The Russian carrier is designed to lead a flotilla of vessels or operate solo while keeping enemy fleet at bay using its anti-ship missiles and using its aircraft to deter enemy aircraft.

The Queen Elizabeth class on the other hand are designed to operate with a battle group to maintain air superiority, strike a variety of strategic and tactical targets using aircraft in addition to providing an air assault platform.

Despite recent sensationalist tabloid headlines, describing the Admiral Kuznetsov as “massive” while decrying the UK’s “tiny ships”, the Queen Elizabeth class are of a significantly higher tonnage than the Russian vessel, each sitting at 70,600 tonnes compared to its 55,000.

Image of the Russian warship Admiral Kuznetsov.

That being said, size is a poor indicator of carrier capability so let’s look beyond tabloid headlines.

What are the basics?

The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy.

The vessels will be utilised by all three branches of the UK Armed Forces and will provide eight acres of sovereign territory. Both ships will be versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from high intensity conflict to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Surprisingly for their sheer scale each ship will only have a total crew of 679, only increasing to the full complement of 1,600 when the air elements are embarked. This is made possible by extensive automation of many systems.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first in a fleet of two, is currently preparing to begin trials with F-35 jets.

The Admiral Kuznetsov serves as the flagship of the Russian Navy and is their only aircraft carrier. The initial name of the ship was Riga; she was launched as Leonid Brezhnev in 1985. She was originally commissioned in the Soviet Navy and was intended to be the lead ship of her class but the only other ship of her class, Varyag, was never completed or commissioned by the Soviet, Russian or Ukrainian navy. This second hull was eventually sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine, completed in Dalian and launched as Liaoning.

The Russian vessel carries a number of offensive weapons typically associated with guided missile cruisers and the carrier itself is capable of engaging surface, subsurface and airborne targets.

What kind of power can they project?

The Queen Elizabeth class carriers, in peacetime, will usually deploy with around 12-24 F-35Bs and a number of various helicopter types. The exact types and numbers of aircraft embarked being adjusted to meet current requirements and threats.

Image by PO PHOT Dave Jenkins

In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of 9 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. The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions however this would be very rare.

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 is estimated to be able to sustain a maximum sortie generation rate in surge conditions of up to 110 sorties per day.

The Admiral Kuznetsov can hold up to about 40 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, including Su-33 fighters and various versions of Ka-27 helicopter, however it rarely sails with more than half of that number. While designated an aircraft carrier by the West, the design of Admiral Kuznetsov implies a mission different from that of either the United States Navy carriers or those of the Royal Navy.

Image of the Russian Warship the Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Admiral Kuznetsov is a heavy aviation cruiser rather than just an aircraft carrier. The vessel carries a number of offensive weapons typically associated with missile cruisers. The carrier itself is capable of engaging surface, subsurface and airborne targets, independently of its air wing.

According to War is Boring here:

“Admiral Kuznetsov has never seen combat, nor would she be of much practical military use. The 55,000-ton carrier has a bow ramp, not steam catapults, requiring her aircraft to shed weight before taking off.

This means her planes will go into combat with less fuel or bombs than the ground-based fighters Russia has already deployed to Syria.”

During the voyage the Admiral Kuznetsov reportedly “will have about 15 fighters Su-33 and MiG-29K/KUB and more than ten helicopters Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31”.

STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), the system used for the launch and recovery of aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov, does not allow for the same frequency of launches/recoveries and tempo of operations afforded by American carriers or even the Queen Elizabeth class. With Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, the aircraft take off using the ramp and are arrested by a cable when landing back on the deck. This means that the Admiral Kuznetsov’s aircraft will only be able to fly a relatively limited number of sorties daily.

Image of the Russian Warships Petr Velikiy and the Admiral Kuznetsov.

Other relevant factors include the process and capacities for transporting ordnance to assembly areas and from there to the flight deck, refuelling and arming stations layout, number and capacities of aircraft elevators, etc.


These vessels clearly cannot do some of what the other can, while the Admiral Kuznetsov can venture alone at times, the Queen Elizabeth would be unable due to a lack of offensive capabilities.

These vessels although similar in overall form are designed for different roles and with different ideologies in mind. The topic of which ideology is more practical today however is an entirely different topic.

