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GO Interview – Geoff Searle, Programme Director for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance

Tuesday March 8th, 2011

By Mark Millar, GO Features Writer

Geoff Searle, Programme Director for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, speaks to GO Features Writer Mark Millar about the unique procurement model behind the MoD’s new aircraft carriers and the importance of these ships for UK industry.

The sheer scale of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier project presents UK industry with some major logistical and engineering challenges. It also required a unique procurement model to be in place, with the MOD signing up to an alliance arrangement alongside BAE Systems, Babcock and Thales. GO Features Writer Mark Millar talks to the man at the helm of the project, Aircraft Carrier Alliance Programme Director Geoff Searle.

Geoff, could you tell us a little about what your role is within the aircraft carrier project?

I’m the Programme Director for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA); that means effectively leading a partnership which consists of BAE, Babcock, Thales Naval and the MOD in delivering the Queen Elizabeth (QE) Class programme for the new Royal Navy aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. We’ve got a number of delivery teams made up of representatives of all the Alliance partners including the MOD, and we’re currently working across about 10 or 11 sites across the UK.

I lead the team that is coordinating that activity across the whole programme, pulling it all together and maintaining the overall view of the programme’s progress.

How important is the Alliance arrangement in a major programme such as this?

I think that this project couldn’t have happened without it. It is absolutely fundamental for two reasons. One: no individual company in the UK had sufficient capacity and capability to deliver the whole programme, simply because of its physical size and the demands of the engineering and ship build programmes.

Two: because of its nature. It is something that, as an industry and as a maritime enterprise, the UK hasn’t done for a long time, certainly in the working lives of everyone involved. The level of risk that would have been involved with a single company taking the project on as a traditional Prime Contract would have been unacceptable. Working as an Alliance, with all the industry players and the MOD working together with the common goal of delivering the ships in a cost-effective way, is essential to the success of the programme.

Having the MOD as part of the Alliance is extremely important and beneficial to how the Alliance works. Because the customer is involved in the decision-making process, nothing is hidden from them and all of the project reporting is completely open. The customer is actually part of delivering the product, rather than playing the traditional role of just coming along and doing inspections at the end of the day. The likes of Captain Tony Holberry RN, who is the MOD client director on the programme and is in my management team, play a fundamental role in helping to ensure the successful delivery of the programme.

What can you tell us about the commercial construct behind the Alliance?

It is a unique arrangement, certainly in terms of surface warship building. Obviously the MOD has been involved in incentivisation contracts before, but this is the first time that such a contract has been done as an Alliance, and within an Alliance commercial model. If the programme comes in below the agreed target cost then we have the opportunity to gain extra profit; and if we come in above the target, we all stand to share some of the pain. The nature of the contract does incentivise good performance. Also, the fact that everyone has full visibility of all the performance data and the progress we are making adds to the incentive; it is very visible when one area starts slipping, because the whole Alliance will then be affected. We are all in this together, and so we all win or lose together. That commercial arrangement is also a very strong construct for motivating project performance.

Can you tell us about some of the engineering challenges faced, apart from the massive size of the ships?

To be honest, the mammoth size of each ship is probably the single biggest engineering challenge, not just in terms of putting the lumps of ship together, but also in terms of how we manage the whole engineering process. We’ve got design work going on in three sites across the UK; we’ve got detailed engineering and drawing office work going on across four sites; and we’re building in six shipyards across the UK – so the whole process of managing the end-to-end engineering across multiple sites and with multiple companies involved has taken a lot of effort. We have had to work extremely hard to get the processes right to make sure we move from one stage to another through a set of what we call ‘maturity gates’, and also to make sure the engineering information that is going into production is as mature as it can be to minimise any rework.

In terms of the actual technology on the ships, we took a deliberate policy early on to minimise the technological risk, so we’re using as much ‘pull through’ equipment as we can, from, for instance, the Type 45 programme. We’re also using quite a lot of systems and equipment that is established in the commercial shipbuilding world to minimise the risk to the programme.

