Navy vessel's three-year delay blamed on errors

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A CATALOGUE of errors has delayed completion of a Royal Navy supply vessel by more than two years, the cost has risen from pounds 127m to pounds 193m, and even when the ship is ready a shortage of missile spares means that it will be left largely defenceless.

Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, said in a report to Parliament yesterday that under a 1986 contract, Harland and Wolff of Belfast had been expected to deliver an Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) Vessel in four years at a cost of pounds 127.2m.

The ship, to be called The Fort Victoria, is already running 32 months late, further work has been sub-contracted to Cammell Laird at Birkenhead and is not expected to be completed until the end of the year. A total of pounds 172m had already been spent on the ship by the start of this year.

The National Audit Office report also provided a drawing of the ship, showing an EH-101 helicopter on deck - although completion of that has been delayed from next year to 1998 - and a silo for Sea Wolf missiles. Because of the lack of parts for the missiles, it is not expected that they can be installed for some years, and then the ship will have to be taken out of service for about 11 months for the work to be done.

But the difficulties - and the criticism - faced by the Ministry of Defence did not end there.

Sir John said that in 1987, George Younger, then Secretary of State for Defence, had overruled the advice of Sir Peter Levene, Chief of Defence Procurement, that 'the prudent and economical course' to take on a second AOR contract would be to open up a further round of bidding rather than accept a Swan Hunters bid that was on the table.

'It is the department's normal practice to allow a lengthy gap between a 'First of Class' vessel and the placing of an order for the next ship,' the report added. 'This allows time to prepare essential drawings, resolve building difficulties and to make essential refinements to the design.

'The AOR2 contract was awarded to Swan Hunters in December 1987, 20 months after AOR1, and before essential drawings had been prepared and building difficulties had been resolved.'

The Swan Hunters price was also 'considerably higher' than the quote of pounds 106.5m offered by Harland and Wolff for a second vessel.

Under a separate pounds 1m contract with Harland and Wolff, the Belfast yard had been 'required to provide the necessary drawings and technical information for Swan Hunters to build AOR2'. But because of morale and overtime 'problems' at Harland and Wolff, some drawings were delayed and others were of 'poor quality'.

Sir John concluded that the Ministry of Defence contract with Harland and Wolff, 'a shipbuilder with limited recent experience of warship building, may have been over-ambitious'.

The 1991 Statement on Major Defence Projects; National Audit Office; Commons paper 121; HMSO; pounds 7.95.