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 Elizabethclass 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.”

Admiral Sir Alan West, evidence to the Select Committee on Defence, 24 November 2004.

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.

20 COMMENTS

  1. It’s an interesting thread, Oliver, but isn’t the US Navy already building something like this capability with the America-class (LHA) ? So far it’s ‘America’, ‘Tripoli’ & ‘Bougainville’…maybe others if they decide that the concept is worthwhile.

    True, they are smaller than the UK QE2-class, and more Amphib-orientated, but they’re based on an established design ( Wasp-class), flexible, relatively inexpensive, and – if the USN thought worthwhile – they could likely build a dozen of them!

  2. Their is only one person with any amount of pull in the US who believes in smaller/lesser conventional carriers vs nuclear powered ones and that is Senator John McCain. And he won’t be with us much longer (terminal brain cancer). No one else in the US military or Congress thinks it is a good idea.
    Sen. McCain has used his position on the Armed Services committee to force both the Navy and the DOD to waste $100s of millions of dollars over the past three decades to conduct both their own studies and independent ones from places like the RAND corporation. All of them say the same thing. Not a good idea and essentially saying you would send America’s sons and daughters out with inferior equipment. Many of these study’s can be found in the quarterly reports to Congress on the state of the Ford construction program by the CRS (congressional research service).
    The author of this article quoted Secretary Robert Gates who made those remarks in 2009. Even then he was only speaking to Congress on Obama’s decision to lengthen the carrier construction time to 5yrs instead of 4yrs creating a gap between Enterprise finishing defueling and Ford finishing construction.
    The Ford class is in every way a better ship and their is a Republican Hawk in the White House so what the Military wants the Military is going to get. One of the benefits of having a massive economy and other than Bernie no commies.
    Furthermore the QEs air group would not be considered sufficient for a full CSG by the US only enough for a ESG. As it could not launch the tanker drones being procured or surveillance aircraft in service. Then added to lack of magazine space due having to carry fuel for the ship which Nimitz and Ford do not do to being nukes.
    On another note the moment someone suggested buying a Foreign carrier to the House and Senate they would laugh. Until they realized it wasn’t joke then everyone with a shipyard in their district would be chasing the offending person with a rope. Buying American BUILT equipment is NOT a point of pride it is Federal Law. You can buy a design and modify it BUT if it isn’t fabricated and assembled in the US then it cannot be bought on pain of up to 80yrs – life imprisonment.

    • “Furthermore the QEs air group would not be considered sufficient for a full CSG by the US only enough for a ESG. As it could not launch the tanker drones being procured or surveillance aircraft in service.”
      Why do you think this Elliot? A QE airgroup is roughly between a squadron and a half behind its Ford/Nimitz sisters, the captain of the ship said himself that the QEs had the room for 72ish aircraft.

      Besides what’s stopping from EMALS being fitted if the QE design was considered?

      “Then added to lack of magazine space due having to carry fuel for the ship which Nimitz and Ford do not do to being nukes.”
      I’ve never seen this claim substantiated. Why do you assume that the size of magazine is solely driven by the power plant?

    • There are a couple of mistakes you’ve made in your assessment: firstly, you assume that the US would buy the carriers from the ACA instead of having them collaborate with a US company like Lockheed Martin to build the ships in the US. British companies would still benefit, either from building specialist components or sending experts to pass along all the lessons they learnt from building QE and PoW. As you yourself pointed out, buying foreign designs is more than fine, especially if they’re from a company like BAE, who are already a big contractor for the US military.

      Secondly, the US wouldn’t go for the STOBAR version, they would almost certainly opt to build their QECs with the catapults they are designed to accomodate (the EMALS system that the US are already fitting to the Ford class). This would obviously increase the unit cost, but they would still be far less than half the cost of a Ford, and able to operate the full range of aircraft in the US navy’s inventory.

