Picture: LPhot Alex Ceolin, UK MOD© Crown copyright 2019
You may know the expression “don’t spoil the ship for a ha’pworth of tar*”, but we have a case now where the ship most certainly has been spoiled – or at least put out of service for some considerable time – because of a tiny error in manufacturing. The impact of this has also led to a tricky contract management situation.
In August 2022, the British aircraft carrier Prince of Wales broke down just one day after departing its Portsmouth base for training exercises off the US coast. That was hugely embarrassing for the Navy given the ship had cost some £3.1 billion and this wasn’t the first problem since initial launch in 2019. This time, the issue was traced to a starboard propeller shaft fault and an installation error. Responding to a recent parliamentary question, Ben Wallace, the UK Defence Minister, said that based on “initial reports” the shaft was misaligned by 0.8 – 1 millimetre. That is a tiny mistake, but apparently caused a huge problem.
As well as the operational issues this caused, the question of who should pay for the error is also complex. Construction and delivery of the warship was carried out by a consortium of three firms under the banner of the now defunct Aircraft Carrier Alliance. BAE Systems, Babcock and Thales were all involved, which makes it complex to assess liability. Will the Ministry of Defence (MOD) end up paying or will they be able to pin the responsibility onto one or more of the firms?
A report on the “Breaking Defence” website said that the MOD “declined to comment on why the repair bill liability decision has not been made yet, nor when a decision is likely to be made”. But MOD did say that repairs were likely to cost some £25 million, and that an investigation was looking at how to ensure the failure was not repeated. Well yes, one would hope that the same won’t happen again!
John Healey, the Labour Party’s shadow defence secretary pointed out that since the ship entered service in December 2019, it had spent 411 days in dock for repairs, compared to just 267 days at sea. A previous deployment also ended in embarrassment and a quick return to base in Portsmouth after an internal flood left the engine room and electrical cabinets submerged for 24 hours. The current repairs were supposed to be completed at the Rosyth dockyard in Scotland by February, but at time of writing (May 2023) still seem to be going on.
We could draw analogies here between our (literal) flagship and the wider state of the UK. Still pretending to be a significant global power, but incapable of actually doing anything to live up to that fantasy and all that sort of thing. But keeping to the facts, in a more mundane fashion it does highlight the importance of absolute clarity in the contract whenever you are buying from a consortium of any kind – and that doesn’t just apply in the military world of course.
Don’t assume a consortium will act as one entity if something goes wrong. It’s just as likely that each party will fight to protect their own position, which can leave the buyer in a difficult position, as we may be seeing here. So a strong and clearly written contract, including a definition of what will happen if there are issues after the formal consortium is dissolved, is essential.
And you can see why the UK Treasury (finance ministry) is not too keen on increasing the MOD’s budget for spending on more equipment, even given the present Russian threat. Cases like this (as well as high-profile failures such as the Ajax armoured vehicles) all add to a lack of confidence that such money would be spent well.
* A bit of research suggests that the expression was originally about sheep rather than ships! I didn’t know that…