Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 09:56 UK

Portsmouth gains in naval carrier deals

By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News, Portsmouth

Shipyard
The shipyard is taking on extra staff to complete the work

Putting together what is in effect the largest jig-saw puzzle ever made in Europe is not an easy task.

The two most expensive Royal Navy ships yet - HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales - will be partly built in Portsmouth, before they are finally assembled in Rosyth.

"Of course, the whole thing will shrink a bit when it goes to Scotland," grins a casual Phil Rood of VT ship-building, referring to the fact that average temperatures in there are a couple of degrees cooler than in Portsmouth.

Building yards in Barrow in Furness and Govan will also take part in the construction of the four huge cross-sections of the UK's next generation aircraft carriers.

Every pipe, cable and steel section will need to match up perfectly. Mistakes will be costly.

Shrinkage on the aircraft carriers is therefore a big issue.

Portsmouth base

It is an expensive business.

HMS Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
Carrier
Displacement: 65,000 tonnes
Max Speed: 25 knots
Range: 10,000 nautical miles
Length: 285 metres
Runways: 3
Aircraft: 40 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters plus EH 101 Merlin Helicopters
Crew: 1,200, including 600 flight crew
Cost: 3.9bn
Due dates: 2014/2016
Source:naval-technology.com/BVT

Every adult in Britain will be contributing about 85 each. Together the two ships are expected to cost a shade under 4bn, and that is even before a single piece of steel has been laid.

In the giant assembly hall, where the huge bow section of a Type 45 destroyer is nearly complete, they are preparing to do just that.

Hammers and cranes boom out like the bass section of an orchestra enjoying the lack of noise limits; the sparks from welders' torches fly through the gloom like coruscating tracers.

One belongs to welder Paul Comber, 37.

"The two aircraft carriers are going to be the pride of the Royal Navy fleet," he says.

"So to have a hand in building them will be fantastic."

When finished, both ships will be based in Portsmouth, so workers will see the results of their labours first hand.

"The day you see them come in to Portsmouth; that will be a proud day," says Mr Comber.

Pride and joy

Across the yard, in the design section, work on the project first began several years ago.

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Some of the people working on the new aircraft carrier parts

Stuart Manvell joined VT (then Vosper Thorneycroft) as a young apprentice.

He has now been designing ships for 26 years.

On his computer he shows the section of the carriers that he has been working on.

Technically it is the "forward midship" section. To the casual observer, that is the bit just behind the bow, making up about a quarter of the ship's 285m length.

While the statistics may be a little prosaic, the ships and their ultimate purpose inspire considerable passion.

"When you see it on the news, with all the sailors on the deck, it gives you a good feeling that you had something to do with that," says Mr Manvell.

Extra workers

So after 14 years of talking about the so-called CVF project, construction is set to begin in four months' time.

Carrier
When finished, both ships will be based in Portsmouth
But what does CVF stand for?

"No one's ever quite got to the bottom of that," says Phil Rood.

"But I suppose it's something like Carrier Vessel Future."

In any case, the yard is more concerned with the imminent steel-laying than with fancy acronyms.

And it has taking on 200 new workers to get the sections ready on time.

On their lunch-break, existing staff look out at the grey hulk of HMS Invincible, one of the Navy's previous generations of carriers, that saw action in the Falklands, Bosnia and Iraq.

Now decommissioned, it is both an inspiration and a warning to them: an inspiration, as it reminds the workforce that lives may well depend on the ships they are building.

But given the advances in the technology of unmanned aircraft, it is also a warning that these may be the latest, but also potentially the last aircraft carriers to be built in Britain.


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