Aircraft carriers are a symbol of national status, the technical capability required to build them and the resources required to operate them globally aren’t attainable for most nations.
The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are 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
are versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from high intensity conflict to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
The 1998 defence review 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.
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, former First Sea Lord, has said, “To put it simply, countries that aspire to strategic international influence have aircraft carriers”. Henry Kissinger, while United States Secretary of State, also said: “An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy”.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Searight Royal Marines, explained the importance of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her capabilities.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth will maintain the United Kingdom’s ability to have a forward-based strategic conventional deterrent which has the ability not only to conduct strike operations with the F-35B, which is its primary role, but also to have an Embarked Military Force that is fully trained and ready to be projected ashore to conduct tasks that might arise.
That might be soft power for defence engagement, all the way through to humanitarian and disaster relief and war fighting. This training is part of the initial work-up to achieve that. The training has gone really well. It’s been an education to the Ship’s Company on what the LPH role will entail, and there has also been education to those who assist me to achieve aviation assault operations: Assault guides, FLYCO, the Logistics department who make sure they can sustain the operation and troops sufficiently; the ammunition personnel in the Air Engineering Department who make sure we have got the right ammunition. It’s a complex process.”
When will they be fully operational?
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, former 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. Sources close to the programme assure me that the 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.
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.
What is the ‘deterrent effect’?
The view of the deterrent effect these vessels will have has been expressed frequently in defence circles, with the First Sea Lord last year stating that the Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers will represent a “powerful and important strategic conventional deterrent”. Admiral Sir Philip Jones First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff said:
“HMS Queen Elizabeth is the first carrier in the world designed from the outset to operate a fifth generation combat aircraft. Crucially, a second ship – HMS Prince of Wales – is on its way, which will give the UK a continuous Carrier Strike capability. I have every expectation that, in time, this combination of carriers and jets will represent a powerful and important strategic conventional deterrent.”
The ships former commanding officer, Captain Simon Petitt, rightfully pointed out in 2016=7 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 has an 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.
There’s historical precedent for the UK utilising this capability, in 1972 British Honduras was threatened with imminent invasion by Guatemalan paratroops. Britain’s response had to be immediate and decisive but there was only one deterrent the government could offer: HMS Ark Royal and her air wing. They were used successfully to deter invasion of the territory.
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.
Aircraft Carrier Alliance Chief Engineer, Martin Douglass said:
“The Queen Elizabeth Class can fly 72 fast jet sorties per day – which can be increased if needed – and will give the UK a world class carrier strike capability for many years to come. She also has increased survivability because of the separation and distribution of power generation machinery throughout each ship.
The ship’s Artisan radar can track up to 800 potential targets at the same time and cut through radio ‘clutter’ generated by the equivalent of 10,000 mobile phones. The long range radar can track up to 1,000 contacts across a 250 mile radius both in the air or at sea. It’s an application of technology that’s already been proven on the Type 45s, but this time is linked to the Carrier’s organic capability to control a wide area of air and sea.”
The Key Numbers:
- The project to build HMS Queen Elizabeth and sister ship HMS Prince of Wales cost more than £6 billion.
- The aircraft carriers have a top speed well in excess of 25 knots.
- The flight deck is 280 metres long and 70 metres wide – enough space for three football pitches.
- The ship is the second in the Royal Navy to be named Queen Elizabeth.
- The ship has a crew of around 800, increasing to 1,600 when a full complement of F-35 jets and Crowsnest helicopters are embarked.
- There are 364,000 metres of pipes inside the ship.
- Both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will keep 45 days’ worth of food in its stores.
- The entire Ship’s Company can be served a meal within 90 minutes – 45 minutes when at action station.
- Leaving the Rosyth dock was among the most difficult manoeuvres in the sea trials, with just 50cm between the bottom of the ship and the seabed in the port.