Standing up the New Carrier Capability at Portsmouth, England

By Robbin Laird

I had the chance to visit HMS Queen Elizabeth in Scotland as the carrier was being built.

During a visit to Portsmouth in late April 2018, I had a chance to see the carrier again and to talk with senior UK Navy and industrial personnel involved in working the carrier into an operational combat system.

The carrier will come later this year to the United States for F-35 integration efforts, and will be doing sea trials next year which will involve the USMC as well.

I had a chance during my visit to meet again with Captain (retired) Chris Alcock. The last time we met was during a meeting to discuss the carrier and the way ahead for the RAF and Royal Navy with the carrier at the Ministry of Defence in 2015.

Captain Chris Alcock was then Head of the Carrier Strike Division in Navy Command Headquarters. Hewas Programme Manager for the QEC Carriers and also responsible for capability Integration of the Carrier Air Wing into the platform, specifically LII F35B, Merlin Mk2 and Crows nest.

And during that interview he highlighted how significant a change bringing the new carrier into the UK force structure was for the future of UK defense:

 Question: How demanding a shift in RN thinking is the introduction of this ship?

Alcock: It is an important shift.

There are a lot of people that have never been on a carrier before, and the Royal Navy, since the demise of the carriers, has been  very much a frigate Navy.

We are generating a new Maritime Task Force concept (MTF) to shape the concept of operations going forward.

This clearly draws on elements of the past, but requires a fresh think as well.

People say it’s not all about the carrier, but it is all about the carrier, because that will be the center of gravity around which we will provide all the other enablers for the other elements of the task group.

The constitution of the task group is critical to depending on what we do with the carrier but the carrier and its air wing are the centerpiece enabling the entire task force.

We have worked closely with the USN and the USMC in the regeneration of Carrier Strike and the close working relationship has been hugely appreciated and also the work they have done for us and with us in support of this aim.

The build of the new carrier in the UK shaped a very innovative approach to building a new large ship which mobilized UK industry and built the ship from sections shipped from various parts of the country to the Scottish shipyard.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth Delivery Director, Jon Pearson is now at Portsmouth and Chris Alcock and I met briefly with him during this visit as well.

HMS Queen Elizabeth Delivery Director, Jon Pearson and Captain (Retired) Chris Alcock. Credit: Second Line of Defense

Pearson is now identified as the Warship Support Director and wrote this note earlier in April prior to my visit.

As Warship Support Director at BAE Systems Maritime Services, part of what I do involves overseeing the work done here at Portsmouth Naval Base to support HMS Queen Elizabeth on behalf of the Royal Navy.

You could say I know a little bit about the Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier.

My involvement in the carrier programme spans from 2003 during the completion phase, all the way through to last year when, as the Aircraft Carrier Alliance’s Queen Elizabeth Delivery Director, it was my responsibility to get her ready for her delivery to Portsmouth and hand over to the Royal Navy.

Since the beginning of the carrier programme the vessels really captured the British public’s imagination. They seem to have an affinity with the Royal Navy, the military in general, and anything connected to it.

This is the biggest ship we’ve built for the Royal Navy, and it fills a gap in capability that’s been there since the 1970s when we lost the ability to fly fixed wing aircraft from carriers, plus it’s a symbol of British military might and the role we play in the world.

Because of that, the programme has really been delivered from the outset squarely in the public eye, with scrutiny from senior politicians, senior Royal Navy officers, and senior members of all three organisations involved in the build – BAE Systems, Thales and Babcock.

That’s certainly added an extra dimension to building the largest warships the Royal Navy has ever had.

Building any first in class ship is difficult, especially the latter stages when you’re incorporating all the systems and getting it ready for trials, but building something the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the volumes we were dealing with on a day to day basis, was something else entirely.

We had to install over 3 million meters of cable, test 80,000 pipes, commission nearly 300 systems and handover 3,000 compartments.

But throughout the programme there has been a real sense of pride in what we have delivered, not just from the ACA but also the Royal Navy and the ship’s company in particular – they were excited about being the first ship’s company even before they had a ship they were able to sail! 

The interest around Exit Rosyth, and then the international coverage of First Entry Portsmouth, plus the thousands of people who came to Portsmouth very early that August morning to welcome her in, really showed us that our pride is shared across the nation and beyond.

Chris Alcock now works for Pearson and discussed the building of the carrier and shaping the way ahead.

