With the recent high profile deployment of Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsoz to Syria to project airpower, we take a look at how the Queen Elizabeth class compare.

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 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.

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 in the final stages of completion, the vessel is due to go sea for trials after the New Year.

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 typically around 14 helicopters. The exact types and numbers of aircraft embarked being adjusted to meet current requirements and threats.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

47 COMMENTS

  1. The QE class appear on paper much better carriers, but lack of actual planes being available, means that in reality they appear about equal, clearly the russian ship would better suit our needs considering it is capable of defending itself and doesn’t need escorting, which is a major problem for the royal navy considering the lack of available hulls.

    • What fascinates me is the unbelievably long timescales that characterize modern defence projects. The F 35 programme kicked off in 1995 and the RN/RAF will only have about 24 F 35’s over 25 years later and not receive their full order until 2030. To put this in perspective if the same applied to the Spitfire, the RAF would be getting their last orders in 1970!!!

      • The big problem at the moment is that the number of flights that can be made by the F35s is severely limited by the maintenance requirements of the aircraft. They will not be able to maintain a CAP currently. Also the aircraft we have are not final specifications and are unable to complete the full set of missions required. This final spec is being delayed again and older jets will require millions of pounds of upgrades to make them useful. The US will have 300 F35s by that point which require these upgrades to be useful. The other thing to remember is that the F35s initially flying off the carriers will be USMC planes under US command. Effectively making the carriers projectors of US foreign policy. This is to hide embarrassment of us not having planes but also to give us experience but still the aircraft and air crews will be under US command, not ours. The final major issue which has already been mentioned is we simply do not have enough ships for force protection and for our other commitments. In my opinion these carriers should have had some offensive and defensive weapons to reduce the amount of force protection required. The Navy just doesn’t have enough people for existing ships to be fully manned and the forces can’t recruit, partly due to the horrendous actions of our government and their attitude to our servicemen and women.

    • Why does everyone think these carriers come out of the ship builders complete with its air wing. Carriers are usually empty for say 5 years after launch. Be patient.

  2. Looking at the Russian carrier group make up 3 x support ships 2 x Udaloy ASW destroyers 2 x Corvettes 1 x Kirov Battlecruiser and 1 x Serria one sub Kirov has ssn19 Shipwreck Missiles What the hell are we going to attach to QE we have no attack submarines that can stay with a carrier on a full time basis and are we seriously thinking about putting ships like HMS Forth as escort ships to a carrier group

    • Don’t worry mate, when there’s turd / fan interaction I’m sure we will be able to rely on the fishing fleet to chip in. Drag enough nets out and we’ll find those Ruski subs, don’t you worry.

    • 1x QE carrier, 3x support ships, 3/4x frigates, 2x Type 45, 1x Astute? Not to mention we have allies.

      Forth has never been proposed as an escort, “free up escorts” means for it to take up low risk patrols, generally in British waters so that frigates and destroyers can be escorts.

      Astute had first of class speed issues in 2012, that has been resolved.

      No doubt we’re short of the ideal amount of frigates and destroyers, but seriously we’re not that short.

  3. We can easy match that and beat it, we have very good destroyers, subs and frigates. The problem is that we would need to tie up the entire navy to escort the 2 carrier, which would mean the others duties can’t be mintained. The carriers were an expensive vanity purchase. The question is now how we use them without looking like we can’t afford them by poorly escorting and equipping them.

  4. “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.”

    The above quote from the main article was, I suppose, intended to diminish the perception of the capability of the vessel & its air group. Mildly surprising as it is the less capable choice that we made for our new carriers.

    • Indeed. I noticed that. We really should have just done cat and trap if only for interoperability. It would also give us far more choice of aircraft but we’re now stuck with a plane that, when it opens it’s gun port, turns so it misses the target. And just to make it even more difficult, it carries a tiny amount of ammunition for the gun. It’s a joke! Cat and trap would have allowed us to go for the F/A 18 as an interim choice and wait until the F35 matures and the bugs are ironed out… If they ever are. Part of me hopes that they actually modify the carrier to have cat and trap, even at the massive expense it would cost given the F/A 18 is around half the cost to run than the F35, it might save money in the long run and would massively improve our capability and interoperability.