      Also, the QECs air group is more limited by the aircraft physically available to the Royal Navy than the carrier itself. While the British ships may only deploy with a squadron or two of Lightnings, the ships do have the capacity to carry over 50 and potentially as many as 70 aircraft, which would put them roughly in line with the air group a Nimitz class routinely deploys with nowadays. There’s also the obvious benefit that you could have 3-4 QECs for every Ford, which is nothing to be sniffed at. If you’re worried about a shortage of aircraft, you just send two carriers instead of one, which gives you the advantage of survivability over just one launch platform (and you’re still sending several thousand less people into harms way)

      • Who is to say a nuclear plant doesn’t take up more space than the QE class engines.
        Maybe a hybrid Nuclear (cruise)/ GT (sprint) power system would be feasible.

  3. The US navy already have the 45,000 ton America class of LHAs, able to operate 20 F35b. Because of concerns that they would distract from the carrier building programme, they were not even fitted with a ski-jump, even though a 6deg ramp would not have diminished their ability to operate troop carrying helicopters and V22s in their primary role. As for the nukes, the USN has a long term plan,cf the UK MODs hand to mouth existence.Three more vessels are on order, with two under construction, at a rate that will see the fleet remain stable in the long term. If the Trump administration wishes to see a rapid increase in the size of their fleet, then the building of extra LHAs would be a logical route to go down, as the deployment to Japan of F35bs has shown.

    • all well and good i suppose, certainly uk industry would be over the moon, but, i’d rather see our own government looking to improve the carriers we’ve got by a)removing the ramp and b) fit the emals which is now operative on the ford class andc)bin the f 35 once and for all.

      • I agree with the idea of getting catapults and traps if we had the excess money. But still feel the f35 is the best option.

    • “Because of concerns that they would distract from the carrier building programme, they were not even fitted with a ski-jump”

      Utter bollox.

  4. Ignoring Elliott’s internal US political statements and classic exaggerations there is considerable debate by very well qualified people in the USA (including the US Navy) about whether large carriers are the answer. The debate isn’t ‘replace large with smaller’ it is about ‘adding more with less cost’.
    Two well researched examples here:
    https://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/why-the-us-navy-should-build-smaller-aircraft-carriers-1600899834
    From 2014

    https://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/americas-carrier-gap-crisis-highlights-a-need-for-sma-1740644946
    From 2015

    The QEs have made a very clear and bold statement that you do not need 4,500 crew for a capable carrier even with CATOBAR. They also make the point that you can have 3 QEs ($5 Bn a piece) for the cost of one Ford Class ($16 Bn and counting). In any naval battle an Admiral would take three slightly less capable ships over a wider area than one very capable ship in one place. It is exactly what happened in the Pacific in WWII.

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves we will ever build a QE for the US Navy but do not think that we haven’t given senior Naval experts in the USA some challenges to their previously fixed ideas. US Navy senior people were regular visitors to the QE build right from the first block arriving in Rosyth. They saw how quickly we did it and the high quality inbuilt with Block Build rather than the way Ford was built out in the open with rusty plates being welded in situ. Basically we have gone from nowhere in carrier strike to very capable in 10 years and its cost us $10 Bn (for ships)

    We shouldn’t decry our country so often

    • You link two articles by the same man who has no Shipbuilding or fleet experience only journalistic and call that high level agreement? Versus the RAND Corporation, the CRS, and NAVSEA in addition to the House and Senate Committees on Seapower which had this debate going back to the 1970s all coming out against smaller inferior carriers. With the exception of John McCain who has had it out for the Naval Staff since his father disowned him when he turned Songbird in the prison camp.
      You talk about plates having slight rust in the Yard. The yard is in Virginia! Have you been there? Everything rusts. Sandblasting and paint it’s a thing. If you worked in a shipyard you would know this.
      Also stop reading into compliments by Admirals in press releases. Try reading a NAVSEA assessment for the USNs real opinion they have not been impressed with UK build standards since the 60s.

  5. Couple of points – some already said but worth repeating.

    The USN carrier fleet is really Ford, Nimitz, America and Wasp classes. The fact that the Nimitz and Ford classes are massive should not detract too much from the other 2 classes which are still very capable.

