For the last year newspapers, magazines and websites – including this one – have been filled with impressive photographs of the Royal Navy’s two new carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – commonly referred to as the Queen Elizabeth Class.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by renowned defence analyst Richard Beedall.
With a length of 284 metres (932ft) and a light displacement of 65,000 tonnes (over 75,000 tonnes fully loaded) these ships are hailed as the “the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy” at every opportunity the Ministry of Defence and government ministers can find.
This forum recently published an article explaining ‘Why smaller carriers would be bad idea for the Royal Navy‘. The arguments in favour of large aircraft carriers are strong and convincing – but they ignore one crucial and long-standing problem, the RN’s lack of money. First Sea Lord after First Sea Lord has prioritised preserving the CVF project over cuts to the rest of the Royal Navy, it can only be hoped they made the right decision.
In the mid-1990’s it was expected that the three small (16,500 tonnes lightly loaded, 21,000 tonnes fully loaded) Invincible-class carriers built in the 1980’s would decommission between about 2010 and 2015 – after 30 years of service. Preliminary studies in to possible replacements started in 1994 and a wide variety of alternatives were considered, ranging from new build ships of various sizes and sophistication, through to rebuilding of the existing Invincible-class, to merchant ship conversions, and even the purchase of old US Navy carriers.
In 1997 a newly elected Labour government began a Strategic Defence Review. The resulting White Paper (SDR1998) released in July 1998 included the decision that two new medium-size aircraft carriers would be built. It is worth repeating a fact sheet included with the White Paper as it was effectively the birth certificate of the QEC:
|FUTURE AIRCRAFT CARRIERS
· In the new strategic environment, Britain increasingly needs forces which can act rapidly to prevent, manage or deal with crises globally. For these force projection operations, we require forces with wide utility across a range of military tasks and missions.
· For our forces to be effective they must get to the right place at the right time. But we cannot always be certain that they will have access to air bases on land, particularly in the early stages of a crisis.
· Successive operations in the Gulf and Bosnia have demonstrated that carriers play a key part in peace support, coercion and combat. They offer:
o a coercive presence which can contribute to conflict prevention (as demonstrated recently in the Gulf);
o a flexible and rapidly deployable base during operations where airfields are unavailable or while facilities ashore are being established;
o a range of military options in all littoral operations.
· Our three INVINCIBLE class aircraft carriers were designed for cold war anti-submarine operations and can each carry a maximum of 24 aircraft. The SDR has concluded that the main role for British carriers in future will be to deploy air power, in support of joint operations. This could be in the air defence, land attack or other roles.
· We therefore plan to replace our current aircraft carriers with two larger vessels in the second decade of the next century. Present thinking suggests that new carriers might be of the order of 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes and capable of carrying up to 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
· The new carriers will operate the future carrier borne aircraft. A range of aircraft options remain open to us, but we shall continue to participate in the concept demonstration phase of the US Joint Strike Fighter programme, which is a strong contender to meet the requirement.
A formal requirement for the new aircraft carriers – ST(S) 7068 – was subsequently approved at the end of 1998. This anticipated that the new carriers would be able to embark up 40 Future Carrier Borne Aircraft (FCBA). In addition, ten helicopters could be carried for airborne early warning and anti-submarine purposes. The carriers were intended to be as simple and minimally equipped as possible, designed using the principle that “steel is cheap, air is free”. SDR1998 stated “Our intention is that they will be built using all relevant cost-saving techniques, following the example of [the helicopter carrier] HMS Ocean”. Escorting ships such the planned Common New Generation Frigate (CNGF) would provide defence and share information from their sophisticated radars.
In 1999 the MOD awarded competitive Assessment Phase contracts to BAE Systems and Thales UK for the development of a CVF design. The budget for the design and construction of the two new ships had been set at £2.2 billion – essentially the original total cost of the three Invincible-class ships, adjusted for inflation.
In 2002 the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (since named the Lightening) was selected as FCBA, other contenders being the Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F and a navalised version of the Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-35B was far larger and heavier than the Sea Harrier (60,000 lbs vs 26,000 lbs maximum take-off) – indeed it was roughly comparable in size and weight to the Phantom’s operated by the Royal Navy in 1970’s. It was now obvious that it would be impossible to effectively operate up to 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters on a ship of just 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes. A ship able to operate 40 F-35B’s flying up to 110 sorties a day (the user requirement in 2003) plus 10 helicopters would need to be big – very big!
