinion: Is carrier commissioning the beginning of the end for UK shipbuilding?
Thursday 7 December marks the day when the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ is commissioned as the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. It will have been more than 30 years since the last aircraft carrier (HMS Ark Royal) was commissioned, and almost 63 years since the last ‘proper’ aircraft carrier was commissioned (also an HMS Ark Royal).
Commissioning is a symbolic part of a ship's life, representing the day she moves from being under construction to becoming a formal part of the fleet. Although there is a long road to go from here until the day that she deploys with a fully worked up carrier air wing, the event is a significant milestone in the regeneration of carrier aviation in the Royal Navy.
The journey required to get to this point has been long and painful and many lessons can be drawn from it. It is some 19 ½ years since the formal requirement for a replacement carrier was identified in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.
The ship has survived five general elections, four prime ministers and four chancellors, and two strategic defence reviews (plus innumerable planning rounds). To continue to keep the ship in build is a testament to the willingness of the UK Armed Forces to push a coherent case for the carrier, and also for the strategic vision required by politicians, civil servants and military personnel to keep funding for a long term project rather than sacrifice it to keep shorter term, more popular measures.
In an era where strategic seems to mean a period of time that can vary from ten years to 12 months, and strategy seems to be a byword for ‘we need a new PowerPoint slide’, the delivery of the Queen Elizabeth marks a major success for the skills of both the MOD and UK shipbuilding.
The challenge is how to keep those skills as the programme winds down once Prince of Wales has also been commissioned?
For two decades the promise of CVF, with its large contracts and substantial blocks of work has been a tangible feast for the UK shipbuilding industry, which at one stage had so much work on offer that famously not one UK company bid to build the new ‘Tide’ class MARS tankers in the UK.
"With yet more defence cuts in the offing, and an uncertain economic outlook, a ship in service is a far easier target to delete than a ship in build."— Author
UK shipbuilding now has to work with government to transition its workforce to ensure it retains skills, without slipping into a ‘boom and bust’ world.
The Royal Navy has a tremendously positive and exciting forward plan mapped out for the next 20 years, with well over 20 new escorts, patrol & MCMV ships, submarines and RFAs being programmed for ordering between now and the mid-2030s.
It is now essential for the RN to work effectively with industry to ensure a credible flow of work continues to retain the skills and experience gained during the CVF build process, and not create the situation that Canada is in, whereby decades of failing to order or sustain a shipbuilding industry threatens the long term ability to regenerate the Royal Canadian Navy.
For the MoD, the next few years pose a challenge too in that having invested significant resources in keeping CVF in the build programme, the RN needs to be certain that it can keep her in service for the long haul. With yet more defence cuts in the offing, and an uncertain economic outlook, a ship in service is a far easier target to delete than a ship in build.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales will between them consume a significant proportion of Royal Navy manpower at sea (some 1300 sailors plus an air wing). In broad terms this will be nearly 10% of the surface fleet’s manpower (the RN broadly divides its manpower into Fleet Air Arm, Royal Marines, Submarine Service and the General Service – which has approximately 15,000 people).
As the RN continues to retain the right amount of suitably skilled and qualified personnel, will it have enough people in the long term to keep both the ships at sea?
For years the RN has fought a constant battle between the challenge of keeping ships at sea, and retaining enough people in the right rank and rate to operate them effectively as fighting ships.
There is a significant difference between a ship being able to go to sea, and being able to fight. Many RN ships operate with gapped posts in their crew, often in areas where highly specialised skills are required.
There is a vicious cycle whereby highly skilled personnel are repeatedly deployed at sea to fill gaps caused by retention problems, only for them to put their notice in too.
The RN finds itself torn between meeting operational demands to generate ships ready to fight and trying to provide sufficient downtime for its people to improve retention.
Previous measures to solve this have included paying off of HMS Illustrious and HMS Ocean and going farther back, big ships like County Class destroyers or aircraft carriers were always an appealing choice to pay off early, generating a spike of available manpower to fix problems elsewhere in the fleet.
As both new carriers enter service they will transition from being a major building project, bringing enormous value to sustain the UK shipbuilding industry, to becoming a manpower sink needing huge numbers of sailors to keep operational. Paradoxically, having fought so hard to get both of these ships into service, they may now be dangerously easy targets for future defence reviews.
A look to the next 10-15 years of future manpower trends highlights that the RN will face enormous pressures. Introducing potentially four new classes of ships (Type 26, Type 31e, future Patrol/MCMV capability and Dreadnought SSBN) to service will require a lot of manpower to handle these new ships – both the build process and the introduction to service.
This will put pressure on many pinch point areas, and this is before considering the challenges posed by keeping the increasingly elderly Type 23, 45 and MCMV fleet operational.
The wider backdrop then is of a navy that will be worked hard to generate two carriers at sea, plus supporting ships and meeting global commitments while introducing new ships to service.
As manpower pressures bite and retention problems continue, planners may look increasingly to options to reduce them. Paying off a carrier into reserve may be one means of saving 650 sailors and helping plug gaps across the fleet.
There is no guarantee that given these pressures that Queen Elizabeth's reign will be long or glorious.
"The strategic vision shown to get Queen Elizabeth into service seems the exception and not the rule."— Author
The final challenge facing the Royal Navy is that once construction of Prince of Wales is complete, there will be no requirement to build a large aircraft carrier again for another 40-50 years.
The recent history of UK naval shipbuilding is one of delay and procrastination (the Type 26 has been in a design stage now for over 20 years). The strategic vision shown to get Queen Elizabeth into service seems the exception and not the rule.
Given these delays, will there even be a credible shipbuilding industry left in the UK in 40 years’ time to build the replacement ships?
The RN is likely to need 4-6 destroyers in the 2030 time frame to begin replacing the Type 45s, and there may be some kind of Bay class replacement.
Beyond this it is hard to see how UK shipbuilding has a sufficiently sustainable long term work package from the MoD to have the industrial base in the late 2040s to begin construction of a replacement.
This will require long term strategic vision and an ability to think across many decades and different governments to commit to keeping the UK shipbuilding industry in sufficient health so that it is able in the decades to come to be ready to build a successor.
Unless there is a significant shift in government and MoD attitudes towards ordering ships and discarding them for new replacements on a regular basis, much as was advocated in the National Shipbuilding Strategy, then it is potentially possible that HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales could be the last aircraft carriers ever built for the Royal Navy.