“The ship was designed and built in sections.  There were 26 key sections of the ship, which were built around the country at 7 locations and taken to the shipyard in Scotland.

“Even though the tolerances were tight, when the ship was put together it created the largest warship Britain has ever built.

“It is an expression of the brilliant industrial brainsof the nation and of the nation in general; and from this point of view, it is no small engineering achievement on the part of British industry and Navy leadership.”

“The ship arrived last August and has recently been undergoing sea trials, including operating helicopters off of its deck in the Mediterranean.”

We then discussed the challenges associated with bringing such a large ship to Portsmouth and its impact on the area and upon Royal Naval operations.

Chris Alcock: “How would the enterprise to support the carrier be set up and to do so in such a manner that the carrier would not simply overwhelm the base and crowd out other key activities.

“We set in motion an 18-month training cycle to put together an enterprise approach to support the carrier in such a way as to fit into the base rather than disrupt it.

“This was a challenge as we have several hundred contractors on base to support the ship, have IT systems in place to support the workload in supporting the carrier, and have a larger crew certainly than the Type 45 destroyer which is home ported here.

“We had to look more generally at the infrastructure of the base as well, road systems, storage areas, IT systems, working the waterfront modifications, just to mention a few aspects of working a new infrastructure approach for the base.”

And a key part of shaping a new infrastructure system is clearly the logistics support for carrier operations itself.

As you drive around the base, the impact of working the logistics side of the equation is quite obvious as older facilities are being replaced and newer ones being built.

To bring the different elements together and to shape a common approach, the Queen Elizabeth-Class Portsmouth Readiness Group was created to manage the process of infrastructure change.

A five-phased training program was put in place involving the key stakeholders in the carrier, including leadership of the base, the defence equipment support elements at Abbey Wood and the heads of all the key stakeholder areas.

According to Alcock, they developed their approach from watching the learning process from the standup of Terminals 5 and 2 at Heathrow airport.  The standup at Terminal Five is a noted example of what not to do.  When they came to set up Terminal 2, a process was put in place to test the terminal extensively prior to opening it up.

“They spent a year doing the training prior to opening the terminal, including running through about 30,000 non paying passengers to test the workflow and performance of Terminal 2.”

Alcock described the process for standing up the naval base for carrier operations.

“The first phase was making sure all the documentation was right. We looked at what documentation was already in place and determined what was applicable to the carrier.

“But where there were deltas, we identified deltas.

“How we would fill that delta with a new procedure or investment in infrastructure. That was done from June through Christmas of last year.

“Then from January to the end of February, the infrastructure team leader created   a mock-up of the forward lift of the ship at a mean height of tide. And he also put a high-water and a low-water passenger access point.

‘On the ship there are two points of access, one is through the traditional way of the gang-way going up to the ship and then there’s through the aircraft lift which you’ll have seen on the U.S. carriers. You can get a high volume of people on, a high volume of people off, through a brow that goes to the aircraft lift.

“There are then two bespoke bows that go to a forward and an after reception point on the ship. They are fully hydraulic telescopic powered lifts that go in and out with the tide and they move laterally as well to cope with the movement of the ship.

“So we did a load of testing on those by creating scaffolding mock-ups with cutouts of the doors there. We put them up against it and we tested with people, we tested for emergencies, we tested getting casualties off.

“And then we got cranes in, we got lorries in, we dropped loads on them, just to get a sense of how we would do things. We got bespoke cradles made to go on top of ISO’s. So it’s a very quick lift process.

“Then we were going to have the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to come alongside and we’d use it as though it was an aircraft carrier, and then we’d test all our procedures.

“But unfortunately, due to all the operational commitments, we couldn’t get one of our own assets, so the USNS Robert E. Peary, which was in UK waters, came to Portsmouth to play this role.

“This enabled us to test the fender units which are 60 ton ballasted units that go up and down with the tide. We used the Peary to act as the surrogate carrier.

“We did this through the end of March.

“After that phase we focused on working through putting stress on the procedures to see how they worked and to make modifications as we needed to.

“As a result when the ship arrived in August, we were ready to support her.

And the key point of all the preparation to stand up 21stcentury carrier support?

“She’s here, she’s fully integrated into the Naval Base, and it’s business as usual now.”

The following article in The Times provides a good photo essay of the ship coming into Portsmouth Harbour for the first time.