The two rival suppliers happily developed ever larger designs and more expensive designs that could meet and even exceed the RN’s requirements. In January 2003 the Thales CVF concept was selected for construction, but the ‘Alpha’ design had reached ‘super carrier’ size with a light displacement of 75,000 tonnes, which no existing shipyard in the UK could build. Although the CVF budget had been increased to £2.9 billion in 2001, estimates of the construction cost were now £5 billion for the two ships, in part because of the complex new infrastructure that would be required for their assembly.
The project was on the verge of cancellation for the next two years, before a slightly shrunken, slower and less well equipped ‘Delta’ design with an estimated construction cost of £3.5 billion was decided upon in 2005. This is the design that has now – almost miraculously – been built, even though the ships remained under serious threat of cancellation until 2010. The final price tag for the construction of Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales is expected to be £3.2 billion each, and that excludes design costs amounting to about £350 million, including a proposed conversion of Prince of Wales to a catapult and arresting gear (CATOBAR) configuration that was briefly considered in 2010-12.
If the RN was still similar in size to 1998, the new carriers might just make operational sense, however the RN has shrunk by at least third using every reasonable standard – personnel, major warships, submarines, aircraft, auxiliary vessels, etc. Unfortunately, the escalation in the cost of the two new aircraft carriers has undoubtedly been instrumental in the down-sizing of the rest of RN.
The first concern is personnel. The RN been out of the aircraft carrier business for eight years and has inevitably lost most of its expertise in this highly demanding specialisation. The average age of the crew of Queen Elizabeth is “early twenties”, with the youngest members just 17 and straight from new entry training at Raleigh. However, the RN has adopted a “lean manning” approach for the ships, in practice this means they each have a crew of about 730 personnel, compared to 1,350 for the smaller French carrier Charles De Gaulle, or 3,200 for the larger USS Nimitz class. Every member of the crew of Queen Elizabeth will need to be an expert at their job, and the technology and automation upon which they will rely must perform flawlessly. There is a strong suspicion that as the QEC ships work up towards operational service, they will prove to be under-manned and the size of the crew will need to creep upwards, but it is hard to know where the additional personnel will come from. With the Royal Navy struggling to maintain a strength of just 22,500 trained personnel – each increase of 100 personnel in the complement of the two carriers will effectively de-crew a Type 23 frigate.
The next problem is a lack escorts and support ships. The QEC are lightly armed and highly vulnerable capital ships. They must be carefully protected from hostile warships, submarines, aircraft, long range ‘carrier killer’ missiles, mines and numerous other threats. As such they need a screen of first rate escorts – a mix of perhaps six destroyers, frigates and hunter-killer submarines. If the RN must provide these from its pool of just six Type 45 destroyers, eight Type 23/26 frigates and seven Astute submarines, very few operational units are left for other tasks. Further, the resulting Carrier Task Group will still need suitable supporting auxiliary ships for replenishment duties or it will soon be heading home. If, as seem likely, the RFA has just four Tide-class tankers and two or three Fleet Solid Support Ships (FSS), these will essentially need to be dedicated to supporting the QEC.
The third problem is aircraft. The Ministry of Defence does not have credible and funded plans for one full strength carrier air group, let alone two. In 1998 the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had three Sea Harriers squadrons equipped with a total of about 28 aircraft, with the vision growing this to five squadrons equipped with 64 FCBA’s by 2018. Of course, the FAA now has zero squadrons of both.
The UK seems to be fully committed to buying 48 short take-off/vertical landing F-35B’s (including four early test and training aircraft that can’t be upgraded to an operational configuration), with an approved budget of £9.1 billion. Fifteen aircraft have already been delivered with the remainder expected by 2025. The RAF recently reformed 617 Squadron (albeit partially manned by FAA personnel) equipped with F-35B Lightening’s, but it is not until April 2023(!) that 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) will re-commission with Lightening’s. Rather humiliatingly for the RN and FAA, it is expected that the air group of Queen Elizabeth on her first operational deployment in 2021 will include the RAF’s 617 Squadron and a squadron of US Marine Corps F-35B’s!