    A QE carrier can take over 70 aircraft (Jerry Kidd is on record with this) and if you look at some of the graphics on this site you will see pictures with 30+ aircraft on deck and loads of space left.

    As for the arguments around nuclear or not, I agree with the RN if you need replenishing for aviation fuel (which all do) then why not take on normal fuel as well. I also do wonder what the environmental impact will be when (not if) one of these nuclear ships takes a hit.

    I think the QEC are amazing ships and a credit to our nation, I also think we need to publish in parliament our NSS schedule and have a vote on its funding to solidify cross party support. I am not asking much here 3 major ships a year for 25years is not beyond the UK’s requirements or means and will maintain a 75 ships fleet with a further plan for a 10 minor ships and systems plan for things like Patrol and combat boats (Safeboats mk6 /CB90’s/Atlas/Pac etc…).

    The US would be far better getting onboard with T26 as I think that has the ability to come in around £600m with the right volumes and it will give the AB’s a run for their money. If the UK, Canada, Australia and US all get behind T26 – surely we can leverage suppliers to provide the best deal on key components for all and do an F35 style logistics chain for this ship and then transfer that to the T31 and get an export success.

    • I really think we need to get into the habit of giving credit where credit is due to the individual decision makers etc. who took forward actions & decisions in the knowledge that they would not be around to take any credit. We say we want this and that sorted out yet we are perhaps not always sending a message that the population are grateful to personnel, backroom boys & girls and politicians alike when difficult decisions are made, work put in & money spent to solve problems effectively. Just a thought that perhaps as has happened today some positive as well as negative comments are flowing.

    • Americas & Wasps are are not built, equipped, or operated as carriers any more than HMS Ocean. Some will operate F-35B’s in support of their LPH role and under the protection of a real carrier, but no more than that.

      • LHA – That designation superseded LPH in the 1970s in the USN with advent of the Harrier an the laying down of the Tarawa class.
        In the USN you have a carrier strike group (CSG) and a expeditionary strike group (ESG). The reasons for separating being is so that amphibious ships like say San Antonio or Albion are slow. So the LHAs were built with the ability to provide air cover in addition to delivering Marines. A CSG can make a emergency redeployment at 30knots a amphib or support ship can usually only make 20-25 at full speed so would left behind. Hence the building of amphibs carrying Harriers and now F35s.
        The other effect was that it allowed the USMC to forward deploy with air support. With many fewer base agreements and hulls than were required in the 60s and early seventies. This is important because par of the Marine Corps role is QRF and their stated goal is 2-3 infantry companies with air support anywhere by sea in 24hrs and a infantry regiment with armor and air support in 48-56hrs.
        These deployments often require the ability for a ESG to operate independently of a CSG. Hence the Marine Corps drive to acquire the F35 above all else. They wanted something better than a Harrier. For example the Marine Corps didn’t even buy the Super Hornet for their land and carrier base squadrons because they wanted to be able to buy the F35 immediately when it became available.

    • I hope the USN does adopt F26. We must remember the US has been very helpful with the Astute class and indeed has been with our nuclear subs since Dreadnought. However its hard to get Foreign stuff thru congress and US has always been very patriotic.

  6. The Russian will not build their 100,000 tons project Storm class carriers. Simply no money for such a huge project with unit price for first of class estimated at £14-15, billion pounds per hull.
    The Russian navy instead is concentrating on ability to deliver saturation cruise missile, ballistic missile and hypersonic missile strikes via every available platform.
    Unless we have a UK air defence plan which includes SAM protection via land ceptor for vital sites the UK is at risk.

    • I would say the UK homeland is going to be at serious risk any time. This should keep the Treasury awake at night. They need to free up funds for defence as a matter of urgency. Russia is specifically preparing for a sub-nuclear war and have said so.
      I would put sea ceptor on barge-type vessels and move them about the coast.

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