Aircraft carrier: What is costing £6.2bn?

The cost of two new aircraft carriers being built for the Royal Navy has risen to £6.2bn, more than £2bn over the original estimate. This has drawn renewed criticism of the project to build the two ships, the first of which will not be ready for service until 2020.

  • ×

    Aircraft carrier computer generated image

  • Size of ship

    × Profile of carrier in shipyard

    The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the UK. With a displacement of 65,000 tonnes, they are three times the size of Illustrious, the Navy’s remaining aircraft carrier. They are 280m long, about 70m wide, twice the width, and will accommodate about 1,600 crew, including air crew.

  • Flight deck

    × Jet taking off from ship

    The carriers will be equipped with F-35B, short take-off and vertical landing joint-strike fighters. The coalition government announced in 2010 that it would buy the F-35C jets instead, because they had a longer range and had a bigger weapons payload, but the cost of fitting the carriers with the “cats and traps” launch and landing system proved prohibitively expensive and the government was forced to reverse its decision in 2012.

  • Modular build

    × Part of hull

    The ships are built in blocks or modules, with pieces being constructed around the country and sent to Rosyth in Fife. The LB04, pictured, is part of the ship’s hull. It was constructed in the Govan shipyard by BAE Systems and taken by barge to Rosyth. The construction of the second carrier, Prince of Wales, is already underway but a final decision on its future has not yet been made.

  • Control towers

    × Aft island

    The carriers are designed with two islands, instead of a traditional single island. The forward or front island will hold the ship’s controls and the aft or rear island will control the flying operations. Under the flight deck there are a further nine decks. The hangar deck is big enough to accommodate up to 20 fixed wing and rotary aircraft.

  • Power

    × Ship's propeller

    The carriers are fitted with two propellers, with a diameter of seven metres. Each will output about 80MW of power, enough to run 1,000 family cars or 50 high speed trains. Two Rolls Royce MT30 gas turbines will provide about two-thirds of the ship’s power and the rest will come from four diesel engines. The MT30 is based on the engine which powers the Boeing 777 aircraft and around 80% of the parts are the same.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the cost of building the two carriers has increased to £6.2bn. The latest news follows a series of price increases since the contract was first signed in July 2008.

The original contract, signed by the Labour government, was worth about £3.9bn. The carriers, over three times the size of the current Invincible class, were each planned to be equipped with up to 40 Short Take-off and Vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B jets.

By the time the coalition came to power in 2010, the project cost had risen to an estimated £5.2bn. As part of the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review, it announced a change of plan and said the carriers would be equipped instead to carry F-35C jets.

The F-35C jets have a longer range and are capable of carrying a higher weapons payload, but they require catapult and arrestor gear, so-called "cats and traps" to be able to take off and land.

Animated sequence of aircraft carrier (MoD/Aircraft Carrier Alliance)

At the same time, Mr Hammond also announced that the second carrier, Prince of Wales, would be built but its exact future was unclear. With costs continuing to rise, Mr Hammond said the ship might have to be sold or mothballed.

In May 2012, Mr Hammond announced a u-turn over the jets - saying the adaptations to the ships were going to cost far more than originally thought - so the government would stick to the original decision to buy F-35B jets. He estimated at the time that the change of plan had cost about £100m - but now says the figure was in fact around £62m.

Size comparison - carrier and Palace of Westminster

According to reports, the latest price increase to £6.2bn is mainly down to failing to factor in the costs of inflation and VAT into the original contract.

Mr Hammond said the government had agreed new terms for the contract and any future variation in price would be shared by the government and the contractors.

Explore the zoomable image below to see how a QE Class aircraft carrier (left) would compare in dry dock alongside HMS Illustrious.

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