The origins of the massive and sometimes controversial Queen Elizabeth class carrier programme lie in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.

The review re-evaluated every weapon system (active or in procurement) with the exception of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines.

The report identified that aircraft carriers offered the following:

  • Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
  • All required space and infrastructure; where foreign bases are available they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.
  • A coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.

The report concluded:

“The emphasis is now on increased offensive air power, and an ability to operate the largest possible range of aircraft in the widest possible range of roles. When the current carrier force reaches the end of its planned life, we plan to replace it with two larger vessels.”

In November 2004, while giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West explained that the sortie rate and interoperability with the United States Navy were factors in deciding on the size of the carriers and the composition of the carriers’ air-wings:

“The reason that we have arrived at what we have arrived at is because to do the initial strike package, that deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and we have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters, and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future.”

The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy and will represent a significant increase in capability. 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.

The class will have increased survivability as a result of the separation and distribution of power generation machinery throughout each ship. The class has been designed with twin islands, which separates the running of the ship from the flying operations resulting in greater visibility of flying operations.

Instead of a traditional single island, the has two smaller islands. The forward island is for ship control functions and the aft (FLYCO) island is for flying control.

The reason for two bridges is, simply put, due to the gas turbine exhausts. The design would have either had two small islands or one large, long island. The two smaller islands were chosen. The location and alignment of the islands are based around the 2.4 metre diameter gas turbine exhausts which were pre-fitted in the island and below in the ship superstructure.

Advantages of the two island configuration are primarily increased flight deck area and reduced air turbulence. Flight control in the aft island is positioned perfectly for aircraft approaches and deck landings.

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.

Queen Elizabeth is due to be handed over to the RN in 2017. She’ll begin flying training with F-35B Lightning II jets from 2018.

Before we examine the vessels in depth, let’s just make sure we’re up to speed with the very basics, don’t worry if you forget as there will be a short guide at the end!

The vessels were originally expected to displace about 65,000 tonnes, however as construction continued, the revised estimate of 70,600 tonnes was revealed by the Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

They will be completed in a Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) configuration, deploying the Lockheed Martin F-35B, that simply means they’ll use a ramp to launch aircraft rather than a catapult.  The ships will be 280 metres long and up to sixty at full load or surge conditions. The projected cost of the programme is £6.2 billion.

Facilities for crew will include a cinema, gym areas and four galleys manned by sixty-seven catering staff. There are four large dining areas, the largest with the capacity to serve 960 meals in one hour. There are eleven medical staff for the eight-bed medical facility, which includes an operating theatre and a dental surgery. There are 1,600 bunks in 470 cabins, including accommodation for a company of 250 Royal Marines with wide assault routes up to the flight deck.

The carrier’s radars will be the BAE Systems S1850M  for long range wide area search, and the BAE Systems Artisan 3D maritime medium-range radar and navigation radar. The S1850M has a fully automatic detection and track initiation that can track up to 1,000 air targets at a range of 400 kilometres. Artisan can “track a target the size of a soft ball moving at Mach 2 at very low levels over 35 kilometres away”. The carriers will also be fitted with a Glide Path Camera to assist with aircraft operation.

As is the norm for the Royal Navy, the vessels will be kitted out with an array of miniguns and three Phalanx CIWS sets, they will not feature any sort of missile based self-defence system aside from hosting containerised CAMM when required, according to Hansard and what I was told at Rosyth.

As for propulsion and somewhat understandable given the overwhelming public and news media reaction to the slightest of cost increases, the MoD has decided not to use nuclear propulsion because of its high cost and has chosen a propulsion system based on Rolls-Royce’s integrated electric propulsion system. The propulsion system will consist of two Rolls-Royce Marine 36MW MT30 gas turbine alternators, providing over 70MW and four diesel engines providing approximately 40MW, with the total installed power approaching 110MW.

