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The Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers, the ships we deserve or the ships that we need?

IMAGE: The proposed CATOBAR variant of the vessel.

While they demonstrate huge capability leaps for the Royal Navy are they all that they could have been?

A common saying in the Navy is “One is none, two is one” so have we reduced ourselves to the capabilities of a single carrier?

Potentially but then this is not a choice of want but a choice of necessity as simply put the Navy nor the MoD would have money for a third carrier; let alone the planes needed for it. One of the most contentious point about the two we do have is that the STOVL design was selected for her, meaning that aircraft will need to use a ski-jump to provide the extra lift for takeoff.

Straight away this can limit the variety of aircraft that you can operate, as they need to be ones optimised for these short take offs. And if often means the decision will need to be made if aircraft will be taking off with extra fuel for their mission or a heavier weapons load for the strike. Yet as a carrier optimised for higher sortie rates the former can be selected as more aircraft could be launched and then be rearmed and launched again in quick succession.

Though with the F-35 being a jet that already has a small internal bomb bay, though this grants the plane a stealth advantage, the ordnance load will always need to be a priority. Furthermore, as we saw with the Harrier, expensive ordnance had to be dropped in the ocean for the plane to land on a shorter deck but this will not be the case with the F-35B.

Was the decision to not install steam catapults one that will haunt us for the next 50 years?

That is hard to say but she is a carrier specifically designed on the basis of higher sortie rates rather than high aircraft numbers. It is also important to note that helicopter operations will be core to these carriers for ASW and troop movements, so portions of air operations would be unaffected by steam catapults.

So they could have been an expensive addition for not much extra benefit and the drawback that they cause damage to aircraft air-frames over time. But they need power and power isn’t something the Queen Elizabeth class lack but are they truly future proofed as they do not use nuclear reactors like their big brothers in the US Navy.

This means that she needs to be refuelled, she has a range of 10,000 nautical miles rather than the limitless range of a nuclear powered carrier, however nuclear carriers still need to take of food and aviation fuel frequently.

After all, she is meant to serve as the flagship for 50 years and in that time money could be wagered that development in laser weapons will be made, laser weapons that will more than likely need a lot of power.

Though is nuclear always the answer as it removes the need to refuel the ship but the men and women on-board will still need their food, as the aircraft will need fuel and weapons.

But then this could be done in the safety of a port but some nations would not allow a nuclear powered vessel to dock within their borders so that would reduce the available docks to the Queen Elizabeth class.

That would be before cost would be looked at, not just the life cost of it but the decommissioning costs as we currently have 7 nuclear submarines sitting in Rosyth and Devonport awaiting dismantling.

So it is obvious that the QEC could have been more similar to that of a Nimitz class and possibly could have benefited from that but in the budget that the MoD has and the way the QEC would be operated this could be money saved for no real loss in capability.

22 COMMENTS

  1. I have always contended that the decision to build a stovl carrier was pushed by the RAF. The light blue don’t like the fact that they got left out of many C20th conflicts simply because they couldn’t get their aircraft to the war zone, whatever their maps said. As they were not prepared to spend the time and effort practicing deck landings, the only way they could get an invite to the ball was with stovl, so that became their proviso for supporting the carrier purchase.

  2. Personally these ships should have been equipped from the start with CATOBAR simply as it gives much more flexibility to them… AEW is easy E-2 Hawkeye and then you get the Super Hornets which give you Fighter Strike Jammer and vital at sea Air to Air Refuelling or Rafale but you end up with no Jammers and not sure if the can AAR yet and you could also buy 24 F-35C’s for when you need the stealth option and you still have the Super Hornets on deck to work with to provide support jamming refuelling… so a proposed flight deck would be 4 E-2 Hawkeyes 24 FA-18E/F/G 12 F-35C 8 Helo’s and still with a bit of room left if you need to but more fixed wing onboard, as the RN has a good plan there but ASW Helo’s onto the RFA’s operating with the ship, if they need more Helo’s say Chinooks and Apaches then they can pull the F-35’s or a squadron of Hornets and they would probably cost less than the 24 F-35B’s 4 Crowsnest and 8 EH101 Merlins and would be a damn sight more effective than as is stated.

    I think some of the issue was that the ships where supposed to be capable of being swapped to CATOBAR and then BAe stated oh to swap them now will cost a huge amout of money… and personally the RAF should not have had any say in the Carriers at all as the RAF has on occasion screwed the Fleet Air Arm over on more than one occasion… and I am ex-RAF…

  3. How supportable are the ships?
    They can’t be put in dry-dock in Pompey or Devonport.
    Are we dependent on Rosyth or spending commercial rates at a non-navy yard.
    Whatever their capabilities, they are impractical

  4. We don’t need aircraft carriers of this size and complexity. We haven’t needed carriers since 1982 and the Falklands War was a one off.
    These carriers will be far too vulnerable for a modern conflict

    • http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/carrier-count-down-part-1-debunking-the-hype-mis-information-nonsense/

      Also carriers have been used elsewhere not just the Falklands. The US Navy used 6 carriers in the Gulf War. Britain used a carrier to support the Invasion of Afghanistan. The Air Campaign in Kosovo used all 3 Invincible Class Carriers at one point or another. The US used Carriers in Iraq and is currently using them in the fight against ISIS. If we decide to go to war with North Korea aircraft carriers would be a highly potent weapon (Especially if South Korea doesn’t help us). The Suez Crisis also used carriers. The War in Libya would’ve used carriers if they had been avalible and Charles De Gaulle played a critical part. Carrier Strike has been a key part of UK Military Operations for much more than just the Falklands and shouldn’t be underestimated.

