It has been officially confirmed that France, following publication of the british SDSR10, containing the statement that the first CVF vessel would have been mothballed and potentially sold in 2020, launched a study in the cost effectiveness of eventually purchasing HMS Queen Elizabeth as solution for their PA2 requirement.
The bond between CVF and PA2 is antique. During the design and development phase of the CVF class, France, until 2008, contributed money and expertise. Some 100 million euro were poured by France into studies for ensuring that CVF was catapult capable; studies that ensured that the design could be converted during life (option initially chosen by the UK, prior to 2010 switch to Cats and Traps) and that, on the french side, generated the CVF-FR design, to be built under the name Richelieu.
In 2008, France quit the CVF programme and delayed decision about the building of PA2 up to 2012. Problems in the joint programme had emerged, with France pressing for a more powerful propulsion plant, which would have besides used LM2500 gas turbines instead of the british, mandated Rolls Royce MT30. France probably was also irked by the refusal of the UK to have blocks for the CVF built in French shipyards.
It is not surprising, then, that a study was launched into the possible selection of QE as PA2 solution.
Hypothesis of a "fair" deal
It is interesting to read into the French concept of "fair deal" about the eventual acquisition of QE. According to the respected publication 'Mer et Marine', France expected that, in exchange for their purchase of the QE, the UK would have commissioned french shipyards to build the new Fleet Tankers to be purchased (according to the latest plans heard, by 2016) to replace the remaining, ancient RFA oil replenishers. And of course, why not: they want to sell the UK Rafales as well!
Talk about "fair" deals!
The Fleet Tanker programme, once envisioned as a 6-ship buy (with a first order of 4 vessels, with space for subsequent order of another and then a last one), is now seen as a "4 ships at most" contract that the Navy is trying hard to resuscitate (indeed, the RN tried to get it to advance in EVERY Planning Round in the last few years, but without great luck). The order, expected to eventually come in the shape of a "2 + 1 + 1", would fill the first requirement of the 3-classes MARS programme for the modernization of the RFA.
MARS is part of the wider "Carrier Enabled Power Projection" main programme, which comprises CVF and JCA-F35, even though MARS is needed for the fleet as a whole, and not at all as a mere CVF-support tool.
Indeed, the ancient, single-hulled tankers still in use, such as Black and Gold Rover, were planned to leave the service by 2010!
The MARS FT (Fleet Tanker) is indeed planned to use hulls built abroad, so France might well be a possibility anyway. The ships would be built abroad, and only brought in the UK for final kit to be installed.
On 10 December 2007 the MOD issued an "Invitation to Participate in Dialogue" to industry to for up to six fleet tankers at an expected cost of £800 million.
On 21 May 2008 the MOD announced the results of the invitation, indicating that four companies had been shortlisted: Fincantieri (Italy); Hyundai (Republic of Korea); Navantia (Spain) and BAE Systems with BMT DSL and DSME (Republic of Korea).
No french yards had been selected for the final competition.
Ever since, these selected possible builders have remained in the race, but someone else appears to have entered the frame. According to an answer of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Gerald Howarth, dating back to last March, the bidders have increased to 6 during the latest attempts of resurrecting MARS and getting the long awaited go-ahead for it.
The Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) programme is in its assessment phase, and the Ministry of Defence issued an advertisement for an international competition in October 2009 for the MARS tankers. Following expressions of interest from industry, six bidders were invited to submit outline solutions. In October 2010, the bidders were invited to submit more detailed solutions and the resulting bids are currently the subject of discussions between the MOD and the bidders. On current plans, final bids are expected to be requested later this year.
I've been unable to find out what new builders have entered the frame, but it is very possible that France's DCNS is one of them.
As a matter of fact, the Fleet Tanker element might well be built in France anyway, regardless of QE's situation, if France's offer is valued as the best one.
A whole different story is buying Rafale...!
So, is it happening?
Hard to give a definitive answer. A possibility remains.
But the UK government has lately been very clear that selling QE off is considered a very remote hypothesis. The aspiration is to keep her in service even past 2020, and retrofit her with Cats and Traps during her first major refit, around 2022.
To make such a selling option further improbable, besides, France itself is expressing big doubts about the feasibility of such an acquisition. Even before considering emotional and political implications of such an agreement (and we are talking of a very big implication, you can bet), the french have assessed the cost of the option, and judged them far too high.
The Admiral Guillard, head of the french Navy, reported the results of the study on QE to the Defence Committee of the National Assembly of the french republic on 5 October, just a few days ago.
His assessment is that QE would be expensive to purchase, judging its cost to be 30 to 40% higher of the cost it would have to build an identical vessel in french shipyards. And to this, there's to add an estimate of 1 billion / 1.5 billion euro of expense for converting the vessel to Cats and Traps, making for an expense of over 4 billion euro for France, which he compared to an expected (but probably optimistic, i'd say) price tag of 3.5 billions for a PA2 built in french shipyards.
And it is not enough.
While in 2004 France had chosen to pursue a conventional-propelled PA2, in 2008 they changed their mind, and nuclear propulsion came back for a revenge, apparently returning to be their favorite solution.
Add to this the fact that french shipyards are definitely not going to accept to lose the massive workshare and revenues that the building of a new carrier implies, and you have a big, big obstacle on the way of any possible QE acquisition.
But moreover, this years the budget crisis killed any attempt of looking again into PA2. Next year, the situation is unlikely to change, and the Presidential elections will represent another big issue to contend with.
And finally, the chef d'état-major des armées français (CEMA), the supreme organization that controls the French armed forces on behalf of the President and of the government, have been very clear and definitive:
PA2 remains an aspiration, a requirement, and a need. But simply, currently, it is not financially feasible.
But, i will add.
3.5 or 4 billions might be out of reach, as the bill for retrofitting QE could be a real problem for cash-strapped Britain, even come-2022, as the Successor SSBN programme by then will be sucking up money like a vacuum cleaner, particularly when you listen to its detractors.
But if the UK and France collaborated to share the cost of retrofitting cats and traps to QE, the expense for each country could be in the region of "just" some 5 hundred millions, a whole different story.
And it would give the two fleets the "second carrier" that both countries need but can't afford.
After all, as HMS Bulwark trains in Scotland landing French Marines ashore, tomorrow QE could operate a mixed air group of Rafales and F35Cs, filling in the gaps left by PoW and CdG going into refit or being unavailable for any reason.
Admiral Guillard had already put forward this proposal in an interview a few months ago. And i think that, while not entirely optimal, it makes for the best solution by far.
After all, we do not live in an optimal world.