The Royal Navy have always been at the forefront of carrier design evolution though are now having to play catch up to get back into the carrier game.

In the 1980’s the Royal Navy was relegated to operating the small “pocket carrier” Invincible class leaving the large carriers behind until 1998 when it was decided two new big carriers would replace them. Though that is not to say that the Invincible class were bad by any stretch as it comes down to the operations that you wish to use them for as during the cold war the Royal Navy was primarily an ASW navy which the Invincible class were designed for.

But now the Queen Elizabeth will return the Royal Navy to blue water operations as threats that are faced are no longer from a single enemy as in the Cold War but small terror groups to heightened regional tensions.

Vessels that can deploy anywhere and strike almost anywhere are needed but for that more powerful aircraft than the Harriers are needed which needs a more powerful ship to launch them.

A bigger ship means more men, more supplies, more space and more sorties.

As the QE class at maximum load can house a complement of 1,600 so we would have more pilots and engineers on-board to fly the sorties and maintain the aircraft. So in combat conditions the same selection of pilots would not be flying repeated missions and taking the physical and mental toll.

More work can be taken on the aircraft to maintain them but there are also more aircraft available so the stress on the same aircraft is lowered as the missions are spread.

Further to this, the higher aircraft numbers means that more aircraft can be used for operations, as some aircraft will be needed for a Combat Air Patrol to protect a task group; meaning less aircraft for operations which would be very serious for a carrier with only 9-12 aircraft embarked.

This was an issue that was encountered during the Falklands War as to provide enough Harriers for a CAP and missions we needed both the Invincible and Hermes together as a single task group.

What all this means is that the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will be able to spend more time on station in a potential combat zone.

They will be able to bring not only just more aircraft to bear on the targets but, more importantly, more sorties at a higher sustained rate.


  1. Nice article but it assumes we will have the necessary aircraft in the required numbers. The QE class are capable of embarking 36 F-35Bs each – at the rate we are going it will be a LONG time before we have 72 F-35Bs that we can call our own. Hence, we have enlisted the USMC to make up our numbers for us. This is just nothing more than an excuse for the Government to avoid buying the aircraft numbers they know they should be buying – absolutely ridiculous! Let’s not forget the ‘small print’ in Cameron’s 2015 SDSR; he committed to the full 138 aircraft buy – over the life of the program. Well, F-35B program build is slated to be 25yrs – do the sums.

    • No one is falling themselves that the 138 will ever be operational at any one time. 138 is approx 48 divided by 3. Which kinda makes sense, approx 48 in service at any one time with replacement being gradually brought into service to replace the older ones. A bit like the original plan for the typhoon batch one. The only reason they were kept is the f35s are late and too expensive right now to have enough in replacement.

      • Hey Steve,

        I agree with you that all 138 won’t be in service together. However, if what you say is true and only 48 are in service at any one time, then with training commitments and maintenance schedules, there will not be 36 available for the full carrier air wing as originally planned and for which our very expensive carriers were designed.

        • We will not have only 48 in service at a time. We wont ever have 138 but 48 is just silly. The plans at present are for 4 fully equipped front line squadrons of 12 aircraft so that’s 50 used straight away. The OCU is scheduled to receive a further 12 and the OEU in the US is meant to have at least 3 aircraft. That means at least 63 operational aircraft. There is also an aspiration to make the 4 front line squadrons 16 aircraft strong so that would increase the active fleet to 79 aircraft. This is being considered due to the expected lower than normal availability of the F-35B. That would leave about 20-25 for the sustainment fleet and the last 30-40 arrive in the mid to late 2030s to replace the oldest 2 squadrons. If you look at the numbers for our last 4 fast jet types the ratios are very similar.

    • We are better off with the slow acquisition rate at the moment as until 2020 every F-35B we buy will need to go back to the US at some point for major upgrades (concurrency). CVF may be able to take 36 F-35Bs and in fact can squeeze on about 50 aircraft in an emergency but a standard air group of 24 F-35B, 14 Merlin HM2 (9 ASW, 5 AEW) and 4 Merlin HC3 is well within reach and on track for around 2023-2025. Wish it was sooner but it will still represent the best collection of air power at sea outside the US navy.