      The Invincible Class were simply too small. Sandy Woodward himself (Falklands Taskforce Commander) said that Hermes being Twice the size of Invincible was critical to the mission success. The Invincible Class (As Much as I love them) are not suited for most tasks apart from ASW. They were forced into a role they wern’t designed for.

      Building Invincible Class Carriers would’ve put us so far behind our peers. They use carriers of this size and complexity (France’s carrier is even more complex and India is planning a carrier of greater complexity than the French. Both have weaker economies). It also would’ve damaged our global standing and reduced our influence significantly. We would be a much weaker partner for the US. The US is anticipating these carriers. They want UK Carrier Support in the Middle East allowing them to deploy more carriers to the Far East. They already asked the French to use thier carrier but CDG has to go into a long maintence cycle (Because it’s even more complex than QE). But they dont want a tiny carrier they want a proper carrier supporting them

  5. I think it is correct to say the last time the RAF were involved in any aerial combat they had a Canberra shot down over Syria during the Suez crisis.
    The RAF have however through sheer weight of numbers at the MoD managed to cripple our only truly deployable force. Sabotaged and destroyed the cva-01 project in the 60’s tried to undo the Sea Harrier, finally succeeding under Torphy and done their best to get both of these carriers cancelled (I imagine Cameron- if I could scrap them I would- and co took geography and defence lessons from the same group of people).
    Bottom line is the UK could easily afford two fully equiped CBGs.
    Maybe now the non flying RAF officer corps has been sliced the politicans will be able to get more balanced advice.
    My guess is proof of the pudding: if an Osprey purchase takes place and ends up in the hands of the RAF!

    • I believe these vessels are actually well spec’d and what we need. Yes it would have been grate to have catapults, but this was a push.

      Without government meddling (another Gordon Brown farce) these carriers would have been 30% cheaper than they will end up being – this in itself would have paid for 24 F35b’s or the catapults.

      As for inter force rivalries – I believe our armed forces are of a size now that we should go to a single force structure like the USMC, this will get rid of this childish behaviour.

      We have got a good piece of kit here – although one I personally would not have as I would prefer more subs and combat aircraft instead, but now we have it. Let’s kit it out with 36 F35b’s and 8 V22’s per carrier.

      • @ Pacman27

        I agree with your sentiment only one thing really bothers me and that is we are soon-to-be the only carrier operating nation in the world without any form of self-defence missile on-board. Surely having spent 6Bn we couldn’t find enough money to add at least some sort of containerised missile (eg sea captor)??? If every other carrier operating nation deems it necessary to add this to their carriers, what makes us think we are any different??

        Could this be rectified in the future? Yes if the money was made available but it will never happen the way HMG operates – eg 10yrs in service and still no Mk41 VLS for Type 45s….. it’s truly depressing how we do defence….

        • It’s a shame really as FFBNW is a great idea in principle. It gets the ship in the water quicker and allows the missing capabilities to be added at refit when schedules and money allow. Unfortunately in practice the idea falls apart as government types have the mindset of “you have managed without that capability so far so why do you need it now” and there is no will to follow through leaving ships lacking vital kit. MK41 vls on type 45 is the prime example.

    • Ali – I found your post highly entertaining but a little short on fact. It was the Labour Government in the ’60s who killed the CVA-01 carrier along with the P1154, TSR-2 and the STOVL air freighter. I doubt the RAF for all your belief in their evil intentions had the clout of the Treasury and the USA as Labour negotiated for stupendous amounts of loans. I also doubt they tried to persuade the MoD to cancel its supersonic ‘Harrier’ and new transport aircraft.

      And no doubt the evil ‘Crabs’ were also to blame for the cancellation of the Type 82 destroyer?

      I would also ask you to justify your belief we could have afforded CATOBAR using EMALS and AAG right after the biggest financial crash since WWII. You name drop Cameron as some sort of criticism while quietly forgetting it was Cameron who, in 2010 SDSR, spent a lot of money re-evaluating the STOVL / CATOBAR arguments. And better people than you or me decided that a) EMALS was non-deliverable, b) unproven and c) of no known price. And by the way you do not need nuclear power for EMALS. Given the Ford Class has only just gone out on sea trials and is officially classed as unfit for combat and unable to launch or retrieve aircraft due to concerns over the AAG system (and unproven EMALS) I have to wonder how anyone can think we could do it when a nation the size of the USA who build nuclear carriers every year can’t. Let alone afford the $16 Bn the Ford cost (our two cost about $10 Bn)

  6. Well, that’s interesting. Firstly about numbers the US has 10/11 carriers with a population of 320 million. so with 65 million, the UK’s pro rata would be 2 – exactly what we’re getting.

