Sister Act

The 280m aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship are the biggest ever built in the UK.

The construction of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, is a monumental national endeavour. To achieve it safely, while employing 8,000 people across six shipyards in different parts of the country, was a unique challenge. Captain Stephen Thompson, Ministry of Defence client director, explains how it was achieved. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth is a ship like no other. The 280 metre, 65,000 tonne, £3.1 billion aircraft carrier has recently returned to Portsmouth after successfully completing helicopter trials in the Mediterranean, while its sister, HMS Prince of Wales, is still under construction at the Rosyth shipyard. Together, they are the “largest, most capable and powerful surface warships ever constructed in the UK for the Royal Navy”, says Captain Stephen Thompson, who has been working in the Navy for the last 37 years.

HMS Queen Elizabeth departs Portsmouth for sea trials

“A reflection of their importance is the fact that the United States Navy carriers have been in the vanguard of all recent conflicts and they are often the first weapon of choice. The Queen Elizabeth class ships will act as a rapidly deployable UK sovereign base to deliver air operations at a time and place of the UK’s choosing. The only nations that have large aircraft carriers are major players on the world stage, such as the United States, the UK, France, Russia, China and India.”

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance that built the ship is made up of four participants: the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Babcock and Thales UK. At its peak, the programme directly employed 8,000 people across six shipyards, while a further 3,000 people were employed across the supply chain. Although the manufacturing and commissioning takes place at Babcock International facilities in Rosyth, Scotland, the project’s diverse workforce is sourced from across the country and Europe. 

The ship construction facilities used to build the aircraft carriers are Govan & Scotstoun in Glasgow, Appledore in Devon, Hebburn in Tyneside, Birkenhead in Merseyside, Portsmouth and Rosyth in Fife, where the parts for both ships have been brought together.

The Queen takes the salute at the commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth

“The government viewed the project as a national endeavour and placed the work under an alliance to spread the risks. The alliance is there to drive behaviour, meaning that all parties are aligned to achieve the same objectives, as well as cost, time and performance targets. This has major implications for everything to do with safety.”

The construction

“Bearing in mind the enormous size of the enterprise, the building process was very quick. The contract was agreed in 2008 and the steel for some parts of the ship was cut shortly afterwards. The aircraft elevators, each weighing some four hundred tonnes, were built first. They move aircrafts from the hangar deck, deck four, to the flight deck, deck one, within a minute; they are a key part of an aircraft carrier.

 The first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was floated out of the assembly dock in July 2014 and the second, HMS Prince of Wales, was floated out in December 2017.”

Both aircraft carriers have been designed using modular build rather than the traditional method of starting from the keel up. The designs must be 100 per cent precise, as every section of the ship must fit with the other relevant sections, with little room for error.

The engineers, naval architects and designers working on the programme are some of the most highly skilled professionals in the country. Both ships have been designed with two island structures located on the flight deck.

The flagship of the Royal Navy, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, leaves the port of Gibraltar after her maiden overseas stop. She was escorted by HMS Scimitar and HMS Sabre from Gibraltar Squadron and also the Gibraltar Defence Police and Royal Gibraltar Police.

One will be responsible for air operations and air traffic control, while the other houses the ship’s bridge and controls vessel navigation. Each can cover the other’s primary role, which will give maximum flexibility to the Royal Navy crew.

“This modular ‘block-build’ presented a huge challenge, not only because these are the largest ships ever to have been block-built in the UK, but also because the blocks were built in numerous locations across the United Kingdom, using three different companies’ design tools.

The main hull blocks, weighing up to 11,000 tonnes, were built at BAE’s facilities in Glasgow and Portsmouth, the flight deck sections, weighing up to 1,000 tonnes were built at Birkenhead and Hebburn; while the flight deck sponsons were built by Babcock in Rosyth.

You can imagine the difficulty of building a bow section in Devon that has to fit with the next super block being constructed in Portsmouth, which is going to be joined to a block built in Hebburn. The cables, wires and pipes that come with these compartments have to align. This shows what a staggering achievement this was.