  5. Whatever people think about the propriety of the purchase of the QE & POW, it must be remembered that they were ordered under terms that made cancellation more expensive than purchasing. The current government had & have, little choice but to accept them as a legacy contract from the previous Labour government. I doubt that Conservative government would have ordered them. The OPVs are undoubtedly being ordered through gritted teeth, to maintain skills & abilities for the eventual commencement of Type 26 & 31. Defence expenditure is becoming an annoying wasp, flirting around the Treasury. If they fail to address it properly, for the first time in 40 years, it may give them a nasty sting one day soon.

  6. I am curious, ignoring the Falklands (the internet has meant that this war could not happen again without knowing in advance what is going on) has there been another war, involving the UK or not, which a carrier group has been needed.

    For sure there have been situations where they have been useful, but i am talking needed.

    For example Syria, Russia is sending their carrier, but as is stated multiple times in various articles, Russia has a significant presence already without involving it.

    • The reason for asking, is i wonder if the carrier group is already an outdated piece of tech, as is the battleship or the ship of the line, etc.

      • Not sure if this counts in your definition of “needing” but I do wonder how the economics might work our for future interventions such as imposing no-fly zones in a far-flung place or doing strike operations somewhere. People have said that we have loads of bases, e.g. Cyprus, to operate planes from but in many cases that increases the flight times to and from target significantly meaning extra air frame hours per sortie, running down the clock on carry time for missiles even if they’re not fired, and possibly needing tankers for en-route refueling whereas parking a carrier closer to the target could significantly reduce some of that cost. What I’m wondering is whether the question is always “did we need the carrier?” but maybe sometimes “did it allow us to mount this operation with less cost to operational budgets?”. Over a 50 year life time those numbers might start becoming interesting.

        • I think most prominent has been disproved many years ago, land force is the only way to win a battle, aircrafts are just force multipliers but i understand your point.

          The problem with carriers is they are only needed when there is no friendly airbases in the area and considering the lessons learnt in places like Afgan/Iraq we know going it alone is no longer possible, one nation is just not ground force wise technologically vastly superior anymore.

          I think it would require a pretty significant war to require carriers, at which point i suspect nuke powered subs would quickly remove them from the field of battle.

          • But a land force cannot win unless the air battle is won. There is a symbiotic relationship between all components, including cyber but the days of mass land battles and mass navy battles are over.
            Air is increasingly important; especially now because it includes space.

            The UK need more investment in air capabilities. And sadly, that doesn’t mean aircraft carriers

          • I think we also have to remember the Russian approach to carriers. The Americans made loads of expensive carriers for force projection and their long, medium and point defence systems are formidable. Smart missiles will still have a hard time getting through. So the Russians made lots and lots of dumber (not dumb, dumber) missiles which they fire in numbers which overwhelm defences. Their anti cap ship missiles also have low yield nuclear capability. The carriers are such that one hit is often all is required to take them out of service for months. The Russians have never done smart targeting – their approach in the nuclear arms race was to make bigger bombs that would destroy the target even if it was missed by a long way whereas the US went for smaller (but still ridiculously powerful), better targeted warheads. Different approaches but each just as effective.

            I’m rambling.

  7. As my understanding goes, the Soviet Union used their heavy aviation cruisers to protect their ballistic missile submarines by employing a large ASW contingent on board, and would as a result not venture far from the Barents Sea. Where as NATO aircraft carriers are perhaps designed to project air power which is an entirely different role than a predominately anti-submarine role/protecting SSBN’s

  8. These modern career politicians have a lot to answer for, to destroy our sovereign ability to protect our island by destroying our naval capability before replacements come on stream is not only idiotic but criminal.

  9. Hybrid battleship/aircraft carriers were attempted many times in the past, usually by the modification of battleship hulls. I don’t think any of them could be called successful as they could do neither task as well as single role vessels.

    • I think this is the same story as any hybrid, they are a trade off between the roles, however on a shoe string sometimes you have to go for hybrids to get at least some of the way towards having the dedicated vessels.

  10. Why can’t an aircraft carrier have the defenses of a battle cruiser?. Just make them bigger.

    The Russians build their jets, helicopters and vehicles like they do as their tanks.

    It’s an interesting match up.

    It’s staggering we built these carriers with the bare minimum protection.

    • Agreed, I can’t imagine that integrating a small number of defensive missiles would have increased the cost by too much. Even one quad pack of sea ceptors would increase the defensive qualities a lot and mean the carriers have a reasonable last ditch defensive bubble in case the escort were unable to fire for whatever reason.