As an aviation platform however, the Queen Elizabeth class will certainly be more capable and in the role of a cruiser, the Admiral Kuznetsov clearly comes out on top. Is the press right to portray the Kuznetsov as something akin to the Bismarck however? No, clearly not. The Russian flagship while a potent symbol is heavily outdated and its mix of roles, cruiser and carrier, severely restricts its capabilities in the mission has been deployed for off Syria.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the more modern Queen Elizabeth class vessels will be far more capable aviation platforms, perhaps therefore comparisons like the above and those that appear in the press aren’t all that useful…


  1. Anyone else noticed in the CGI picture of the F35’s on QE’s flight deck, there appears to be a different fixed wing aircraft in the back ground. Is this a drone and is it based on anything real?

    • Still F35. I have one of those PC’s that you can touch screen to zoom in close.

      The shape looks different because at this distance the canopy is not visible, giving the nose a different, longer shape.

      PM David Cameron did mention UAV flying from QEC once but he knew b***er all about defence just like the rest of them so I don’t read too much into that.

    • Look carefully (zoom in), they are F-35s. The ones on the starboard bow are slightly obscured by the jet blast of the F-35 taking off.

    • Can confirm that it is F35. Drones are planned to fly from the Carrier, but in what shape or form, it hasnt been determined.

  2. If it is on the far left of the picture then it is just two F-35 next to each other. Apart from that I cant see anything that may look like a drone.

  3. The article says QE is STOBAR (or did I read it wrong) – is this the case now as I was under the impression she was STOVL.
    Also nice article showing that even two ‘aircraft carriers’ can have very different roles allocated to them by their respective countries.

  4. In a straight up shooting match the Russian ship would win every time. The lack of offensive fire power for any of our larger vessels is alarming. Yes I know the aircraft carry weapons but the fact we have so few ships means everything we have left should be armed to the teeth. Harpoon and sea ceptor on the amphibs even mounts fitted to the bays. Up gun the rivers I know they shouldn’t really be fighting but they’ve got room for some point defence and light anti ship missiles.
    I know some will say that all sounds stupid but if it all kicks off at least we’re not scrambling around doing what should of already been done

        • Ok what heavyweight anti ship missiles does the f35 carry? I suppose we can strafe it a little then what?

          • And considering the kuznetzovs claimed air defence capabilities your going to need a lot of f35s to get through, but then there’s nothing heavy enough on the f35 to do serious damage, so you’ll need to be pretty precise to blind it

        • Yes, QE has no weapons of its own. It’s F-35s will only have Paveway IV and would be shot down before they ever got anywhere near a Russian ship. And her escorts will soon have no anti-ship capability worth talking about. What did not get mentioned is that Kusnetsov would not last long if deployed on its own or with a small escort screen – an Astute (or American or other allied submarine) would take it out in short order with a couple of Spearfish torpedoes.

          • So why would a similar fate not await the QE2 class? With the degree of stealth capability in modern submarines (such as the Swede’s Gotland and presumably their Russian equivalents) there is a very strong case that all carriers are simply vanity-inspired white elephants

  5. And before anyone says Liz won’t sail alone so it doesn’t matter, then why do we send the amphibs out on there own with just ciws

    • They are not really alone, they have nearby US pacific and indian fleets elements backing them up if required. Not to mention Australia, NZ, Singapore, Malaysia and the Ghurkahs in Brueni.

      • i agree even US are not able to send enough. i am sure INDIA can lend a few of its vessels immediately considering how large their fleet is. heck they might as well as dispatch their own battle group if we ask for. we shouldn’t worry much.

        • plus France always is ready to work with us. they might send some frigates to join our CBG. it’s all about co-operation and allies we have both nato and commonwealth with us.

  6. A what point does the author believe a ship’s combat starts. Was the Kuznetzov not operating off coast of Syria and weren’t its aircraft deployed against non Assad friendly forces?Didn’t the carrier loose one of its aircraft whilst it was recovering from a combat mission (OK it fell in to the sea, but…)

    Old proverb:” To start to win, first you must start!” This is the problem of facing the Kuznetzov against the QE, it has to be in a position whereby it can be seen as a threat. Being tooled up in dock does not count. I’d say if the Kuznetzov did make it to open water it would be a priority target for one of our Astutes.

  7. Makes zero sense for the USMC not to have a permanent squadron on board. Gives the US another carrier force so also expect US pressure on NATO to provide an escort or two.