The MOD hopes to order more Lightning’s, indeed an eventual total of 138 aircraft is still the official target. However, the RAF is believed to be strongly advocating that any additional aircraft beyond the first 48 are of the conventional land-based F-35A variant – this is cheaper and more capable than the F-35B, but critically cannot operate from the QEC. Being pragmatic, it increasingly looks like that the UK will only have two carrier capable Lightening squadrons of 12 aircraft each – and that these squadrons will also have land based commitments. Current plans seem to be that the QEC will normally deploy with one squadron of Lightening’s, but that a second squadron will be briefly embarked every two years for wartime surge training. This plan may be optimistic as the experience in 2005-2010 with Joint Force Harrier shows just how hard it was to free RAF controlled aircraft for carrier based exercises and deployments in the face other competing taskings. However the QEC are sized and equipped to operate up to 36 Lightening’s, that is a lot of very expensive capacity being underutilised.
Just as bad is the shortage of helicopters. The RN has just 30 Merlin HM2 helicopters including those in maintenance or used for training duties. There is currently no clarity as to how these will be allocated, but it seems that a deploying QEC will typically embark 814 or 820 NAS with perhaps six anti-submarine warfare configured HM2s, whilst 849 NAS will deploy a flight of about four ‘Crowsnest’ HM2s configured for Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC). Barring an extreme emergency, there are only enough helicopters for one carrier at a time.
For the Carrier On Board Delivery (COD) role, the RN would like to buy a small number of Osprey V-22’s, but there is no funding for this. An RAF Chinook helicopter is expected to fulfil this role for the foreseeable future.
Another concern is the use of the QEC class in the amphibious warfare role. In 1998 the RN commissioned the badly needed helicopter assault ship (LPH) HMS Ocean at the bargain price of just £210 million. After a major 2012-2014 refit was expected to serve to the early 2020’s, but instead she was decommissioned on 27 March 2018 and sold to Brazil for £85 million. It appears that that the MOD desperately needed the money, and her modest 285-strong crew was also needed to man Prince of Wales. As a consequence of the loss of Ocean, the MOD is now spending about £60 million to modify Prince of Wales so that she can serve in a secondary LPH role with an embarked military of up to 900 personnel (presumably a Royal Marine Commando Group) plus transport and attack helicopters. This is for the littoral manoeuvre element of what the MoD calls Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) – Carrier Strike, Littoral Manoeuvre, Humanitarian Assistance and Defence Diplomacy. Queen Elizabeth will presumably be upgraded to a similar standard in the 2020’s. However, the potential miss-use of a £3+ billion capital ship in littoral waters threatened by mines, fast attack craft and numerous type of missiles is incredible. It seems very unlikely that the RN will ever risk using the QEC as amphibious ships in anything but the most benign threat environment.
If the money was available, each QEC carrier could easily embark and efficiently operate a Carrier Air Group with two squadrons of Lightening’s, a squadron of Merlin ASW helicopters, a flight of Merlin Crowsnest ASaC helicopters, and a flight of V-22 Ospreys for COD and perhaps air-to-air refuelling duties. With sufficient escorts and support ships, this would give the RN a carrier based capability not seen since the decommissioning of HMS Eagle in 1972. However, assuming nothing changes, it seems inevitable that the QEC are destined fulfil a role very similar to US Navy’s latest LHA, USS America, which is both smaller (about 45,000 tonnes full load) and cheaper (£2.5 billion), whilst still being able to operate up to 20 F-35B’s and accommodate 1,900 EMF personnel.
Unfortunately, the Royal Navy became too ambitious after its success in SDR1998. It should have stuck it to the original £2.2 billion budget and been realistic about what this could buy, rather than getting overly ambitious and reaching for two huge and very expensive aircraft carriers which it is struggling to man, escort, and provide an air group for. In recent years the Australian, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish navies have all purchased versatile helicopter capable amphibious ships (LHD/LHA) with a displacement in the region of 20,000-30,000 tons for a cost of under £1 billion each, most of which are potentially able to operate F-35B’s.
With hindsight, I believe that the Royal Navy would be far better served by building two “30,000 to 40,000 tonnes” amphibious ships able to operate a squadron of up to 12 F-35B Lightening’s in addition to helicopters. These would economically fulfil the role now envisaged for the QEC, whilst the money and other resources saved would, for example, have allowed four more Type 45 destroyers to have been built and operated.