“Merchant ships have been built in this way for many years, but large warships had previously been considered too complicated for this approach. A warship has multiple systems that typically run from the bow to the stern, from port to starboard, from the upper levels to the lower levels, with redundancy and duplication. They are joined by thousands and thousands of individual connections and all of those have to be aligned.”

Operational challenges

“The project was full of operational challenges. From the design point of view, it was translating a concept in the different design tools, and then translating those design tool outputs to manufacturing drawings at the build yards. The second major challenge was getting what we call dimensional control right.

“The next operational challenge was managing the workforce, which was closely linked to safety issues. The carriers were constructed in yards around the UK, where the workforces have different cultures. For years, they have often been competing against each other and their employees would not have the opportunity, or the desire, to talk to each other, other than through trade bodies. 

“The peak workload on Queen Elizabeth was between nine to 10 million man-hours a year. Controlling the work of all those people, from the engineers to the construction teams to the subcontractors, was a huge task.”

Health and safety in the armed forces

“What you do in the armed forces is inherently dangerous. In the Navy, we float around in ships, such as a frigate, which is a few thousand tonnes of steel packed with ammunition. In the days of the Cold War, that could have included nuclear weapons. There is fuel everywhere and lots of people in close proximity steaming towards danger, not away from it. 

“Although technology and the threat has changed enormously during my career, the risks have not. The fact that we now have fewer people in our ships due to automation is probably the biggest change impacting on health and safety that I have seen in my 37 years in the Navy.

“Health and safety is certainly talked about more nowadays. When I joined the Royal Navy, it was a part of what I call leadership. As a young officer I remember the debates about the nature of leadership: whether as an engineer you were a technical officer first or a naval officer. In fact, you’re fundamentally an officer and you’re there to lead and manage people. Health and safety is front and centre of everything we do and it was of key importance to everything we did 37 years ago, we just didn’t call it that.

I would never have allowed any of my sailors to go down to a machinery space unless I was comfortable with it. It wasn’t someone’s problem, it was mine.

“Our ethos, our culture and, in many cases, our training, drive us down the path of visible leadership. A lot has changed over 37 years, but the experience I gained in my early career was invaluable. I was fortunate, as an 18-year-old midshipman, to do every role on board of a ship. I was being trained for an engineering role, but I learned to fire a gun, I operated radars in the operations room, I served food to the officers in the wardroom and I cooked food with the chefs in the main galley. I even ordered supplies and learned how to send messages by flags. I got to know the sailors, their environment and what made them tick.

HMS Prince of Wales, the second aircraft carrier being built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance for the Royal Navy, has been successfully floated out of the dock at Rosyth.

“Even in my role as the senior MOD client in the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and as part of the programme leadership team, I would still try my best to get around the carriers at least once a week. This is a habit the Navy instils in you. As the marine engineer officer in the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal I regularly did rounds together with my officers and key senior personnel inspecting the numerous machinery spaces every single day, because keeping people safe was my job.

“At the Alliance, health and safety is driven from the top, with the managing director personally attending the health and safety steering committee. At the site in Rosyth, health and safety is managed by Babcock because it’s a Babcock site. However, at the outset, the Alliance decided to visit the build yards involved in the project, pick up the best ideas and incorporate them into an alliance’s health and safety policy. We held a series of workshops at which we tested these ideas and adopted the best ones.”

Challenges and lessons

“By far, the biggest challenge to health and safety on the project was culture. This could be illustrated by the following example: in Glasgow, on the north bank of the River Clyde is Scotstoun, a shipyard that undertakes fit-out of military ships. Further up the river on the south bank, there’s the Govan shipyard, which has a history of making commercial ships as well as military vessels. Both are owned by BAE.