      • I confess I’ve never been able to work that out myself. I don’t think a carrier could ever do it’s own ASW (hull to noisy, needing to manoeuvre for flight ops rather than optimal sonar performance) but for AAW if at least one T45 is always going to have to escort, and with the cost of the carriers, how much would a 5m increase in length to accommodate launchers, increased ops room space and more berthing space for extra operators, 48 x Sylver 50 VLS (same as a T45) and an upgrade of Artisan to Sampson have cost? Quite a lot obviously but surely much less than the cost of a T45, and with way fewer incremental crew required, it would have been a lot cheaper than building the effectively extra T45 it would give. In fact it would have been a super-T45 because the radar would have been so much higher than on a T45 which would have been very useful if anything happened to Crowsnest.

        I suppose maybe money is simply so tight that, with the T45 costs already sunk, the money has to go elsewhere. When (if?) it comes down to brutal reality of trading it off against better body armour for someone in combat or avoiding another snatch-landrover type of debacle it’s hard to argue against that.

        • For sure, equipping the land force should always be the priority, since most realistic combat situations in the near future are likely to be counter insurgency warfare and not high end navy battles.

          I suspect Sampson would have been far too expensive, but the carriers already have the same radars as the frigates and so i would imagine that it wouldn’t have cost a huge amount to add a cut down version of the AAW missiles that the frigates have.

        • My view is if you’re going to do something, do it right. I think you’re quite right in that a single battery of missiles along with the appropriate radar would have been very simple and a way of reducing the reliance of available type 45s. Also, with the type 45s occasionally y’know, dying, I think it would be rather useful to ensure the carrier could defend itself if it came down to it. If an escort had to turn around it could at least proceed on mission knowing it could defend itself whilst a replacement came along. We can’t field the same large battle groups the US can and so we need to ensure what we do have is as capable as possible.

  11. The future Royal Navy has the potential just not the numbers. fortunately the government has recognised that we are down to the bone and I see no more future cuts (as the sdsr 2015 re-Enforces). However, what will be the next big test is the true impact of brexit, a strong armed forces is totally dependant on a strong economy both go hand in hand. My prediction…no further cuts, minimal investment and see how brexit impacts as no-one truly knows.

    • The problem isn’t the carriers themselves, its the overall lack of hulls available to the navy. The carriers seem very decent for what their primary job is, although would have been better with cat/trap probably.

      To escort the carriers, you need 2 type 45’s minimum to make sure the hull of the carrier doesn’t break line of sight for the radar, and realistically in a high risk zones you need 3 to ensure 360 degree coverage with overlap in case of issues. So 2 carriers and you have 4-6 of the 6 of the destroyers tied up and that’s before we start talking frigates.

      Right now we don’t have enough hulls to cover all the existing standing tasks properly, how on earth is it going to work when we pull that many ships out of the rotation to cover the carriers.

      Some self defensive ability for the carriers would have meant in theory you could escort the carrier with just a single destroyer and hope that the blind spot is covered by the carrier itself, plus whatever frigate escort it has.

      Ok you can argue that allies will help with this, but which country? France is already struggling with escorting its own single carrier. Italy/Spain maybe, but they don’t deploy their ships that often in comparision to the UK. So we are left with relying on the US, which means we will lack the ability to project our own power and just become even more reliant on the US.

      Not including some defensive abilities is short term cost cutting, which will ultimately result in additional costs.

  12. A few thoughts-it was Gordon Brown who finally got this much delayed project off the ground although his motives were not entirely pro Defence of the Realm. The green light for the Carrier project secured thousands of Scottish jobs and proved a powerful move in fighting of the Nats!
    Nevertheless,credit to him for finally kickstarting this much delayed project.
    It is unlikely that both the QE and PoW will be fully operational at the same time so only one Battle Group will be required thus easing demands on the much depleted escort resource. Having said that though it is clear that the number one priority for the RN going forward is an increase in the numbers. Half a dozen extra hulls should suffice-not a massive ask. The money required could be procured from a cut in the overseas aid budget

