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Experts and Politicians have debated the significance of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers since their inception and people have questioned whether their price is worth paying.

Some have heralded them as the project that will re-establish the Royal Navy’s dominance on the world stage and allow Britain to once again be called a superpower. However, it is entirely plausible that HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales may not be a pair of figureheads of the United Kingdom’s new found clout on the seas.

This begs the question, if they were to experience combat, what threats would they face?

North Korea

It’s the country that is plaguing everybody’s minds. With the totalitarian state exercising the new found clout of its own with a recent uptake in banned missile tests, North Korea has certainly raised tensions in the region. Commanders would strongly hesitate to put our carriers will be put in harm’s way there is every possibility they would be sent to the Korean Peninsula to act as a deterrent, similar to how the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan were deployed in May.

However, should the new carriers come under combat threat from the DPRK, as Kim-Jong Un threatened to do to the American carriers sent to the Peninsula, it would be very unlikely the North’s outdated weapons could put our carriers into harm’s way.

The submarines in the Korean People’s Navy’s service that are the most modern are the Sang-O class submarines. An updated version, it is widely reported, was brought into service in 2011. Even with these submarines, that will most likely be running on vastly outdated technology, the possibility of any of these submarines reaching striking distance of the new characters is minimal. Each aircraft carrier will have ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) patrols performed by Merlin helicopters.

In addition to this the carriers will have an extensive escort that will consist, even at the basic level, of Anti-Submarine Frigates. Any North Korean would be unmanageable, even as a worst-case scenario. In what is a somewhat funny last-nail-in-the-coffin, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers can operate at twice the speed of North Korea’s fastest submarine. They could simply turn around and speed off leaving the Sang-O class in its wake.

If we look further to North Korea’s anti-ship missile capabilities we find further shortcomings. North Korea’s anti-ship capabilities in this regard are very limited. In fact most of their missile arsenal are old and outdated and would not be able to reach HMS Queen Elizabeth. On top of this, the QE Class carriers are equipped with the Phalanx Closed in Weapons System that provide a sterling defence against missiles or aircraft.

Next we have North Korea’s Air Force’s capability. As I touched on above the Phalanx system would provide a sterling defence against modern low flying jets. Moreover the fact North Korea’s are so old and so outdated makes this form of attack even less plausible. Their only dedicated bombers, the MiG-23 and Su-7, would be prone to any slightly modern anti-aircraft capability. On top of this the most modern fighter the People’s Air Force has is the Russian Su-25. Any pilot would be forced to face insurmountable odds and attack the aircraft carriers directly. This is a suicide mission. Not only will the QEII class carriers wield the Phalanx anti-aircraft weapons but also the VTO/L capabilities of the F-35B Lightning aircraft enable rapid deployment. This makes any air attack almost impossible.

In short, the DPRK could pose no threat whatsoever to our carriers without facing cataclysmic losses.

South China Sea

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently committed the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers to the South China Sea for their maiden voyage.

While it is true that China’s navy could practically cause considerable damage to our carriers, the likelihood is they won’t.

They won’t for the same reason why a country wouldn’t sink the USS Gerald R. Ford. China doesn’t gain anything from this and would have a lot to lose. As would the world.

Realistically in this theatre the carriers will be used to make a point, not start a war.

The Gulf and the Mediterranean

What would probably be their only taste of engagement in combat is in a deployment to the Gulf. Britain has been bombing Iraq since 2014 and Syria since 2015. The planes for these operations primarily take off and land at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

Use of the carriers could give the RAF more flexibility to perform air raids across the Middle East and North Africa. Charles de Gaulle has been deployed in a similar way and it would be likely that at some point during its lifetime it would be deployed in such a manner.

Conclusion

I want to stress that this is not an exhaustive list and there are some notable examples I’ve missed. A multitude of threats and challenges could be put in front of HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. This just gives a short analysis of the general threats they could face. It would be impractical for any belligerent to try and attack HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales and North Korea may be the only regime irrational enough to even give it a go. The DPRK offers no practical threat as of yet to our carriers.

If we move on to the other probable deployments neither the Gulf nor South China Sea contain any realistic threats. Their deployment to South China Sea would be a flexing of the muscles and not a tour de force. A soft power play to slow down China’s Island building. An effort to make clear Britain has a place in International Relations again.

In the Gulf, the deployment of carriers would be used as a launching point for the F-35B Lightning aircraft in Middle Eastern missions and would likely not come in direct contact with the enemy.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Without any SAMs (only strike carrier in the world with no SAMs) and no anti torpedo/ anti mine weaponary and no anti ship missiles.
    coupled with not enough escort class warships to make up a sufficiently powerfull carrier battlegroup.
    i would be very worried about the QE class entering a high threat area.
    these are all known and foreseen problems but the MOD is choosing not to rectify them. All we get is cuts, cuts, cuts and rubbish about £178 billion equipment budget.

    • QE would never enter a high threat area unless it was part of a US coalition. There is no threat from Argentina worth talking about.

    • While you are correct, the reality is that the Queen Elizabeth will never be deployed in a peer-state conflict without Daddy (in Washington DC) doing all the big stuff.

    • She is an aircraft carrier. Her primary air defence is her aircraft. If money was unlimited you’d have a point. But it isn’t so her aircraft should be at the top of the shopping list.