Captain Stephen Thompson, Royal Navy

“The cultural differences between the north yard and the south yard need to be understood. Not only do they support different football teams, Rangers versus Celtic for example, and all that goes with that, but the yards’ background and history are completely different. On top of that we had to subcontract for specific skills and workers that we needed. These subcontractors can come from many countries, provided they are security cleared, often come from different construction sites, have backgrounds in offshore work or maritime work around the world or may never have even been anywhere near a yard, let alone a ship. Bringing those people together and moulding them into a workforce with a unified health and safety culture has been, and continues to be, the biggest challenge.  

“Another challenge was communication, not just the normal language barrier for those who don’t speak English, but getting the message of the leadership community across to the whole workforce in a way that they would perceive it as valid and credible, rather than something that was forced upon them from the top.”

There was also another issue, that of ‘fusing’ the health and safety culture of industry, i.e. the companies engaged to build the ships, and that of the client, i.e. the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy team.

“In addition to some 700 sailors who constitute the crew of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, there is also the ship company responsible for HMS Prince of Wales. Last year, just before HMS Queen Elizabeth departed, Rosyth had one of the largest number of Royal Navy sailors in the United Kingdom. The challenge was to bring them all into alignment with the site’s health and safety. The first mismatch was service personnel’s rules and regulations. For example, the senior dutyholder for service personnel’s safety is the First Sea Lord, whereas in industry, the concept of a senior dutyholder doesn’t exist; health and safety is managed through corporate governance and corporate structures. Therefore, this conversation had to be conducted through the health and safety forums.

“One of the issues identified in these conversations was the high number of health and safety incidents and near misses that took place as daylight hours started declining in the autumn; something that happens quite early in Scotland. While construction teams worked in high visibility jackets, service personnel only wore military uniforms, which do not, as a rule, include high visibility markings, unless for very specialist roles like firefighting. In the Royal Navy, our service issue kit does not include a general wear high-vis jacket comparable with that used by the industry workforce in the alliance. So, we had to do something about that.

“When Babcock made the decision to mandate wearing high-vis jackets on their site, the sailors were not happy. The high-vis jackets issued from Alliance stock didn’t look very smart and they blocked rank markings. The ships company of HMS Prince of Wales resolved this by designing their own, bespoke jackets. They were better tailored and marked and they had the Royal Navy logo on the back. Unsurprisingly, since everyone on the site started wearing high-vis jackets, the number of near misses and incidents has declined.

“The construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth has taught us many lessons in terms of managing health and safety and we were able to apply them to HMS Prince of Wales. The most important one, in my opinion, is that you should never underestimate the pace at which your workforce can change on such large projects. You train your staff to operate in the most dangerous conditions and you’re confident in both their skills and attitude. Then, the following Monday, you find out that someone new is doing that job. That’s why you need to keep checking things over and over again and never take for granted that the same staff will be doing the same job. It is easy to make that assumption if you work for the Royal Navy where people are drafted for three years or more to one ship and you expect to work with them for a while.”

Staff engagement issues

“Staff engagement is closely related to leadership and making time to demonstrate visible leadership. It involves walking round, talking to the workforce and getting to know them. Management who fail to do this often excuse themselves with lack of time. However, this is the only way of finding out what motivates your staff. 

“Engagement has never been a hundred per cent. It’s an aspirational goal and one we should drive towards. For example, on the first ship, our approach to the sub-contracted workforce was rather traditional: ‘you’re a subcontractor, do your work and go home safely’. During the construction of the second ship, we adopted a more integrated approach: ‘your work is fundamental to the way we deliver this project and you need to be part of our team’. We hope that this will make a difference to everyone involved.

“For me personally, the proudest moment on this project was when Her Majesty the Queen commissioned HMS Queen Elizabeth into the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Naval Base on 7 December 2017. The raising of the White Ensign was a very special moment.”

Sir Simon Lister, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance managing director, aptly summarised this endeavour: “The Aircraft Carrier Alliance has brought together the very best of British industry. As one team, we have provided our customer, the Royal Navy, and the nation with the most powerful surface warship ever constructed in the UK.”