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. 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. Why are they so big? Wouldn’t several smaller carriers be more cost effective?

“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. That is the thing that has made us arrive at that size of deck and that size of ship, to enable that to happen.

I have talked with the Chief of Naval Operations in America. He is very keen for us to get these because he sees us slotting in with his carrier groups. For example, in Afghanistan last year they had to call on the French to bail them out with their carrier. He really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have same sort of clout as one of their carriers, which is this figure at 36. He would find that very useful, and really we would mix and match with that.”
— Admiral Sir Alan West, evidence to the Select Committee on Defence, 24 November 2004

What does a large carrier offer that a smaller one doesn’t? Operational experience shows that larger carriers have significant advantages. For example, the Invincible class typically hosted around 12 Sea Harriers and with that their decks were fairly crowded. Tabloids often like to quote 12 as the maximum number of F-35B’s the new Queen Elizabeth class will be able to carry, however this is nonsense.

The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). ‘Tailored Air Group’ (TAG) has been used in the past for tailored rotary air groups and we understand the term has fallen out of use.

The carriers, in peacetime, will usually deploy with around 24 F-35B’s as a minimum and a number of various helicopters.

The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions.

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.

The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from the embarked Mk2 Merlins.

We understand that the composition of the CVW is a balance between ship capacity and squadron availability. Squadrons assigned or ‘programmed’ to sail on deployment will mostly in the case of the aircraft carrier be unique to it, for example the airborne early warning helicopters that have no other purpose but to serve the carrier force.

In addition, we have also been told that we will shortly see decisions like this for the F-35B and maybe a utility helicopter (or tilt-rotor in future) type.
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The two Queen Elizabeth class carriers can accommodate around twice as many aircraft as the three Invincible class.

This metric isn’t the primary advantage of a larger ship class as each F-35B is considerably larger than a Harrier and has much better performance. There’s very little reason not to build larger carriers, it was once estimated that steel accounted for only about 20 percent of the cost of the ship.

The smaller the carrier, the fewer aircraft it can support and the greater waste of resources it becomes when compared to larger carriers. The smaller the carrier, the more the vessels size restricts the performance of the aircraft onboard. The three Invincible class carriers, which the Queen Elizabeth class will replace, operated small and relatively low performance Sea Harriers. The larger F-35 that will operate from the new carriers is more effective than the Sea Harrier. It carries much more and it flies much faster and much farther. It’s also a more complicated aircraft, requiring more equipment and personnel. A carrier accommodating as many F-35Bs as the Invincible accommodated Sea Harriers would be far larger by necessity in order to effectively operate the modern, larger aircraft.

The ships former commanding officer, Captain Simon Petitt, rightfully pointed out that there is a lot of symbolism in modern warfare and that having a ship the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be the navy’s biggest ever, was significant. The sight of a heavily equipped 70,000 tonne carrier, which is almost 300 metres long, heading towards a potential enemy had a deterrent effect that is essential if the UK wants to project influence across the world Petitt claims.

“It is massively visible, you can range back in history and see the value of this. Everything from Nelson deterring Admiral Villeneuve from leaving Cadiz all the way to the big battleships of early 20th century, to what we are doing now.

The Americans use it all the time. We currently haven’t got this level of carrier capability. The bigger the capability the more influence you have to bear.”

So great is the impact of larger vessels as a deterrent, they’re often used as a geopolitical chess piece. American governments have, since the second world war, moved aircraft carriers around to demonstrate American resolve.

The particular benefits of using carriers in this way are that they operate on the high seas, where permission is not needed from other countries. Indeed, since modern US carriers are large and imposing they “show the flag” to great effect due to their sheer size alone. Equally, it is often argued that had the Royal Navy had two full sized carriers in 1982 it is more than possible that Argentina would not have attempted to take the Falklands in the first place.

Larger carriers don’t have to be packed to bursting point with aircraft to achieve their greatest effectiveness, even with fewer aircraft on board, a ship with a large flight deck can rearm and refuel aircraft much more quickly, this is typically why they allow for much higher sortie generation rates than smaller vessels.

The more crowded the flight deck, the slower the turn-around of each aircraft, the lower the sortie generation rate.

