Today the National Audit Office (NAO) reports that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) needs to focus on developing crucial supporting elements to make full use of Carrier Strike, as well as develop a better understanding of how much it will cost in the future.  

Carrier Strike describes the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft from a ship to undertake a range of military tasks. The carriers will allow the MoD to respond to conflicts and engage in humanitarian relief efforts anywhere in the world at short notice. It is based around the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers – the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy – and Lightning jets. The MoD has built the two new carriers in line with its timetable and for 3% above the budget, both of which it agreed in 2013. It has so far taken delivery of 18 Lightning jets.

Carrier Strike is planned to reach its ‘initial operating capability’1 by December 2020. The MoD expects to meet this date, although it will not have the full level of radar capability that it expected at this point. The timetable for it to develop ‘full operating capability’ by 2023 remains tight.

The new airborne radar system (Crowsnest) – which is a key part of Carrier Strike’s protection – is 18 months late. This will affect Carrier Strike’s capabilities for its first two years of operation. The delay has been caused by a subcontractor, Thales, failing to meet its contractual commitments for developing equipment and not providing sufficient information on the project’s progress. Neither MoD nor its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, were aware of these problems until it was too late, reflecting MoD’s ineffective oversight of its contract with Lockheed Martin.2

The MoD has made slow progress developing three new support ships, which are crucial to Carrier Strike’s operation. It has only one ship able to resupply the carriers with the supplies they need, such as ammunition and food. The MoD has long been aware that this will restrict Carrier Strike, and the cancellation of a recent competition to build new supply ships – because of concerns over value for money – mean they will not be available until the late 2020s. The MoD will incur additional costs while it keeps the current ship in operation longer than intended.

The MoD is intending to buy 138 Lightning jets in total, which will help sustain Carrier Strike operations for the next 40 years. It has ordered 48 jets but has not yet committed to buying more. It has also deferred receipt of seven of the jets to 2025, a year later than planned, because of financial pressures. Since the NAO last reported in 2017, the approved cost of the Lightning project has increased by 15% from £9.1 billion to £10.5 billion because of additional expenditure on system upgrades, integration of UK weapons and sustainment costs. The MoD is planning to review the number and types of jets it needs, but buying fewer aircraft would affect how Carrier Strike can be used.

The MoD does not know how much Carrier Strike will cost over its life. For example, it is yet to make important decisions on the enhancement of the capability over the longer-term, such as how to replace or extend the Merlin helicopters. The NAO recommends that the MoD improves its understanding of the costs of running, supporting and enhancing Carrier Strike over its lifetime. The MoD may not have made sufficient provision in later years’ budgets for the full costs of Carrier Strike.

“The MoD has made good progress with the big-ticket items needed to deliver Carrier Strike, such as the carriers, the first squadron of jets and the new infrastructure. But it must pay much greater attention to the supporting capabilities needed to make full use of Carrier Strike.

“The MoD also needs to get a firmer grip on the future costs of Carrier Strike. By failing to understand their full extent, it risks adding to the financial strain on a defence budget that is already unaffordable.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Carrier Strike – Preparing for deployment

Notes for editors

  1. ‘Initial operating capability’ is the minimum level at which the capability or service is usefully deployable. In the case of Carrier Strike, it is a single, trained Lightning squadron (12 jets), able to embark on a joint warfighting mission with appropriate support and maritime protection. ‘Full operating capability’ is the level of military capability which is intended for a particular project.
  2. In November 2016, the MoD agreed a fixed price contract with Lockheed Martin to deliver the Crowsnest project. Thales and Leonardo Helicopters were appointed as the sub-contractors.
  3. The NAO has previously reported on the Carrier Strike in 2017, 2013, November 2011 and July 2011.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  5. The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it use its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent. In 2019, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £1.1 billion.

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