“What we don’t want is lots of really clever equipment on board and the Royal Navy lagging behind it,” he says.
With a nod to the fact that the budget for the project — which is for two carriers, with the HMS Prince of Wales 20 months behind the first ship — has almost doubled from the initial £3.65bn price-tag, he adds: “We’ve got to make sure we get the most out of this investment … but you do get a lot of ship for your money.”
The HMS Queen Elizabeth’s most notable advance on the Harrier jump-jet carrying Invincible class which preceded her is size — her flight deck is almost three times as big.
“The larger flight deck means we generate 72 [flights] a day, surging to 108 if we have to,” he says. “But it’s not just about jets, we will also bring helicopters on board — for example the Apache which was used in Libya.”
The second difference he highlights is the level of automation, which cuts the “through life” cost of operating the ship because fewer sailors are needed.
One example is the ammunition system. At the touch of a keyboard, missiles and bombs for the aircraft are ordered up from the magazines deep in the ship, moving on computer-controlled sleds up through lifts to near the hangar deck where a human gets hands on them for the first time. Here they have fuses and fins fitted as they are “built” on what Capt Petitt likens to a “Model T Ford” production line, ready to be hung off aircraft.
The result is that just 32 sailors can do the work that once required 200. The HMS Queen Elizabeth needs only 679 crew to sail it, rising to 1,600 when including the personnel to operate its air wing. By comparison, the US Nimitz class carriers require 3,000 sailors to get under way and a further 1,800 to operate their aircraft.
The final major improvement over earlier vessels is the integration of the design. “If you take a destroyer or a frigate, it is a weapon system wrapped up in a ship to transport it around,” says Capt Petitt. “Carriers are different. Although the aircraft are our weapons, the essence to get them operating well is organisation.
“It will take 20 people half a day to replenish this ship. In previous carriers that job would take 100 people two or three days.”
Walking around such a huge vessel it was easy to get lost in its 3,000 compartments across 12 decks — until BAE Systems developed “Platform Navigation”, an encrypted app to guide people around ship. Using software loaded onto an ordinary Samsung smartphone, workers scan QR codes posted over the vessel to provide an on-screen route. Normal satellite navigation cannot penetrate the carrier’s armoured hull.
Mick Ord, managing director at BAE Naval Ships, said: “These are the largest and most powerful warships ever produced for the Navy so we need to keep finding smarter, safer and more efficient ways of working”.
The carrier was built in modules at six shipyards across the UK, which were brought together at Rosyth. You can stand in the ship with one foot in a piece that came from Portsmouth and the other in a module that came from Glasgow.
And putting it together has been no mean feat for the engineers at Rosyth.
“We are talking about tolerances of millimetres here,” says Capt Petitt. “Though it’s not as accurate as the submarines, the volume level means the cost of getting it wrong is immense.” Considering the size of the parts in this giant kit, that is a remarkable achievement — the largest section weighed 11,000 tonnes.
“To put that in perspective,” says Capt Petitt, “that’s bigger than most ships in the Navy. A Type 45 destroyer weighs 8,500 tonnes.”
This is the Blue Riband of British engineering. Tom Gifford, the integration manager responsible for bringing this massive project together at Rosyth, has been building ships for 49 years.
Looking up proudly at this massive vessel, he says he has no doubt about how he will feel once it’s finished. “Relieved,” he says with a smile.