Size also offers greater storage capacity, larger vessels do not have to be resupplied as often, impacting both the effectiveness of the carrier and her vulnerability. Because a carrier is more vulnerable when being replenished, the vessel typically withdraws from station for that function. Much of the time lost is the time spent heading away from station and returning. The smaller the carrier, the more time lost and a bigger logistics chain required in support.

A larger ship is likely to survive damage that will sink or disable a smaller one. The smaller the proportion of a ship that gets damaged, the better the chance that the ship can survive the damage and keep on fighting. It takes sheer size to provide enough protection against all the weapons likely to be used against a carrier, from bombs to cruise missiles to torpedoes. This lesson comes from the second world war, where lessons learned from operations with the large converted battlecruisers in comparison with the smaller purpose-built aircraft carriers had taught both the Royal and US Navies that large carriers were more survivable than smaller ones due primarily to the large number of watertight compartments.

If a complement of aircraft that would typically be found on one large carrier is split among several smaller carriers, then each vessel needs its own escorts unless they operate together. This would require more resources to operate effectively. It might be argued that splitting up a carrier force would make it more difficult for an enemy to deal with all of it at once but the price paid in escorting ships would be high, making it unfeasible for most navies. Indeed, the most significant effect this would have would be requiring more smaller carriers to do the job of one large vessel, further increasing costs. Each of the smaller carriers in the group is less survivable, more wasteful and less effective than a single larger ship.

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.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Regarding survivability I thought that to cut costs some of the protection for vital machinery and cabling had been removed – ignoring the lessons of the Falklands War ?

    • Hi HF

      This is also my understanding – that this carrier has minimal armour plating and very little (if any CIW’s.

      It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

      • ‘It’s a tragedy waiting to happen’

        The people who make these decisions, and ignore the lessons of previous wars, don’t reap the consequences.

  2. My feeling is the whole strike rate is a made up arguement after the event to justify the decision.

    My guess is the thinking was down the route of

    1. we need a carrier bigger than France

    2. we will never get 2, so make it big to allow it to operate alone, something the old falkland era carriers could not. If they had gone for a small design and it had been cut to 1, they would have been stuffed

    3. knowledge that the capability would be cut before it hit service, so better to have a big platform that could one day be upgraded back to full capability than a smaller platform that could never be upgraded.

    4. They were almost certainly designing around cat/trap idea, which probably got cut in the design phase due to cost.

  3. I’m a Scottish Independence supporter and there’s a lot of negatives in the Indy camp about “carriers without planes” and far worse. I just thought it was Indy supporters being, well, Indy supporters, but find that it’s common in the rUK as well, particualrly the tabloid media.

    I think they’re totally fit for purpose, and magnificent warships. And as I said before, better to get two such carriers on the budget, and wait a little for a full complement of aircraft, than build smaller cheaper and less effective carriers which would soon be obsolete or overcrowded.

    But – the UK does need the two in operation, and one exercise I’d like to see done when ready is cross-deck operations, for the event that one deck might be out of operation temporarily. That might highlight the need for more support vessels for transfer purposes.

  4. It’s a bit biased to tell a story but my fear is it’s not far wrong in respect of carriers in a modern war against anyone with real defensive assets.

    http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/americas-aircraft-carriers-might-be-obsolete-the-f-35-will-20890

    Ok the carriers defences are unlikely to ever be tested, as anti insurgency warfare is likely to be the limit of their role and in the worst case they would be part of a much bigger multi-nation task group.

  5. I feel number 11 Downing Street, the designers of this class of carrier and the Royal Navy come to that, have not bothered to look at the threat these vessels face due to the lack of missiles carried for self defense on the Queen Elizabeth Class ZERO she has to rely on under equipped type 45s with 48 Missiles. The new type 26 with the Sea Scepter
    (a system that can only engage target under Mach 2.3) with similar numbers and the as yet type 31, cheep Frigate. Has anyone noticed what the Russians are loading onto their submarines Cruisers and Destroyers, the new class of hypersonic missiles in large numbers? Just a thought.