    Power. The USA has economy of scale at 10 carriers run on nukes, it would probably cost the UK with 2, twice as much per carrier, build and mainenance, all the skills. Clearly they would not be the same as the 4 vanguards / dreadnoughts / astutes, designed to be compact. So it would be a new type of reactor to be developed.

    Budget. There’s always a budget, and always some compromise.

    C&T v STOVL. The USA msotly operates in the huge open wide Pacific, and has relatively little interest in land based operations as such. Recent ME operations have been annoying for it. The UK on the other hand operates mostly in the likes of the Med and Gulf, supporting operations in the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan, where land-based operations are likely. For me this raises the question of carrier based aircraft landing in those countries, and even performing ops from there. So a conventional A/C would need a long runway, but this is not always viable, whereas a shorter runway is easier to put together for the engineers. For this, STOVL seems to me to be eminently sensible for our type of operations, hence I am not disappointed in the slightest we haven’t gone for the more glamorous Top Gun cats and traps.

    So the problem is that the initial concept was wrong where it called for C&T, and a better assessment of the UK’s operational areas and needs should have been carried out then, if not now as well.

    However, there is the Arctic coming along in a few years …

    • Spot on Dads Army…

      As long as we have volume for the carriers and have a complimentary fleet of Typhoons or Gripen or similar to get us up to volume

      I am now thinking we go with a 3 class operational force of F35s (64+8) Typhoons (64+8) and Gripens (128+16). The justification for this is cost. I may be wrong but an F35b is circa £100m, Typhoon £80m and Gripen £40m. The Gripen is made from predominantly British parts so would be good for UK industry and it is a class act – especially when paired 2 to 1 with a F35. It is single engined so we could standardise the engine with that of the F35 if need be.

      Over time I guess the Typhoon will retire and we will move to a 6th Gen aircraft. I am also happy with a flee of 64 F35’s and 128 typhoons as well, but either way we need volume

      • ”It is single engined so we could standardise the engine with that of the F35 if need be” Could you please explain how you would go about fitting the F-35 engine into the Gripen please.

  7. No. F-35B is the best aircraft available and we need as many as possible. The main reason we opted for STOVL is it allows us to surge aircraft without needing to keep all RAF pilots cat & trap qualified. If we had went EMALS we would end up with 30-40 carrier capable aircraft and the rest would be as much use as the RAF is normally (not much). An all F-35B fleet enables us to put 36 on each carrier in a national emergency, just like the Falklands. Many RAF pilots had never landed on a carrier prior to this. This would not be possible if the CVF had been cats & traps.

    • I agree. One critical factor will be how much of the sustainment fleet can be surged onto the carrier(s) in an emergency.

      Quite a few people have been pretty surprised about how many aircraft are planned in order to deliver 4 front line plus 1 OCU squadron, i.e. how big the sustainment fleet is going to be. As I understand it though the sustainment fleet is there partly to allow aircraft to drop out of service for non-minor maintenance or due to accidents but also so that aircraft can be rotated in and out of front line service to manage flight hours across the airframes. That last category should mean that there are extra serviceable aircraft in the sustainment fleet at any given time that could be surged. The huge issue there is probably going to be sufficient numbers of qualified pilots though, even taking into account the fact that going F-35B makes all RAF F-35 certified pilots available for carrier operations in a crisis and not restricted to CATOBAR-certified pilots.

  8. Don’t take offence, but anyone reading ukdefencejournal.org has a keen interest in defence matters. The article is overly simplistic. There is a tendency for us always to want a little bit more than we have regardless of how much that is. If you’d asked me twenty years ago whether the U.K. could or would build two 70,000 ton carriers for supersonic stealth fighters, I would have assumed you’d been drinking the loopy juice. These carriers represent a huge capability increase and I, for one, think the RN will be a whole lot more relevant for having them. So what if they don’t have nuclear power or steam catapults? They will evolve into very flexible, capable platforms.

  9. No one has mentioned that there has been talk of a mixed fleet. Is this not going to mean that there are a few Sqn of F35A (F35A aircraft are cheaper too) and a four Sqn of F35B.

    138 aircraft for 4 Sqn + an OCU seens wrong when you think 160 Typhoons for 7Sqn + an OCU.

    Is the 4 Sqn not a starting point?

  10. Is it feasible for an aircraft carrier to operate both Catobar and a skijump in order that a mixed air wing (F35Bs and F35Cs) could be operated?

    Thanks

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