    We build in reliance across NATO and the US.

    • Can confirm that this wont be happening. Keep British ships British, although they are our closest allies.

    • USMC should buy QE design, Japan and Australia too, block build globally and final assembly in country.

      Make defence agreements with all, allowing pre-positioning of QE assets globally which can be joint crewed or nationally crewed.

      Build 15-20.

      One can dream I suppose.

  8. I would have thought any comparison should have directly compared vessel and aircraft range, vessel sortie rate, sensor range, weapon types/range/lethality. It should probably have considered it as a taskforce too. It fails to quantify what is quantifiable.

    In terms of which taskforce would come off best. Well if we spent 6billion on a brand new carrier with next generation fast wing aircraft, with billion pound air warfare destroyers, which can’t take an unreliable relic of the Soviet era then we’re clearly not in a good place. Ideally astute accompanying would have been guided into target by istar already. The first to locate will have the advantage and we have Poseidon, Stealth fighters and NATO allies in this regard.

  9. Repeating the same nonsense that only sortie rates matter.

    It also heavily depends on what the sortie is and does.

  10. In many ways a pointless article. Clearly, as an aviation capable ship the QEs are streaks ahead. It’s a no brainier. They are bigger, more modern and 100% dedicated to aviation. The Kuznetsov is smaller, older and to make matters worse, it’s smaller volume is not entirely dedicated to operating aircraft, but shared with conventional, cruiser-type weaponry. So as an aircraft carrier it doesn’t come up to the same standard. As a weapon system, in conjunction to its accompanying task group, it may or may not be more potent than an equivalent QE task force, depending on the military task it’s required to tackle – what military effect it’s trying to deliver. If it’s to attack another nation’s surface action group, I suspect the Kuznetsov task group is more effective. If it’s a littoral operation involving amphibious forces or a strike mission attacking targets inland from the sea, then The QEs are probably the better bet. But this does not excuse the fact that soon the RN will have nothing to attack an enemy ship with except Sea Venom and Spearfish and that our F-35s will only be able to drop Paveway IV for the foreseeable future – truly shocking!

    • Of course they would use them.

      We would hardly ignore them leaving them in port if Falklands 2 happened.

      He correctly says though that most engagements are now part of a coalition or NATO, which is more likely than another Falklands.

      • Better to leave it in port (the other one will be in refit)than on the ocean floor. Besides,we haven’t had a carrier capability for years and Argentina has still not been able to take advantage.

    • I suspect it’s a comment taken out of context, you would need to read a transcript of the whole speech to get what he was actually saying but I bet it was:

      1) unless we increase our supporting resources/wider we would not do a Falklands type thing again ( it’s not just carrier strike that got lost degraded during the 1990-now period.
      2) or he was making a piont of doing a Falklands type operation against a close peer.

      I may be wrong..

  11. we do always do ourself down, as for the forseeable future its roses as far as carrier strike is concerned. a QE class with 24 f35s is only going to be over matched by a US carrier and no one else . SPEAR 3 is not that far away and need we forget that 1 f35 can carry 8 of these just in internal bays ( I would imagine 16 ? Externally) if you do the maths on even a stealthed strike from a QE the numbers are scary. And I know people will say it not a heavy weight ASM, but it has the range, is scary acurate compared to Cold War generation ASMs and more small bangs are just as good ( even better) than 1 Big Bang. QE can get aircraft into the air quicker than her potential opponents, those aircraft are stealthy and can carry far great numbers of anti shipping missiles. Who cares if the target carries its own heavy weight anti shipping missiles and SAMs, it’s not going to help them a whole bunch.

    • Hope you are right about Spear 3 Jonathan. I’d still like to see Storm Shadow and LRASM integrated on our F-35s…

    • Small bangs are very useful indeed when you can put a spear 3 right next to the sensors and weapons, target would be blinded and disabled. Low loss of life, more politically acceptable, vessels can be captured.

      Machine vision and AI today can easily recognise each element on a vessel and decide which one to target with the best chances of success while coordinating with the rest of the missile wave.