  6. The carriers are beautifull ships and a tribute to British engineering, design and manufacturing.
    Their large size was determined by their strike and sortie rate and the wish to have the ability to carry close to 50 aircraft.
    The QE class does have a great deal of survivability built into the design including adequate bulkheads, compartmentalisation and redundancy including good separation of power plants, engineering and air intakes for gas turbines.
    The QE has primary and secondary control centres and primary and secondary engines.
    In summary only a massive and sustained attack would knock the ship out or sink her. A single missile or torpedo strike is unlikely to be adequate.
    However I am very, very worried about the lack of defensive weaponry other than phalanx, like many other writers on this page. Adding some simple ready to go off the shelf weaponary would not cost that much in terms of the overall coat of the programme and the QE class hull easily has the broad margin to fit extra weaponary.
    I would add the Italian anti torpedo and mine defensive rocket system (as fitted to FREMM frigates) sea ceptor SAM (possibly containerised) and a small number of Norwegian anti ship missiles.
    This is especially important considering the governments utter failure to build enough escorts to provide a powerful carrier battle group and adequately protect these £3 billion flagships. Unless something changes soon and we get more than the 8 type 26s and now 6 type 31s the RN is heading for trouble if they go up against a reasonably equipped opponent.

    • Is the anti torpedo system fitted to the Italian carrier? Or just FREMM? SAM and ASM will be present on the carriers escorts. Why does the carrier need them as well?

    • Like who? If we have 2 carriers 6 destroyers and 14 frigates not to mention dozens of F-35B and a large RFA and 7-8 SSNs then who is the reasonably equiped nation or opponent who would put us in real trouble? In terms of power projection we will be second to the US but no one else. The Chinese are a long way off yet and Russia will never get there. Only the French and other NATO allies even come close. We never have enough I agree but this glass half empty crap has to stop.

      • Look at Iraq war and the US ship failed to shot down the missile and it had to fall to the British one in backup to cover them, or look at the Falklands and how much dmg some Exocet did. You need multiple rings of protection, because relying on only one just doesn’t work 100% of the time.

        The question is also not how many hulls we have, its how many of them can realistically be relied on to be available when/if needed, considering refits/damage/other duties etc.

        I think the planning i read was that you plan for 50% of the vessels to be available at anyone time. Which would mean we have 3 destroyers and 7 frigates (10 in total) to put out a big enough anti-air / anti-sub coverage for a task group.

        Consider that in the Falklands we had a task group escort of 23 ships and we were unable to put out big enough anti-sub net (this was confirmed by the task force commander i believe) to stop a very old sub getting through, and air defence was really pushed to cover both the carriers and the landing force (ok sampson would help here).

        I am not sure that our numbers are so high that we could really say “like who”.

  7. The carriers have many survival features. Large amounts of plate armour has not been used in warship construction for decades. It has Phallax CIWS (2-3). It requires nothing else. Remember CVF will have at least a destroyer and a frigate with her on all deployments. If an attack can get past the Aster 30 & 15 on the desroyer and the CAMM on the frigate and the F-35Bs on CAP not to mention the multiple chaff and ecm decoys then what is it you expect the carrier to have to stop said attack? More CAMM? Not a great idea to have missiles flying around your deck when you have lots of expensive aircraft there. The carrier group will have a layered defence, it just wont all be carried on the 1 hull.

    • For me the layered defence is the key point. Either this is provided by hull numbers, which we don’t have or one of the layers needs to be the carrier itself. Something like the us missle based ciws would seem to be a reasonable compromise as a last ditched layer.

  8. I can see where you are coming from but the lack of escorts whilst damaging is not as bad as is made out. Availability wise RN ships are deployed far mor often than most other nations. The RN believes that 6 destroyers allows 4 deployed and 8 frigates allows 6 deployed at any one time. Issues with type 45s propulsion aside. Personally I would go with 9 type 26 to be safe. The carrier will always have at least 1 or 2 escorts. If money where no object then yes throw on extra bells and whistles but there are definitely other priorities like MK41 vls on type 45s and securing an ASM to replace Harpoon or more Merlin or reactivating the 2nd LPD. Like you say a layered and robust defence is needed consisting CAP, SAMs, CIWS, ECM, Decoys. The only 1 of these 5 layers not on CVF from build is the SAM layer which will be on all our escort types. So the carriers are almost armed to the maximum. Only SAMs could b added and since there will always be an escort with them surley it’s either not a problem or a low priority problem.