  2. on a different note, i don’t really buy the argument that the carriers will support counter insurgency operations. We have been at war with insurgents pretty much constantly since the old carriers were removed from service and yet we have never struggled to provide air coverage and not to mention that the typhoons and other air assets like survalliance assets can’t run from the carriers. This to me is someone trying to justify the high cost without really giving it much thought.

    • I don’t think it’s a completely false argument. We can probably strike almost anywhere in the world right now but the logistics get worse and worse as distance from a land base increases meaning more and more tanker rendezvous are required (an extreme example being the Vulcan strike on Port Stanley airfield). Being able to park an airfield within unrefueled strike range of the target is a pretty big deal as far as tempo and cost-efficiency (including airframe and weapon-carry hours) are concerned.

      • Agreed, but the nature of counter insurgency is that it is not a war with a full country and typically local countries are also unhappy, meaning plenty of available air bases.

        Falklands was a different story, it was a war with a country where neighbouring countries didn’t want to get involved and we were badly let down by our allies. The problem is in 2017, we no longer have the escorts or a land force big enough to go it along. Having carriers without adequate escorts, means they are in practice useless against any enemy that has the ability to strike back.

        I don’t doubt the usefulness of the carriers for force projection, but I just don’t think they are that useful for counter insurgency, where Intel assets are as important if not more so than the bombers and they need land based air bases, this is assuming the f35b will be able to carry a full set of the available bombs.

        • I know we are short of escorts but it is not as bad as is made out. We are getting 8 ASW frigates (type 26) which is the same number as we have now. The 5 type 23s without a tail will get replaced (eventually) with type 31 and by 2022 all repairs to the 6 destroyers will be complete as well. Many of the RNs standing tasks require nothing more than an OPV, RFA or maybe a type 31? Having 14 high end specialist escorts should suffice. Remember we have only 4 capital ships to protect (2 cvf & 2lpd). Even if we attach a destroyer and frigate permanently to the active CVF we will still have several of each for other operations. It should be remembered that the fleet will not be fighting China or Russia (not alone at least) and there are few other nations who can credibly threaten a task group comprising CVF, 1-2 type 45s, 1-2 type 23/26 and an F-35B CAP.

  3. I don’t understand why the government is delaying placing a significant order. The payments could be spread over a number of fiscal years. Order 24 aircraft right now to be funded over three fiscal years. That would be enough for an OCU and a decent initial ship borne capability. Then we’ll all be able to relax and get back to worrying about frigate numbers and our lack of anti-ship missiles!

    • If you place an order you have to pay. The Defence budget is so tight now early delivery of just 10 extar F35s will add at elast a £1Bn to the budget over th enxt five years when its already showing a £10Bn hole in funds available to meet what is already planned. The F35 deliveries are indeed far slower than we should have…but its budget availability driven…simple as that.

  4. Just to repeat Patricks question above-when do Sea trials commence? According to the last briefing it was to be round about now but no information or updated photos are available. The official ACA site is absolutely hopeless with the “latest” news from April! One would think that with the vast sums involved in the build that they could afford to spent the pittance needed to keep their site up to date. In addition, Navy News stopped publishing daily bulletins some weeks back-apparently because they are not allowed to do so whilst campaigning fo an Election is on?????? Can anyone understand the rationale behind that? Thank goodness for UK Defence Journal-take a bow gentlemen(and ladies?)

    • Apparently the paint issue is with the new deck coating. Article about in the Scottish Sun, it’s hard to tell how serious it is because of the sensational reporting, but it doesn’t look promising and could delay the sea trails for a good bit.

  5. These two carriers are great, and the aircraft we are get to equip them are great too. However, we simply seem unable or unwilling to afford enough of the aircraft, meaning these carriers are rather a waste of money. While we are supposibly going to order a number in he low to mid hundreds it seems that only 48 at the most will be combat operational if where luckily. That number is perfect to equip the FAA and two carriers however, on top of that their also suppose to replace the48 strong RAF tornado force. It’s simply not enough aircraft.