  12. MBDAs SPEAR 3 should be a low risk development of Brimestone 2. It uses a lot of the same internal modules. However, along with a new fold out wing, it replaces the rocket motor with a micro turbojet to give it the necessary range (50nm plus). A prototype version has already been successfully launched from a Typhoon, so in theory the production version shouldn’t be that far off from delivery. I’d expect to see it integrated with Typhoon first followed shortly by F35.

  13. As is usual the RN ships are not multi purpose and lack the allround capability of American Russian Ships and the Carriers are no exception no defence against sea Skimming missiles eg Exocet type for example No Phalanx no nothing its the head in the Clouds wishfull thinking that drives the MOD brain did I say brain.
    The escort group of a Type 45, two Frigates 1 Astute reduces the available Ships for other dutys , bearing in mind the disgracefull Fleet size we now have particularly if the P Of Wales carrier is put into service as well.
    Penny Pinching reveals the stupidity of the Government and MOD and places the Sailors and Ships at risk

  14. Kuznetsov is a piece of junk- the RUssian Navy will struggle to keep her in service for another 5 years as she is in a poor material state and the planned upgrades for her cannot be funded currently.
    The largest danger from the Russian Fleet is their proliferation of small corvette and frigate sized vessels armed with heavy cruise and anti ship missile loads. In addition the Russian Navy is looking to area denial weapons and their increasing numbers of kilo and improved Kilo class submarines and new nuclear powered assault submarines to restrict NATO task groups from entering the Northern Artic Oceans and Baltic/ Mediterranean seas.
    The only real answer to these threats is to arm the royal navy to the teeth with ant ship missiles and to provide the QE class with an adequate carrier strike group- the royal navy needs to have more hulls and more weapons. it is dreadfully under armed currently and apart from the astute and Trafalgar class submarines and potentially the F35Bs with brimstone we currently do not have many weapons to sink an enemy warship with.

  15. I believe the Kuznetsov is currently in the yard for maintenance which will take a while given the state of Russian yards. They are also trying to get another Peter the Great class CB back into service but who knows how long that will take. I agree with Mr. Bell, The greatest threat the RFN poses is in their small warfighters, subs, and unmanned weapons systems.

    The USN finds itself in the same position as the RN. Lots of assets tasked with defending the fleet (mostly the CVN’s) but surprising little offensive anti-ship capability. The realization of how far behind the RFN and the PLAN we’ve become is driving the almost frantic haste to field these systems in the fleet and is behind the “If it floats it fights” Distributed Lethality doctrine being developed (I like it)


  16. Interesting article

    One would hope something the RN could look at after all, when the type 26 starts rolling off one would assume they will look at putting mark 41s and 5inch guns on the type 45s, if they then looked at quad packing spear three, buying tomahawk with the new guidance package and supporting the anti shipping function in Seaceptor the surface fleet, and continuing with the welcome aproach of adding plenty light guns every RN warship ( even any type 31) would have very significant anti surface warfare capability, from very long range Heavyweight ASMs, to vast numbers of medium to shorter range light ASMs ( look at a type 26 with sea ceptors and a few cells of quad packed spear 3) meduim and light guns that could equally threaten a large surface group at range and deal with a swarm attract with ease, infract a potential future RN frigate with Seaceptor, quad packed spear 3, 5 inch gun, 40mm CTAS, mini guns and general purpose machine guns would be just about the best platform out there to deal with the present Iranian naval paradigm.

  17. Not necessarily appropriate to compare the QE with the AK. AK is more contempory with the Invincables. Russia plans a future carrier, which would be a more suitable comparison. Comparing the QE with the PLAN carriers would be of more value. The PLAN is building a fleet to challenge the USN, with the objective of keeping it out of east Asian waters. Interesting time ahead.

    • People say the AK is a peice of junk, but so was the ARA General Belgranop until it threatened our 1982 task force with salvoes of 6 inch gunfire & exocets from its escorts.
      Sandy Woodwood in excercises managed to get right within exocet missile friring range of a USN carrier battle group in an old county class DDG.
      Old kit can be deadly if used imaginatively. Never underestimate your enemy.

  18. About USMC comments. They don’t have ANY ships on strength, that would be USN. Also, all USMC assets exist to support the Marine rifleman and his mission.

  19. I was lucky enough to see the Kuznetsov plus Escorts sailing through the English Channel in October 2016 on their way to the Med,quite an impressive site I thought,couldnt miss her due to the smoke just wish I had bothered to take a decent camera for some pics.


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