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?
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as Kim-Jong Un threatened to do to the American carriers sent to the Peninsula, it would be very unlikely the North’s outdated weapons could put our carriers into harm’s way.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 Even with these submarines, that will most likely be running on vastly outdated technology, the possibility of any of these submarines reaching striking distance of the new characters is minimal.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 In fact most of their missile arsenal are old and outdated and would not be able to reach HMS Queen Elizabeth.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.
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.