One particularly new feature is the Highly Mechanised Weapons Handling System, which is being built by Babcock. This is a mechanised system for managing munitions from the magazine up to the weapons prep area in the hangar, to minimise manning levels. Using that system has taken about 30 people off the complement of the ship, so in terms of through-life savings it is quite significant.

Another key feature is a blown fibre-optic system throughout the ships which will carry all of the controls information, whether for combat systems, for communications management or for internal networks including everything from secret networks to DII infrastructure around the ship, as well as all of the platform management and machinery controls. Whereas traditionally that has all been copper wire, we are using a fibre-optic system, which again we have done extensive testing on in full-scale ship-type environments to prove its worth – implementing a fibre-optic system will save a lot of copper cable coming out of the ship and give much improved flexibility through-life. So that’s just two of the cases where we are using the latest technology.

Of course, the biggest engineering challenge going forward is the integration of the aircraft launch and recovery equipment for conversion to the CV aircraft, which was announced as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. We’re setting up a new engineering team to look at the implications of that and start designing the integration of catapults and arrester gear and the other equipment that goes with it into the ships. Certainly, it is a significant engineering change to the ships; however, it has always been something that the ships were designed to do. The space for it is already allocated, and the high-voltage systems have already been designed to cope with the power demands.

We have a central warehouse which we are using to manage the logistics across the whole of the programme, which again is a big challenge on a programme of this size. Over three million items are currently being stored waiting to be delivered out to the various shipyards.

How important do you think these ships are for the UK maritime industry?

In terms of its contribution to the UK economy, the ACA programme is extremely significant. We’ve got a supply chain budget, including the Tier 2 shipyards, of over £1.5 billion. We’ve already placed around 80 per cent of the contracts across the whole ship build programme, and 75 per cent of the contracts we have placed are with UK companies, so the vast majority of the programme’s supply chain spend is going into the UK economy, supporting both large and small companies across the whole of the country.

Again, if you look at the programme on a regional basis, it is very important. If you look on our website at you can see the impact it is having all across the UK for different local economies. In those terms, it is very important that the programme was continued as part of the SDSR. In terms of employment, the programme is currently supporting somewhere in the region of 8000 to 10,000 jobs across the country, in the key shipyards and design and engineering facilities within the Alliance and within the supply chain. Clearly, if those jobs had been lost it would have been a major loss of capability, and would have affected the UK maritime industry’s ability to support the Royal Navy in the future.

The Alliance is a fundamental programme for bridging the gap between the Type 45 Destroyer programme and the Type 26 Global Combat Ship. Without the Carrier in that gap, effectively industry would have had to start again for the Type 26, which would have been untenable and possibly have meant the end of the shipbuilding industry in the UK.

As well as the recent milestone at Govan where two giant sections of the hull were moved together for the first time, what else will be happening for the Alliance in 2011?

This is a key year for the programme. The first of the main hull blocks for HMS Queen Elizabeth moves from Govan to Rosyth in August, arriving at the beginning of September in time for the start of the assembly phase in the dock there. Soon after that we will start loading the upper section onto the hull using the new Goliath crane, which arrived in March and will be commissioned and ready for use by the end of June. And of course, in Spring this year we start the construction of HMS Prince of Wales. There will be a steel cutting ceremony in BAE Systems’ yard in Govan.

So, in 2011 Queen Elizabeth moves into the assembly phase and we start production on Prince of Wales; it is going to be a very significant year for the entire programme.

On a purely personal level, how do you feel being involved in such a major programme?

I feel immensely proud. Running the Aircraft Carrier Alliance programme is probably the best job going in the UK maritime industry at the moment. Everyone involved in it is very well aware of the significance of the programme for UK defence, as well as for the industry. It is our flagship naval programme and obviously very important for the UK going forward. I think we are all extremely proud to be working on it and have every confidence in the Alliance to make it successful.

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