Supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will visit the British territory of Gibraltar today.

When contacted, the Royal Navy said in a statement:

“As part of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s next phase of sea trials, there is an option for the ship to visit Gibraltar.”

We understand that this will be a routine logistical stop. The visit remained an “option” because of the rapidly changing nature of sea trials.

Recently, the 70,600 tonne vessel began the initial stages of her rotary wing trials.

Lt Cdr Cobbett said:

“Introducing the Ship to aviation and aviation to the Ship is all part of the learning structure we are going through. We are taking it slowly at first before we embark whole squadrons of rotary and fixed wing aircraft.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to start fixed-wing flight trials with three or more F-35Bs off the eastern coast of the US around September this year. A fantastic info-graphic created by SaveTheRoyalNavy can be found here and details the timeline of the programme.

What will the vessels carry when in operational service?

The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions. Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:

“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed. We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

In 2023, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.

An Apache takes off from HMS Ocean during the war in Libya.

In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2.

The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.

We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.

A source we spoke to, currently flying the jet, explained to us that the vessels will deploy with the number and type of aircraft required for a specific deployments:

“Where F-35B is based is entirely down to the most suitable basing option for the tasks/missions is being sent to do. If that’s a well-founded host nation base, great; if it’s the Carrier, great; if it’s an austere location, fine. Range, logistics and other ‘enablers’ such as AAR and connectivity will determine what’s the best option.”

The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.


  1. I’ve found another interesting photo. The link below is from a few years ago but was part of a USMC trial of a V22 Osprey carrying out air to air refuelling on a number of aircraft such as F18s and F35s.

    The V22 would be the only feasible option for our F35Bs. It would be a complete waste of an asset to use another F35B a buddy to buddy refueller. The Merlin or Chinook although having the capacity to carry out this function would be too slow for the F35B, especially as the F35B would be burning up more fuel that taking as tries to fly that slow.

    It’s just a shame we can’t afford them!

    • I suspect we will see V-22 AAR of QEC F-35B in action at some point though, courtesy of the USMC. In my opinion that would be no bad thing for the U.K. to see the capabilities demonstrated so close to home. If there’s no money anyway then it won’t make any difference but it also wouldn’t hurt in terms of the prospects of the U.K. ever procuring the capability natively.

    • Dave – I think you missed the real answer and that is the Bell V-280 described at the end of the article. It is smaller but far more advanced and the V-22 which suffers from being the first of a kind. It is also worth noting that the F-35 being refuelled was a ‘B’ and had partial engine lift in operation to avoid stall speed.
      Now given the UK is some way off buying a V-280 (I hope we never see V-22s) we do have another option for Buddy refuelling. And the answer is in the first (I believe) 5 F-35Bs the UK purchased that were purely evaluation and test airframes. They will never be used operationally let alone in combat and will have limited use as trainers given the lack of sensors and software. Now knowing the MoD they will be scrapped or parked to rot somewhere. But they would make ideal short range tankers (one tank in the weapon bay and two on wing pylons) for other F-35Bs and could refuel at the best speed for fuel burn. We have at least 4 such aircraft so two per carrier would give full rotational cover.

      And the cost would be practically nothing given the aircraft already have attachment points and activation connections. But then no big budgets to brag about …..

  2. The Osprey would certainly make a nice addition to AEW above everything else. But you could say the same about plenty of kit we could use. For me the first and last priority for now should be to get as many F35’s as poss into service as quickly as poss. She’s an aircraft carrier her aircraft are her main armament the rest are icing on the cake.


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