  9. David you are not understanding the concept of layered defence really, sorry.
    i will just ask this question do US carriers pack SAMs and CIWS onto their CVNs?
    Yes they do, they have phalanx, RAM and 2x 8 cell sea sparrow. A final self defence layer to the carrier. Remember the US Navy has far more escort vessels of a very high calibre than our carriers will deploy with. A typical carrier battle group has 2x vincennes class Aegis cruisers and 3-4 arleigh burke class destroyers and 1-2 SSNs with more escorts and SSNs readily available if needed and yet the US navy realises self defence weaponry for a large carrier is necessary.
    Talk of the Falklands war is an error as a single type 45 destroyer can cover the air defence capabilities of 5-6 of the rather ineffective type 42s with their twin sea dart launchers and a type 23 or type 26/31 with sea ceptor is vastly superior to a sea wolf armed frigate of the Falklands era.
    However the proliferation of antiship missiles by Chinese and Russian forces and ever increasing sophistication of their SSNs and SSKs means any carrier battle group entering range will be attacked by 50+ missiles some of which may be hypersonic. Hence why self defensive weapons on such a large ship is mandatory and is in fact an urgent operational requirement.
    in answer to other question about Italian anti torpedo and anti mine rocket system i think just the Italian FREMM frigates have this system. Not fitted on Cavour as far as i can tell as it is a relatively new defensive weapon but is reported to be highly capable. 4 of these defensive rocket launchers in each corner of the QE carrier should defend against any rogue sub that has slipped through the ASW screen. Cost would be £20 million per carrier ( not huge)

    • Hmm. I understand the concept of layered defence perfectly well. It appears you do not understand the concept of escort ships which form part of the layered defence. I did not mention the Falklands. You said that we would come a croper against a reasonably equiped opponent which China and Russia are clearly not. Stop strawmanning. The cost would be £20 million for each carrier, really? Is that for the hardware or does it include the software mods to CVFs C&C systems? Does it include the rocketts? If so how many. How many extra crew needed from our non existant pool of sailors to man these 4 systems? Remember you will need 8 such systems. 4 for each carrier and 2 for shore based testing. And dont forget to set up a supply/training pipeline for the new weapon system. Self defence missiles are not mandatory on a vessel of this size or CVF would have them. Check dictionary for proper meaning of mandotory. Also it would not be cause for an UOR. You clearly do not understand that concept either. An UOR is for a situation that the forces could not envisage. This does not qualify as the RN has known all through the CVF programme that ASMs where a threat. If UOR worked like that then all the forces would just build cheap crap and demand an UOR to fix it when the time came. That would be disengenuos with taxpayers money at best and fraudulant at worst. An example of UOR is Mastiff in Iraq as we could not forsee beforhand the huge danger from IEDs.

  10. Why are they so large? I recall at the time when details were first released the answer was steel is cheap.

    There wasn’t much cost difference between building a 50000t and a 70000t warship

  11. David. Going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I think only time will tell whether 3x phalanxs and other assorted light guns are enough to protect the QE class carriers.
    I am hoping you are right and it is all going to be fine but I am worried it will not be.
    The Russians are proliferating their antiship missile forces and conventional and nuclear subs numbers are increasing once again.
    All explicitly designed to deny access to carrier battle groups and if needed engage and sink them. There should be no doubt the Russians are an emerging threat to NATO forces especially carriers.
    As someone who works daily with procurement I understand the UOR rules (thanks) but will leave it to the military experts to determine when an UOR is needed for better self defence for the QE carriers. I was just highlighting some options for improving the QE class that are already out there.

    • Mr Bell, sorry if the tone of that comment was a little off but I may have taken exception to the opening line of your last statement. I fully understand that everyone is going to see things slightly differently. Your points regarding the lack of additional defences is valid I just don’t think its as urgent as some others do. I think there are a few areas that need cash first, like a new ASM or MK41 on type 45. The truth is probably in the middle somewhere. If the carrier always has a destroyer and a frigate or two and a CAP and Crowsnest airborne then I will be right and the carrier wont need additional defensive gear but if she is ever without one or both of those escorts or cant maintain a CAP, then you will be right and she will be bang in trouble. Probably no one would worry about the carriers armament if we had 8 type 45s and where getting 12 type 26.

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