The Government has finally signed a contract to build two massive, 65,000-tonne Royal Navy super-carriers – ten years after its original announcement that it planned to make the order.
Once the warships are built the vessels will be the second biggest of their kind anywhere in the world, with only the American Nimitz class aircraft carriers having a larger tonnage.
Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, said the signing on board HMS Ark Royal – one of the existing, and much smaller, carriers – was “a proud moment for the Royal Navy and a proud moment for Britain”.
He insisted that size mattered, and that jumping from the modest 20,000-tonne Invincible class carriers to the giant new warships would provide greater flexibility for all three Armed Forces.
They were not just “big ticket items” for the Royal Navy, but would also benefit the other two Services in projecting power and military capability around the globe wherever it was needed.
The signing ceremony took place in Portsmouth, with Baroness Taylor of Bolton, the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, submitting her signature along with Alan Johnston, the chief executive officer of the newly formed BVT Surface Fleet company, a joint venture combining BAE Systems and the VT Group.
The press release issued for the occasion referred to the “£3 billion” contract, but Baroness Taylor acknowledged later that the total cost, taking into account inflation estimates and other risk factors, was actually £3.9 billion. The two carriers, which are to be called HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will come into service in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Baroness Taylor dismissed the suggestion that it had taken a long time to get to the point of ordering the ships, although she admitted there had been doubts in the minds of some people that the programme would ever “come to fruition”.
She said the announcement made by the Government in 1998 when it published its Strategic Defence Review had merely stated a capability concept, and that it had taken ten years to get the industrial structure in place to build the huge warships.
There have, however, been doubts among some in the Ministry of Defence over the wisdom of building two large carriers at a cost of nearly £4 billion when the defence budget is so squeezed. However, despite the misgivings, Admiral Band insisted today that all the service chiefs agreed the carriers were necessary. “We’re as one,” he said.
Asked about the cost and whether it was justified, Admiral Band said that although the focus was currently on two land campaigns – Iraq and Afghanistan – it was vital to invest 15 or 20 years ahead, and he envisaged carriers playing a crucial role in projecting power and protecting Britain’s global interests.
The two carriers will be built in multiple yards, including at Barrow-in-Furness, Portsmouth, Govan (Glasgow) and Rosyth, creating 10,000 jobs at the peak of the programme in about 2011.
Mr Johnston said that the carriers would be built in huge blocks and then taken by barge to Rosyth where they would be assembled.
He said he was confident they would be built “on time and at cost”. Baroness Taylor said there were incentives for BVT to construct the ships under the £3.9 billion price, and did not envisage that the programme would go over this figure. To offset the rising costs of equipment, all the steel for the carriers and the diesel generators have already been ordered.
In addition to the £3.9 billion, another £12 billion will be spent on providing the ships with Joint Strike Fighters – 36 on each.
The JSFs, also called F35s, are currently under development in a joint US-British programme, although the project is so delayed that HMS Queen Elizabeth will have to come into service equipped with the older-generation Harrier GR9 jump-jet aircraft. The first jump-jet style F35 had its inaugural test flight at a base in the US last month.