  6. Agree with all comments about needing numbers and quantity. The uk armed forces have some exquisite equipment but just not enough of it. I would think the minimum number of F35bs the uk should have operational at any one time is around a hundred max surge capacity of QE carrier is 36-48 x2 carriers + some in reserve and other tasks= 100 jets.
    anything less and we might as well of built 32-38000 ton ASW carriers capable of holding 12-18 helps and a small force of 12-18 F35bs.

  7. The main problem at the minute is that the armed forces are spending all their money on top end hardware and so not having enough money left for actual soldiers/sailors.

    If the main risk right now is anti-insurgency operations, then we either need bombers for bombing/showing we are doing something but not really committing to anything or large numbers of soldiers to actually put a viable land operation into place, which we were unable to do effectively in either iraq/afgan (ok it was an impossible mission as no real political will to win).

    It also seems to me that we are not spending on some of the more basic equipment that an anti-insurgency military would need, like all the equipment left behind because the MOD didn’t want to pay for it, but which was clearly needed at the time or it wouldn’t have been there. Also the number of helicopters seems to be way too low.

  8. I think the main reason why the numbers of the F35’s is low over time is because they are still advancing the technology for unmanned aircraft
    I remember reader somewhere that one F35 in the future will be flying with 2 unmanned wingman

  9. COIN ops are not really what the armed forces are for. They need that high end equipment to conduct a peer level conflict against an advanced nation state if required. COIN is a secondary mission. There will be enough F-35B for the carriers and 2 squadrons for the RAf + a large sustainment fleet but some people dont want to accept this and just bleat on about 48 planes. The carriers do not need 36 planes each all the time. The airgroup will be tailored to suite speciffic needs. And the number of F-35B will allow a surge deployment of around 75-80 planes in an emergencey. The carriers are the size they are for that 5% off lifetime where they are in a hot war. Building smaller would limit this contingencey. We are not the US navy, neither should we try to be.

    • Generally I would agree. Hoever its the time taken to get up to havivng at least 24 F35Bs available that is a rightful cause for concern. Without a signifcant budget hike in the enxt couple of years, it will be around 2024/5 before we can genuinely field a QE class with at least 24 operational (and properly worked up) F35s on board. That is not good in terms of ensuring we can tailor a fully effective air group in that period, and incredibly slow compared with previous introductions to service of UK combat aircraft. Furthermore, when we will be in a position to ever field the “emergency” group (actually no more than 60 or so aircraft) is complete speculation at the moment. The present 10 year MoD equipment plan is clear that we are only buying 48 F35B between now and 2025. Until, there is additonal funding allocated beyond the present £5Bn F35 acquisition programme, and that plan updated we really have no firm evidence as to when the UK F35B fleet will grow past 48. Facts of life nonetheless at present.

  10. The slow aquisition of only small numbers of F35b’s is very short sighted. In addition to F35b’s the QE’s need carry several helicopters for AEW, ASW, COD, SAR etc. I suspect a 48 strike wing of F35’s is a pipe dream, though it should be a bench mark for such a large & expensive carrier should war require it. The commitment & funding for enough vessels & aircraft(+skilled crew) to operate carrier task groups just isn’t there at present.

    What is being recklessly ignored is the lack of preparedness for inevitable casualties of both ships & aircraft in war. We’re so dangerously low in warships that we could be largely unserviceable as a navy in a month, or less if hit by a bold pre-emptive strike. It seems any damage to the F35 stealth coating may only be repairable back at the makers or the regional depot(potentially unstable Turkey!), so that’s a dangerous vulnerability to the very stealth capability that has made them so hugely expensive.

    It is a complete shambles that we’re taking the main ASM Harpoons away from our warships without any indication that a replacement is in sight. It’s like having bombers with no bombs or missiles. Warships should have the capability to at least adequately meet any threat. Otherwise the politicians or planners should be held directly responsible for lives lost due to reckless cuts.

    I’d like to see the QE’s equipped with their own SAM system as the present weapons fit seems barely adequate.

  11. Is the QE leaving for sea trials on the 21st June as has been rumoured, I have a group of veteran Royal Navy Carrier men (ex 899Eagle/893 Hermes Sea Vixens & 892 Ark Royal Phantoms) eager to witness the new breed go to sea, please please confirm ASAP
    Many thanks


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