Spending watchdog warns of delays to new aircraft carriers

Updated: 

A shortage of key personnel could jeopardise the effective deployment of the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers, the Whitehall spending watchdog has warned.

The Carrier Strike programme was entering a "critical" phase with the first of the ships - HMS Queen Elizabeth - nearing completion and due to make its inaugural sailing this summer, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

It will mark the start of a "high risk" period of trials, testing and training to bring together the carrier with its Lightning II fighter jets and helicopter-borne Crowsnest radar in an integrated force.

Already the first sailing has been put back three months and the NAO warns further "technical issues" could mean the Ministry of Defence's plan for it to be operational by the end of 2020 is delayed.

Among the problems it highlighted was the shortage of engineers, intelligence personnel and warfighting specialists in the Navy and RAF air crew.

While the MoD has begun a recruitment programme to address the gaps, the NAO said the number of pilots was expected to be "just sufficient" to 2026, with "limited resilience" if personnel left the forces

"The department still has a lot to do as it brings together equipment, trained crews, infrastructure and support. Problems in any of these areas could mean that use of the carriers is delayed or reduced," the NAO said.

"The next three years are critical as the programme moves into a high-risk period of trials, testing and training. The technology is innovative and operational unknowns, which will only become clear during testing, may affect plans and increase costs.

"To recover earlier delays, the department has already compressed the timetable and is running some testing in parallel with other tasks.

"The closely timed sequence of tasks offers no further room for slippage and there remain significant risks to value for money."

The NAO said the MoD was already facing a 1% to 2% cost overrun on the £6.2 billion budget for building the ships, while the forecast £5.8 billion earmarked for the US-built Lightning II fighters could be affected by fluctuations in the value of sterling.

In the longer term, the NAO said the deployment of the carriers would have far-reaching implications for the way the Navy operates with a "significant proportion" of the fleet required to support and protect them.

The formation of a carrier task group is likely to account for about 27% of the Navy's fleet by tonnage and 20% of the personnel needed to crew the fleet.

"Currently, the Navy carries out multiple operations concurrently using single ships. This means the Navy will need to change fundamentally how it operates and make judgements on priorities," the NAO said.

The MoD acknowledged that the carrier programme faced "challenges" but said it remained committed to getting both ships fully operational by 2026.

"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 (Lightning IIs) in addition to the eight already delivered," said a spokesman.

"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."

The MoD spokesman said they had the people they needed to man the first carrier and that plans for manning the second were "advanced".