Now for perhaps the most complex system, the munitions handling system. It is something truly innovative in the Queen Elizabeth class, it accomplished using a highly mechanised weapons handling system (HMWHS). This is a first naval application of a common warehouse system. The HMWHS moves palletised munitions from the magazines and weapon preparation areas, along track ways and via several lifts, forward and aft or port and starboard. The tracks can carry a pallet to magazines, the hangar, weapons preparation areas, and the flight deck. In a change from normal procedures the magazines are unmanned, the movement of pallets is controlled from a central location, and manpower is only required when munitions are being initially stored or prepared for use. This system speeds up delivery and reduces the size of the crew by automation.

Seen here in company with a Type 45 Destroyer, this image really gives a sense of scale to the vessels.

When I toured the vessel in December I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the HMWHS, spaces within the magazine and the level of protection this system has from combat damage. The system was massive in scale, easily the size of a medium supermarket and served by a complex rail system. Needless to say, I managed to trip over it!

Something often overlooked in these types of vessels is there ability to launch small boats, the Queen Elizabeth class have a number of boat bays on the sides of the vessels inside the sponsons, capable of deploying boats by lowering them down into the water, to ferry personnel around, either from ship to ship or between ship and port. The necessity of this is evident when you realise that the scale of these vessels mean that it will not be able to dock at many ports.

The UK is committed to both the F-35 and the Queen Elizabeth Carrier programmes, both of which are on track to enter initial maritime operating capability in December 2020 as planned. Queen Elizabeth will commence sea trials in 2017, and UK F-35 aircraft will be used for first of class flying trials in 2018.

What will the vessels carry?

The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions.

Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:

“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed.

We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine 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 HM2. We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.

The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.

Around the time the first carrier deploys operationally, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.

Uniquely for a vessel of this type, it will be common to see the jump-jet F-35B appear to land conventionally. This is a process called Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). It is a process designed to land jump-jet aircraft that uses both the vertical thrust from the jet engine and lift from the wings, thus maximising the payload an aircraft can return with and stopping the financial waste that comes with dropping expensive weaponry in the sea in order to land vertically.

SRVL landing is under development for use with the F-35B when it enters service in 2018. Rolling landings will enable the F-35B to land on these carriers with an increased weapon and fuel load and will use the aircraft’s computer controlled disc brakes. However, a number of defence analysts have suggested that operational SRVL landings may only be possible within a limited range of sea states and weather 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 are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.

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George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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sean savage
sean savage (@guest_75)
10 years ago

These future carriers and the arrival of the Lightning II will firmly make Great Britain a superpower once again, and I cannot wait to see them finally come to fruition. Not since the Olympic games in 2012 have I looked forward to a major construction project achieve its aims. The Royal Navy being the best!

Robert selby
Robert selby (@guest_76)
10 years ago

Magnificent warships leading the line cannot wait until they are in service , will make Great Britain a really top major power around the globe once again. Nice to have proper carriers again no disrespect to the invincible class like we had back in the 50s and 60s .

dean marquis
dean marquis (@guest_77)
10 years ago

Does the uk want to be a superpower. Is it congruent with it’s overseas responsibilities.

Jiesheng (@guest_78)
10 years ago

Only 3 CIWS?!!! That’s weak….

Ron (@guest_369539)
7 years ago
Reply to  Jiesheng

3 Phalanx CIWS can be upgraded easily to 3 SeaRam CIWS, if not other more complicated missile alternatives… A few more sponsors for such weapons systems can be installed at a later time. Furthermore the carriers will be fixed with 4 30-mm Bushmaster guns as well…

Degradable (@guest_79)
10 years ago

An already debatably underpowered vessel at 65,000 tonnes. Now we are looking at a vessel that is 70,000. I do hope it has the ability to move at > 25 knots. One of the design goals was interoperability…. USN and French Navy other carrier exponents in our team are still incapable of operation with it. USMC and other potential F35B operators may be. But this does indicate a failure in initial design. I worry when I see guides and text quoting size, weights and softballs at 3 miles. This is not what a warship does. A warship takes part in… Read more »

Chris (@guest_266145)
9 years ago
Reply to  Degradable

Born out of austerity, these are the best we are going to get. Happy for you to take your ‘imaginery’ defence budget and assemble your ‘imaginery’ ideal carriers. These are reality, lets work with them.

