The South Wales and West of England Branch was pleased to work with the IET (Bristol Branch) on this joint event on 9th January 2012, looking at some of the challenges presented by the largest warships ever constructed in the UK.
The University of the West of England was the venue for this well attended event, with APM, IET, RINA, and IMarEST members. The speaker, Cdr Jim Hawkins is a serving Naval Officer, who is the Capability Requirements and Acceptance Manager for the project, based at MoD Abbey Wood.
Jim outlined the history of the QE Carriers, and how the requirement had been fundamentally changed by the political decisions of successive governments. This is so often the case with large high profile public sector projects, and always represents a major challenge for the project manager. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) imposed significant changes on the QE Carriers requirement, the key one being the adoption of the carrier variant of the conventional F35 JCA aircraft, rather than the originally planned Short Take off, Vertical Landing (SToVL). This meant the need for a complete redesign of the ships launch and recovery systems, to incorporate catapults and arrestor gear, known as cats and traps.
Unfortunately the build of the first of class ship was too advanced to convert to cats and traps, but the second carrier built was at an earlier enough stage to allow a cats and traps system to be planned and incorporated.
Having two ships of different build standards presents major capability problems, especially when one is in for refit, the other cannot operate the same aircraft. Studies are underway to understand the cost a retrofit conversion for the first of build.
There are also major implications for the carrier capability programme. With 40 years of operating the Harrier SToVL, British air crew have no experience of conventional take off and landing on carriers. How do you regenerate the skill required of both pilots and deck handling crew and systems? An exchange programme with the US is building UKs capability again in this area.
Jim discussed the design drivers and construction challenges for the QE Carriers, which included the sortie generation rate, or how quickly aircraft can be landed, and got ready to fly again. Also the size of the hull and height of the superstructure is driven by the existing national infrastructure, the size of dry docks and build facilities, as well as the need to get under the 47 M Forth Rail Bridge.
The key project management challenge has been that of change management. Changing requirements always presents challenges with understanding the full implications for time cost and performance. The project governance arrangements must be designed to ensure these are fully understood and scrutinised before a final decision is made. The challenge for project managers of complex, high profile public sector projects is to ensure that political decision makers do understand the full implications of fundamentally changing the requirement.