  13. Carriers are white elephants. Unless you can afford a nuclear powered supercarrier (like the Americans), the Baby carriers we Europeans operate, equipped with Harrier / F-35B, dont have a chance against a modern navy / air force. The aircraft they can accomodate are so short ranged that they would have to be within less than 100 miles from the coast…even more if the target was further inland. Too close for comfort. How can the QE / T45 or the Spanish BPE / F100 or Italian equivalents, defend against a combined attack from submarines, surface units and long ramge aviation??? No chance. The french CVN equipped with Rafale and their escorts would have a better chance, but even them would be hard pressed. Imagine a Russian force of nuclear attack submarines, cruisers and other surface units and an air element including Su-27/30/35, Mig-29/35, Su34, Su24, Tu22M hunting down an european carrier group (we have no embarked AWACS by the way). I would put my money on the russians, even if they take some losses,…the carriers would be sunk.
    These baby carriers are there to deter weaker nations from doing something silly. Thats all. No european gvt could assimilate and justify 1000 dead sailors in one go.

  14. This page is a total sham. Their facebook page blocks the opinions of any that differ to their own. “Defence Journal” is a title apparently given to anything that has an opinion on defence these days…

  15. They are both great assets to our small fleet but I wouldn’t rule out that we have been told all their secrects. A number of comments above have been very knowledgable but I certainly wouldn’t just be waiting on these 2 great aircraft carriers. I’m more looking forward to the mid 2020s when the rest of our planned fleet are due and when we actually have the aircrafts to fill these carriers. As we speak we can barely man the above with only around 30,000 RN in service. It’s a start in the right direction but a lot more funding in the right places and less cuts will put us back on the world map which is less than 10 years away now dependant on delays which we all know is rife at the moment

  16. Carrier battle groups rarely sail with a sole flag fleet, in that it’s escorts are made up of a variety of NATO ships. We have had a type 45 escorting US carriers several times in the past year, so I would envisage our carrier sailing with NATO escorts when on exercise. But isn’t this irrelevant? Invincible class never sailed on routine with a carrier group, usually an RFA on occasion. I would imagine our carriers would routinely sail with a single type 45 escort, and an RFA linking up here and there for replenishment.

  17. Can they tell us what ships we have to put in a ‘battle group’ that are capable of adequately defending these carriers bearing in mind the capability of the US battle groups that protect their fleet carriers?.
    Not that size matters but theirs are a much bigger target but also have a much more potent escort group. We dont a, have enough ships or b, sufficiently capable ones. Thats not the crews in case anyones thinking of diving in, give a marksman a brand new catapult and a trainee a 30 year old machine gun and see who wins…..

  18. Can we just admit that the QE-class is a very big and very expensive helicopter carrier? And that SDSR 2010 was among the most stupid, most short-sighted and most damaging of government exercises in modern history?

    No catapults. No catapults. No. Still sounds dumb. But at least we’ll be able to play with the US Marine Corp while we watch the US Navy’s battle groups with envy as they throw all manner of fixed-wing aircraft off their decks.

    (Someone PLEASE tell me that the ships are designed so we could, if we so desired, retro-fit with cats at the next refit. Please?)

    • They are designed to be retro fitted with cats, they won’t be steam catapults that have been fitted to previous carriers. You may already be aware that the Americans are having a lot of issues they are trying to work out with the electromagnetic cats they have fitted to their new super carriers, these are the same design we will be using so its probably best wait until all the problems are ironed out.

  19. Great comments aside from the fact,

    A. The Russian Navy struggled to send a trumped up battle Cruiser that could fly Fighter Aircraft with limited capability. In terms of capability the Royal Navy could possibly sortie more ships and Subs than the Russian Navy at any given time!

    B. The Royal Navy has never had Point Defence weaponary apart from Phalanx on its carriers.

    C. Most comments suggest that the F-35B is a pointless aircraft and why didn’t we get the F-18E/F. The F-35B is more capable than the F-18 and the Rafale now. When the 3F software is available it is going to be light years ahead of both these capable airframes.

    Finally the only issue is the number of support vessels needed to protect QEC. Ocean, Illustrious and Ark Royal hasn’t deployed with a RN CSG in the last 10 years, why would it now? Even the Charles De Gaulle depends on NATO participation. The chances of an operation of the Falklands Campaign ever happening again will never happen period. The US Navy are keen for the QEC to happen too because the US Navy cannot sortie 5-6 CVN/CV like they could in the 1990’s. And the sortie rates/fighter sqn concurrency availability is very attractive to them.

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