K (@guest_368676)
7 years ago
Reply to  Degradable

Thank you for your pessimistic reply, lots of important points to consider

p.howell (@guest_80)
9 years ago

It takes far more than two aircraft carriers to make a superpower. I think you will find that industry and economics play a part! The UK will never be a superpower again.

Tony Green
Tony Green (@guest_81)
9 years ago

I agree the UK will not be a super-power but at least the RN is getting major hardware in its inventory after decades of cuts. We need a strong navy because of our island status and because of 90% of everything we consume arrives here by sea. I do wonder whether enough quality escorts will be built to accompany them at sea. And the desk jockeys in Whitehall and the poltroons in Downing Street will kill off the second carrier. But worry ye not; as long as the overseas aid budget is OK all will be well with the world.

Sergetov (@guest_34253)
9 years ago

“Superpower” talk is nonsense. There is only one Superpower and as much as the Chinese like to think they are the next one, they are decades behind the US. For us, this is about protecting our national interests at a time when the global situation seems to be getting worse. Good stuff.

Mark Guy
Mark Guy (@guest_172218)
9 years ago

I have two concerns. The main one is the current gap in fixed wing capabilities. The second is the lack of the QE’s catapult, because this limits the types of aircraft deployable. If god forbid we ever have a major conflict, availability of suitable replacement aircraft is an issue. Retro fitting land based aircraft is a fairly quick way of replacing downbirds. Fitting a catapult is a big job, but once fitted we are not limited to a single manufacturers aircraft. (Former FAA seaking maintainer)

Alisdair (@guest_242612)
9 years ago

I have to agree with Mark Guy. For me my main concern is the current lack of fixed wing capability. Hopefully, the first carrier will be fully operational on time. Otherwise, we will have a decade without any naval air fighter capability. That makes you wonder that, if we have lived without any naval fighter capability for a decade, why we need to spend so much money in two major carriers now? Believe me, I am a strong advocate of the carrier. But I think it was much more important not to leave the UK without any fixed wing capability… Read more »


[…] Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier: A Guide, UK Defence Journal. Retrieved 19 February […]

AKM (@guest_276073)
9 years ago

These carriers are a case of glass half full/glass half empty. If we focus on the empty half we see a large, somewhat slow, carrier that lacks the cat & trap capability needed to allow it to reach its’ full potential. It also takes significant risks such as the lack of a serious self defense capability, that other carrier navies regard as necessary, as well as relying on an automated ammunition handling system the failure of which could cripple air operations. On the other hand, the half-full part of the glass looks pretty damn good. These carriers have a crew… Read more »

Arthur (@guest_278273)
9 years ago

If we could plan this all again, I’d rather go with something a tad smaller, say CdG or even Cavour-sized, and have at least three of them. That way, we can guarantee that at least one can be at full readiness all the time. The real optimal design is probably something like the Juan Carlos/Canberra. Let’s be honest, for most of its lifetime the QE-class will probably be used as LPHs rather than strike carriers. Three Juan Carloses probably won’t cost more than two QEs, both in terms of procurement and running costs. Their well decks are an extra bonus… Read more »

Chris (@guest_318450)
8 years ago
Reply to  George Allison

So you have a Juan Carlos….what happens when that moment comes when we don’t need an LPH and we do need a large strike carrier? Lets not forget that cavour/JC/mistral/canberra could support maybe 8 JSF at most (if any at all) these may not be nimitz or ford class but they are a huge leap on whatever anyone else in the world has. (@guest_323588)
8 years ago

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Bill Gibbons
Bill Gibbons (@guest_325784)
8 years ago

It seems wrong not to have the carrier with A close in missile system of its own . a huge asset should be insured by its own missile system , and it should have the capability to launch cruse missiles too. I know it will have the air defence destroyers with it but sods law says one will get through. Nothing in this world is 100%. We have built the asset , so we should guarantee as much protection as possible . The ships should also be interconnected to give a full atack umbrella , so one ship can engage… Read more »

Ian (@guest_367806)
7 years ago
Reply to  Bill Gibbons

Completely with you on this – I think it’s their Achilles heel. The Russians have a brilliant CIWS Kashtan that would be perfect for carriers and other ships.