  2. Who could the QE safely take on? Right now Sark or Albania, but not both…
    All right that’s a silly answer, but Mr Bell puts the worries well about their lack of integral defence
    The QE class will be great ships, and we are right to have them. But they are going to need (surely) defence upgrades before you’d risk them anywhere near North Korea.

    But more widely. Let us hope that the RN is able to address the manning issues by doing something to address the pay problems. It’s no good having these ships (nor asking for more) if we can’t getting the men and women to crew them – and that means offering them decent pay and career prospects.

    Great website, by the way
    best Tim

  3. If we look back to what the British carriers have been involved with in since ’82 the big failing has been the small size. Even though the RN made a success of things.
    Falklands war, Balkans,Iraq, Sierra Leone, Libya, full size QEC would have made the difference.

  4. When you consider the big stick influence that large flat tops bring to negotiations alone, these ships are worth their weight in gold.

    Yes we have manning and escort issues at present, but these capital ships are here for the long term. Who knows what the shape and capabilities of the RN 40 years from now, we don’t have a crystal ball.
    Hopefully these superb ships will still be at the vanguard of the RN and will I am sure have stopped more wars and potential conflicts from ever starting, by simply deploying. the

  5. The two great naval threats are Russia and China. Either could launch swarms of relatively small, supersonic anti-ship missiles that would test even the advanced anti-missile capabilities of likely escorts. No Royal Navy surface ships will have significant capabilities against Russian or Chinese surface warships for some time. The best NATO escorts could provide are Harpoons which would be fairly easily countered. Russian or Chinese ships could close to 50 or 60 miles with impunity. They could provide an impenetrable air defence umbrella for their missile armed submarines.

    I cannot imagine any other Navy with a potentially hostile disposition seriously threatening our carriers but we should be very wary of the capabilities of the Chinese and the Russians.

    • If we got into a shooting war with the Russian federation or the Chinese, the defence of our Carriers would be the least of our problems!

    • One would assume that in the event the insanity happened and the west ended up in a shooting war with China or Russia the mission of the fleet would not have a mission that included forming line abreast and steam head long at the oppositions navy and Air Force, hurling missiles and planes as it goes forward advertising its self all the while screaming shoot me if you think your hard enough. Im being fanciful, but this is the sort brute strength mission that plays strait into the hands of these green water navies.

      Instead I would imagine the RN has the depth of knowledge to know when it can brute strength an enemy (non peer threats, that are mad and try a stand and fight approach). Instead when fighting a potent green water power I imagine there are specific areas the carriers and fleet would deny while chopping up an enemy that although vastly superior in brute fire power when sitting on its door step staring eye to eye, is infact vastly inferior in trying to project that power or engage an enemy that will not stay still to be found but can itself project power find the enemy strike and hide again.

  6. The WE Class is already obsolete. Wake up. F35s are obsolete. Drones are the future. Maybe the QE Shell could be sold to India. The money raised could be put towards the 1200 immigrants a week housing costs. This could be a good deal. Sharia law is on its way and the less our government spends on defendefence the better. We all need to unite and get a grip on the real issues.

  7. Biggest problem with the navy is lack of subs, the threat of a hunter killer was all that was needed in the late 70’s to prevent an earlier Falklands war. The Astute is a great machine but also too big for some operations (can’t operate in shallow waters). The best sub killer is a sub, surface ships are just “targets”.
    Carriers need more sub escorts, the F35B can look after the airspace (plus the T45).

  8. The old Ark Royal strike carrier. Not the through deck cruiser. Had no anti missile systems or anti mine or anti torpedo defenses admittedly different times but she did carry proven aircraft, Buccaneer and f4 phantoms the only thing she carried was the 3″ chaff launchers.
    Wonder if there will be drones carried

  9. The most likely threat is not a shooting war with a soverign state. The USS Cole was hit by terrorists. USS Mason was recently attacked by a terrorist land launched anti ship missile. HSV Swift was recently hit by an anti ship missile also land launched.

    It’s navigating narrow waters like the red sea or straights of Malacca where our 70,000 ton Western target with only a few Phalanx units could be in trouble. Even if the carrier is not attacked the support ships are targets as well and also need protecting and when shuttling to and from the CSG.

    We really need to think about our rules of engagement when not in a shooting war to make sure that any fishing boats nearby are just fishing. CB90s are better than Pacific Ribs, and a 24/7 ScanEagle presence with QRA Helos on deck rotas spread ready should be standard procedure and a MCMV up front is just as important as those missing CAMMs.

  10. This is exactly the type of thinking that led to the loss of the last Prince of Wales. Remember the rule of three?In effect we only have slightly less than one under escorted carrier. Only an idiot would do anything other than swarm it.
    If there is no problem, China won’t sink our only carrier, only if it’s worth sending it there will they bother.
    North Korea could obtain weapons capable of sinking our carriers very quickly in the type of rapidly changing political situation likely to require the deployment of a carrier. If China was not happy for North Korea to have nuclear ICBMs ,they would be the most worried nation and they would have put a stop to it. This is without considering the most obvious and likely tactic,” aysametric warfare”,ie what you would do in the position of your opponent- sink it in Pompey harbour.

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