Britain’s Flagship Aircraft Carrier Will Enter Water in July

Britain’s biggest-ever warship will be floated for the first time in July, with work on assembling a second aircraft carrier due to commence at Rosyth shipyard in Scotland in September, BAE Systems Plc said.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, which at 65,000 tons is three times the size of the U.K.’s previous Invincible Class carriers, will move to “flood up” -- when water is let in to the dry dock where it was welded together -- within weeks of a naming ceremony on July 4, BAE said yesterday in a briefing at Rosyth.

A second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is following 20 months behind the first. Both vessels in the 6.2 billion-pound ($11 billion) program are designed to be put together at the yard near Edinburgh from sub-assemblies built at five other sites, with some pieces weighing as much as smaller Royal Navy ships.

Costs rose after a strategy review recommended a switch to a catapult-based aircraft-launch system, as used in U.S. Nimitz Class carriers, only for the government to revert to a short take off, vertical landing design. It’s also not certain that Britain will deploy both ships, though program director Steven Carroll said the Prince of Wales will definitely be finished.

Joint Strike Fighter

Once floated, the Queen Elizabeth will be towed from her dock and across a basin where the ship will tie up alongside the harbor for the completion of fitting out, making way for the assembly of the second carrier. Outfitting is due to be completed in 2015, with sea trials commencing a year later.

About 36 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jump-jets should be flying from the vessel by 2018, together with four Merlin Crowsnest helicopters in an early-warning role, according to London-based BAE. The ships can also act as staging posts for aircraft including Boeing Co.’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the CH-47 Chinook heavy lift model, though even with their aerial firepower they’ll rely mainly on missile-equipped destroyer escorts for protection.

Unprecedented levels of automation and computerization mean the carriers, capable of 30 miles per hour, will have a permanent crew of 679, versus about 3,200 for the 100,000-ton Nimitz Class vessels. The number will rise to about 1,600 with a full complement of air crew or amphibious forces.

Plans for the ships, which have a planned in-service life of 50 years, were laid down in 1998, with the first metal cut in 2009. Built by an alliance of BAE, Babcock International Group Plc and France’s Thales SA, which produced the design, about 8,000 people have been involved in construction, or 10,000 for the whole supply chain.

BAE’s Carroll, systems delivery director for the alliance, said that with work due to commence on the Prince of Wales within six months and that ship’s major blocks well into development, there’s no question that it will get built.

A 2010 defense review concluded that Britain needed only one carrier, and that the other should be mothballed or sold. That plan was shelved when the catapult launch system was dropped, and a final decision is due to be taken in 2015.

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