M Wilkinson
M Wilkinson (@guest_344312)
8 years ago

One of the constant criticisms of the QE carriers has always been their lack of a nuclear power system. However, in recent times the old idea that the large US carriers were virtually invulnerable to conventional attack due to their advanced technology and the scale of their defence systems may now have changed due to the technological advances in the quietness of non-nuclear submarines particularly those with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) engines. Does this mean that non-nuclear powered carriers could now become the preferred choice for future carriers in order to protect them from the effects of possible/probable battle damage,… Read more »

You Saitit
You Saitit (@guest_359604)
7 years ago
Reply to  M Wilkinson

You are completely wrong about this.

Jonny (@guest_379884)
6 years ago
Reply to  M Wilkinson

you are completely wrong about this

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7 years ago

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Mr J B
Mr J B (@guest_367249)
7 years ago

Containerised CAMM I would think is essential for the QE class from the moment she leaves dock for sea trials- the simple fact is that the RN has inadequate numbers of escort warships to protect her- thanks be to David Cameron and the disastrous SDSR 2015 and 2010. The more self defence weapons we fit on the QE class the better. a vessel costing £3 billion for each QE needs a significant amount of protection and expenditure to guard her. The MOD needs to wake up to the perilous state they have put the RN into- too few ships, all… Read more »

Bill Gibbons
Bill Gibbons (@guest_368695)
7 years ago

Completely with you on this one .Mr J B Why is it that politicians can get a ten grand rise without a problem but a 3 billion pounds plus capital ship cannot have a full missile self defence system to.protect not only the ship but the 100 million pounds plus planes using it . David Cameron has been a disaster for the armed forces . Armoured bulkheads needed too . How a out some side protection with chobham or Dorchester armour , for Christ’s sake let’s use what we have got to best advantage . Defending capital ships with mini… Read more »

Robert Harbord
Robert Harbord (@guest_371172)
7 years ago

Gentlemen, all very valid points. May I simply add a small, but important note. A requirement for a seachange in philosophy. We must think big. Really big. We used to. If we build a minimum of 3 decent ships each and every year, by the end of 25 years we will have a half decent sized navy of 75 ships. This level of shipbuilding should, in peacetime, be sufficient for all our requirements. However, we are already in a parlous state of provision. We urgently need an accelerated shipbuilding programme. We have no real escorts to speak of for our… Read more »

Bob P
Bob P (@guest_381689)
6 years ago

The LitM Wildcats of 847 NAS, Commando Helicopter Force are AH1 not HMA2 as stated in:

“‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2.”

UKDJ consistently gets this wrong. Wildcat HMA2 would not take part in a LitM scenario. The package will be predominantly Merlin HC4, backed up by a couple of Chinooks for heavy lift, with Apaches and Wildcat as required.

Trevor Drury MBA
Trevor Drury MBA (@guest_389512)
6 years ago

Given the fact that N Korea China Pakistan now have a nuclear capability as well as Russia and India we need to re calibrate our nuclear capabilty.
Building 4 new nuclear subs will no longer address our nuclear requirements.
The solution is to add to our astute boats and enable all boats to carry nuclear weapons when the need arises. This will avoid Keeping 4 expensive boats in aspic and give us a flexible response.
We could then adapt the POW to operate the euro fighter typhoon which is more capable than the F35

6 years ago

[…] Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier: A Guide – I agree the UK will not be a super-power but at least the RN is getting major hardware in its inventory after decades of cuts. We need a strong navy because of our. […]

Bob (@guest_435997)
5 years ago

Large carriers require a lot of protection, not only on board based systems, but escorts. To my knowledge the two carriers will have no worthwhile on board defensive weapon systems and insufficient of the second to support two carrier groups while also being able to deploy destroyers and frigates independently. One has to question the logic of procurement decisions. The two main threats are large scale air attack and submarines in time of war as has been the case since WW11. There is a partial remedy to protecting these vessels which would go some way to improving navy flexibility whilst… Read more »