Number 1 dry dock in Rosyth has been selected as the facility for all maintenance and repairs that cannot be done when the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are afloat.
Given the state of MoD finances and limited viable alternatives, it is unsurprising that Rosyth has been chosen. By far the most desirable solution would be to expand one of the docks in Portsmouth but this has been estimated to cost an eye-watering £500M which the RN does not have. Babcock’s Rosyth dockyard has the very significant advantage of having constructed the carriers and an experienced workforce that has already completed a 6-week dry docking of HMS Queen Elizabeth (April 2019). The £30M contract will help sustain around 300 jobs at Rosyth and is yet another win for Scottish-based maritime enterprise.
Harland and Wolff submitted a rival bid for dry-docking the carriers at their Belfast Dock facility. From a navigational perspective, Belfast Dock is considerably easier to access than Rosyth but it’s two decades since the company worked for the MoD, whereas Babcock is the RN’s second-largest contractor. Belfast Dock at least provides an emergency option if there were problems at Rosyth or in the unlikely event both carriers had to be dry-docked simultaneously.
Entry and exit for the carriers into the basin at Rosyth is a very demanding operation. There is a narrow window of just a few days in each month when the tidal conditions are suitable. Eleven tugs are needed to make a carefully orchestrated move that can only be done in good visibility and light winds. The basin entrance was widened by 4 metres in a major project between 2009-10 but when the carriers pass through, there is less than a metre of clearance on either side and just 50cm between the keel and the seabed. Every entry and exit at Rosyth implies a small risk to the ship and potential delays while awaiting appropriate tides or weather.
For the duration of the contract, Babcock is required to keep the dock permanently available for unplanned or emergency aircraft carrier docking. This raises questions about the availability of the dock, which retains the Goliath crane used to assemble large ship blocks, should ‘Team UK’ win the Fleet Solid Support ship competition. However, Babcock has subsequently stated: “The facility at Rosyth can accommodate the assembly and integration of FSS in parallel with the planned docking of the QEC ships”. The smaller Number 3 Dock in Rosyth or Number 5 Dock at Cammell Laird on Merseyside offer alternative options, although they do not currenly have large capacity cranes. (The Harland & Wolff/Navantia ‘Team Resolute’ consortium have Goliath cranes at their facilities in Spain and Belfast.)
Number 1 Dock was modified considerably before the QEC carriers were built. The shape of the dock was changed to accommodate the U-shape hull by removing granite altar blocks down each side designed for legacy V-shaped hulls. To support the weight of the Goliath crane, the docksides were strengthened with reinforced concrete bored piles. The dock entrance was also widened and concrete foundations were laid on the floor to support the ‘skidding together’ of ship bocks.
The first work at Rosyth under the new contract will be a six-week dry-docking of HMS Prince of Wales for her first Lloyds Naval Ship Rules inspection in 2023. Under this safety and assurance regime, the majority of the RN’s warships have to be dry-docked for inspection at least every 5-6 years. HMS Queen Elizabeth should not have to return to Rosyth until 2025 but will, by then, be due for her first refit. Whether she will also undergo any significant modifications at that point will depend on funding and progress in developing the Future Maritime Aviation Force.