Big, Fast and Better

Geoff Searle, Programme Director for the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers, sits down with Defence IQ to discuss the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and its progress to date.

Exclusive interview with Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier programme Director.

By Andrew Elwell

Geoff Searle, Programme Director for the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers, sits down with Defence IQ to discuss the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and its progress to date as these two world-class carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, begin to take shape. During the interview Searle discusses how the government’s announcement about returning to the STOVL F-35 variant may affect construction, challenges the Alliance has overcome as well as giving us some facts and figures on how big, fast and better these new carriers are. Hint: it’s really, very and a lot.

What is the Aircraft Carrier Alliance?

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance is a unique partnering relationship between BAE Systems, Thales UK, Babcock and the UK Ministry of Defence.  The Aircraft Carrier Alliance has been formed specifically to deliver the aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales to the Royal Navy.

What stage are you currently at with the project?

HMS Queen Elizabeth is now firmly in the assembly phase. Sections constructed at yards across the UK are making their way to Rosyth where assembly is taking place. Currently (as of May 15) there are 13,000 tonnes of HMS Queen Elizabeth already assembled in the dry dock at Rosyth. That’s equivalent to more than one and a half T45 destroyers!

HMS Prince of Wales is well into its construction phase, and elements are being built at yards in Portsmouth and Glasgow.

Has the project been successful to date in terms of time and budget?

It’s well-known that alterations to the requirements have resulted in several changes to the programme, and although these have meant changes to scheduling and budgets, I am very proud of the way teams across the Aircraft Carrier Alliance have responded. The entire project, despite being massively complex, is running well and the build of both ships is progressing apace.

What has been the biggest challenge in the construction of the carriers so far?

The aircraft carriers are a new class of ships, requiring an entirely new approach to shipbuilding and are on a scale unlike anything constructed for the Royal Navy before.

Developing the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, and in doing so creating an environment where different companies can work with each other and alongside the customer has been a huge success. But that sort of change doesn’t come naturally. It required a considerable change in thinking and approach, but it’s a credit to everyone involved that we continue to put the alliance first. The progress made over the last few months in particular stands in testament to that.

Did the delay over the F-35 variant decision make any difference to the carriers’ construction – will reverting back to the F-35B STOVL jet cause any significant difficulties for you? 

The ships were always designed to be able to be adapted for either STOVL or CV operations and they are already being built in the STOVL configuration.  The decision to go with the STOVL aircraft means we can now firm up the plans and we are now working with MOD to re-activate our plans to develop both ships as STOVL-capable.

How different are the QE class carriers to the ones they are replacing? What’s the most significant change?

The most obvious change is their size. But the power and propulsion units and the mission systems which will bring the ship to life will help create a new level of military capability. Of course the F-53B aircraft they will operate will represent a step change in capability too. By building the ships with two ‘islands’ – one for ship control and one for air traffic control – we can ensure they are as effective and efficient as possible when it comes to mounting future operations. They will play a pivotal role in the UK’s defence strategy, while also providing a platform for humanitarian aid.

How many people are working on the construction effort?

There are in the region of 10,000 people directly involved in the delivery of the Queen Elizabeth Class, and more than 300 UK companies providing everything from mission systems to microwave ovens.

Just how big are these carriers – could you give us some perspective?

The Queen Elizabeth Class are the largest warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy, by orders of magnitude. Three times the size of the Invincible Class, they will give the UK four acres of sovereign territory and require 1.5 million metres2 of paintwork, which is slightly more than the acreage of Hyde Park. The picture to right is of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Rosyth Dockyard, beside HMS Illustrious, which shows just how large the ships will be in comparison.

What’s been your proudest moment while working on the project?

Not surprisingly, some of the most visual moments really stand out, the arrival of LB03 and the Goliath crane’s first lifts were particularly memorable. But the most important thing for me has been the team of people I have the privilege to work with. None of us have operated in an alliance environment before, but everyone has risen to the challenge. Teams across the alliance continue to work incredibly hard to deliver their objectives time and again.

I was also particularly proud to see the programme achieve one million man-hours without a single reportable accident last year. Without a doubt ensuring the health and safety of the workforce is a top priority for us all.

What about some stats – the weight of the carrier when it’s completed, length, how fast will it go, number of engines, number of decks, how many aircraft will it be able to hold?

  • The ships will be 65,000 tonnes at full displacement
  • Length: 280m
  • Width: 70m
  • Range; 8,000 to 10,000 nautical miles
  • Each ship has two propellers which together will generate 80MW of power – enough to run 1,000 family cars or 50 high speed trains
  • 56m from keel to masthead, which is four metres taller than Niagra Falls!
  • The distribution network on board will generate enough energy to power 300,000 kettles or 5,500 family homes (a town the size of Swindon)
  • 1.5 million m2 of paintwork, which is 370 acres, or slightly more than acreage of Hyde Park
  • Each ship’s two propellers will weigh 33 tonnes each – nearly two and half times as heavy as a double decker bus and one and half times as high
  • Each of the two huge aircraft lifts can move two Joint Strike Fighters from the hangar to the flight deck in 60 seconds. They’re so powerful that together they could lift the entire ship’s crew
  • Weapons: Designed to receive the latest generation of the Phalanx close-in weapon system for defence of the vessel. Each ship is also designed to receive 30mm guns and mini-guns located to counter asymmetric threats
  • Power: 2 x Rolls-Royce MT30 Gas Turbines and 4 x Diesel Generator Sets giving total installed power of 109MWe
  • 110MW power station on board each ship – that’s enough to provide all of Portsea Island with power
  • The ship’s Long Range radar is the same size as a large mobile home
  • The anchors will be 3.1m high, each weighing 13 tonnes – almost as much as a double decker bus
  • Water treatment plant onboard: The ships will produce over 500 tonnes of fresh water daily
  • £1.3 billion worth of sub contracts for work on the QE Class have now been placed with companies across most regions in the UK

What’s the next big milestone?

The next stage is moving the programme into Dock Cycle B.

There are three cycles in the assembly phase. Dock Cycle A – the assembly of LB03 and CB03 and sponsons – is almost complete. Dock Cycle B involves integrating the blocks that make up the forward section of the ship. So the arrival of sections LB02 later this month, and CB02 in early June, will signal the start of the next phase in the construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth.  But also this year we start the vitally important activities of setting the ship to life as we power up the electrical systems and set equipment to work – the start of the process that will lead to trials and acceptance over the coming years.

Source: Defence IQ



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