President Trump has recently set out plans to build a 350 ship fleet, should vessels similar to the Queen Elizabeth class be part of that?
I propose that the United States government seriously look at consulting with its ally Great Britain in jointly producing the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. Why? Britain has the technology to build conventional aircraft carriers which are not nuclear powered, and the Queen Elizabeth–class would be able to increase the US aircraft carrier inventory and amphibious capability. There is a debate as to whether the US Navy should build smaller aircraft carriers.
The current Gerald Ford-class Supercarriers are expensive pieces of real estate. The programme has cost $36.30 billion with each ship costing over $10 billion dollars a year. While the Queen Elizabeth-class programme built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance cost a total of £6.2 billion for both vessels with HMS Queen Elizabeth already in commission, and HMS Prince of Wales will be in commission from 2020 onwards.
This is not to say these are what you would consider ‘smaller’ aircraft carriers by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite. They are formidable pieces of real estate which has global power projection abilities and are ‘supercarriers’ in their own right. However, unlike the Gerald Ford-class, these are not nuclear powered, but conventionally powered ships.
I believe this is a cost-effective alternative, which would be seen to be attractive to United States Senators, US Defence Officials at the Pentagon, US Strategic Planners, and International Relations experts specifically those interested in American military Grand Strategy, and also the Trump administration itself. To be working with one of their closest allies in this military build-up, they have the cash and we have the technology. It would be a partnership of equals.
It is interesting when looking at the size of the aircraft carriers that HMS Queen Elizabeth with its displacement of over 70,000 tons, and the ability to have a full carrier wing of up to 40 aircraft with a full load of 50 aircraft if deemed necessary. This would be suited to the requirements of the US Navy and also US Marine Corps with their F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
In 2004 Admiral Sir Alan West gave evidence to Westminster highlighted the compatibility of the future Queen Elizabeth design in this statement he gave.
“I have talked with the CNO (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.”
On the American side, the debate raged across the Atlantic with the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates positing “Does America need 11 plus supercarriers when our competitors do not even need one?”
This question I believe was an attempt to rationalise the need for these large vessels. As America is a global military superpower, it is only appropriate that the US Navy has the equipment needed to perform global operations. However, I would question the logic that this necessarily has to be done with a carrier like the Gerald R Ford class. The fact the US Marine Corps will be operating on HMS Queen Elizabeth enhances the profile of the ship, and its adaptability to US systems and requirements.
The fact that operationally during the War in Afghanistan the United States had to get the French to aid with their carrier capabilities to make up for the shortfall, means that there is already a perception that the Americans may need to rely on us in the future with our QE-class carrier. More recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth which means there will be further collaboration between the two allies. However, I believe this collaboration could go one step further in both the acquisition and building of a new Queen Elizabeth class ship.
It is also worth noting that the backbone of the US Navy supercarriers are the Nimitz class aircraft carriers, with the first ship USS Nimitz was commissioned in 1975, with the displacement of 100,000 tons. While this class have proved an endurance with conflicts ranging from the First Gulf War in 1990 – 1991, to the Afghanistan War in 2001, and the Wars in Iraq from 2003 onwards, and the recent military interventions against ISIS, this has proved a formidable platform, but an aging one, in need of replacement. I have a doubt whether the United States is able to replenish its stock of supercarriers with the expensive Gerald Ford class when the unit cost is over £10 billion dollars for each vessel.
I predict the possibility of a capability deficit during the 2020s, while the United States is retiring old supercarriers and adopting the expensive Gerald Ford-class it may not have the ships in total to carry out functions. One way to ameliorate this is to complete the purchase of the QE-class. A ship of the 21st century with an operational lifespan of 50 years.
While some Americans may feel that their nation will lose credibility, if it purchases a ship abroad, there are compromises. Firstly, the QE-class ship is modular in its architecture, meaning that there could potentially be a partnership between the United States and Great Britain to produce another ship of this class.
Plus, the Americans may want to change the specifications of this ship, its architecture, and also change the specifications for their needs. There are a range of possibilities in this partnership which would secure both British and American jobs.
In conclusion, this is a worthy proposition if a little unrealistic due to the politics behind it.