HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest and most powerful warship ever constructed for the Royal Navy, but what will she carry?

The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW), the previously used Tailored Air Group (TAG) has fallen out of official use. 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, 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. We understand that 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. The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.

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.

Uniquely for a vessel of this size, it will be common to see the jump-jet F-35B appear to land conventionally. Although the F-35B is fully capable of performing vertical landing, in a similar fashion to the way that the Harrier and Sea Harrier operated, this method of operation places limitations on the loads that the aircraft is capable of returning to the ship with.

As a consequence, to avoid the costly disposal at sea of both fuel and munitions, the Royal Navy is developing the Shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique. SRVL is a process designed to land jump-jet aircraft that uses both the vertical thrust from the jet engine and lift from the wings, thus maximising the payload an aircraft can return with and stopping the financial waste that comes with dropping expensive weaponry in the sea in order to land vertically.

Another operational advantage of this technique is that it can increase the landing payload capacity of a V/STOL aircraft, which can be restricted when it lands vertically. It can also reduce the level of wear on the lift engines and extend their operational life. Similarly, it can reduce the amount of wear upon the deck surface of a carrier caused by the downward jet exhaust from vertical landings.

The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.

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David Stone

Interesting article. Given that we will only have four squadrons, is it really likely that the carriers would embark more than a dozen F35Bs in peacetime? Unless we will be permanently providing a taxi service for the USMC.
I still like the idea of using the Osprey and assigning all F35Bs to the carriers, with the RAF getting F35A but we would have to raid some pretty serious piggy banks for that. Still, it is Christmas and nice to have a wishlist!


RAF “ISN’T” Getting the F-35A’s, their getting Bk.3’s (F-35B’s). If Osprey’s are Deployed, they’ll probably belong to the USMC. Aircraft Elevators/Lifts are being Replaced to be able to handle the HC Mk.6 (CH-47F) Chinook’s with Full Loads of 22,679-kilograms. Current Elevators are only capable of 13,607-kilograms…


I may be wrong, but think David Stone was indulging in a little festive wishful thinking re the F-35As for the RAF and the Ospreys.


Does anyone know why the RAF is not ordering any F35A’s? I understand they are cheaper than the F35B’s and have a better range, performance and weapon load capacity. It would seem like a no-brainer to have at least 1 or 2 squadrons of F35A’s for operations from bases such as Cyprus.


the F-35A is a conventional take-off and landing aircraft (CTOL) so by any standards it would be cheaper, the F-35B is a short take-off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL), this means that it requires a smaller take-off area and enormously smaller landing site, which is perfect for an aircraft carrier. the fact that the F-35A does not have the same capability as the B variant, it would make up in range and carry capacity. for the purpose we need, the B variant is much better. as for the whole no-brainier for 1-2 squadrons in Cyprus, it has no purpose, it… Read more »

Tony Rosier

F35B is no good to the RAF and F35A is no good for the Navy so it makes sense to split the order.F35B range limitations are ok for on site operations but useless for Airbase deployment.


“The carriers, in peacetime, will usually deploy with around 20 F-35Bs as a minimum ”

Where has this come from?, AFAIK, the official ‘minimum’ figure is still put at 12 in peacetime.


The carriers will never see 20 F-35s in peace time unless as David puts it above, we are ‘hosting’ the USMC. As with every other new ship that enters RN service they will put to sea with the absolute bare minimum – we all remember the Type 45 ‘fitted for but not with’! Secondly, why can’t we see the return of the FAA and allow the RN to have their own F-35s and the RAF theirs and stop this nonsensical ‘sharing ‘ of aircraft. We are the only country that does this and it makes no sense. It’s clear the… Read more »


For Christ’s sake if you’re going to go there then the real answer has been staring us in the face for years. Scrap the RAF. Divide its assets up between a Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps. Saves billions.

The RAF has done **** all for 70 years anyway.

Navy lad

Only two squadrons of 12 aircraft each are in the MoD plan and will only be operational when the carrier is over 10 years old. A mere 8 aircraft have been ordered to date, most of which will remain as development aircraft in the USA.

The 138 “committed” in the SDSR are to be bought over the 50 year life of the F-35 program so the “commitment” isn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Lack of aircraft for these 6 billion pound carriers is a national disgrace.


Enter the USMC stage left! To me (and no disrespect to the USMC) having a foreign power’s aircraft on our flagship to make up numbers – because that’s what it is – should be considered a national disgrace! It’s HMG again doing defence on the cheap! Another excuse to buy as few F-35s as possible in as long as possible…. this mindset needs to change but I fear it never will!

Steven K

Repetitive reading this defence journal.

All this click bait doesn’t change the fact we won’t see them for a long time.

Harry Bulpit

In an ideal scenario we have four f35b squadrons mand and controlled completely by the fleet air arm, giving each carrier reglar access to 24 aircraft. And a like for like replacment of ocean would be more appropriate for helicopter and humanitarian operations.

Navy lad


max blunt

No sorry, in an ‘ideal situation’ we wouldn’t need to be spending such ridiculous amounts on such nonsense. Especially when we have the NHS on it’s knees and foodbank use going through the roof.

UK Government are determined to use these as well, they are preparing for war, a war no UK citizen wants.

andy reeves

re ocean, i’d like to see some thinking’outside the box’in ww2 flat tops were made from existing ships, why not remove the superstructure from a bay class, extend the already long flight deck full lenghth and modify itto fulfil needs? rradical but i think doable


Couple of things. Morning David-it was inter service bickering that contributed to the demise of the Supersonic Harrier cancelled by ‘Arold Bloody Wilson! Also -why is Carrier Air wing CVW and not CAW?

andy reeves

its time the government told the service in-bickering is stopped and the armed forces will be run directly from the MOD and that in fighting may impinge on the plans of those involved, sea f35’s will be the sole business of the navy and faa the raf get the rest. end of


If the Supersonic Harrier had not been cancelled it would have been a world beater and could have led to successors that would have been flying with the RAF and RN not to mention many other armed Forces worldwide. So that that British excellence was destroyed by poor management, political interference and lack of confidence in our industry

andy reeves

sad but true, if the harrier is still good enough for the USMC then it makes the sale of 72 of them to the U.S for less than one f35, more incredoulous we could/should have had more than enough to load both the new carriers by now.

Tony Rosier

Yes I agree even old aircraft to operate from these carrier’s is better than no aircraft also I believe the Harriet is still very capable in the air defence role especially against lesser opposition.


Well said. Why this country with the best engineers in the world is so obsessed with buying foreign hardware


..So sad that….

Mike Saul

The technological and financial barriers to developing to developing the P1154 (the supersonic harrier) were so great that it would never achieved operational service. Added to the fact that the RN never wanted the P1154 and preferred the F4 Phantom, the P1154 was a dead duck. Interesting to note that in 1965 the RAF rejected the TSR2 and wanted the F111 instead. The facts can sometimes be very brutal. Our new carrier’s will be lucky to have more 6 F35B in peacetime, while the RAF wants the cheaper and more caoable F35A version. So the 138 order will be split… Read more »


Not to mention that the supersonic harrier, would probably not be stealthy and so would be a lot weaker in the event of a war against an opponent with any form of semi modern airdefence. This is the same problem the tornados had in Iraq war 1, which is commonly forgotten about. We are also benefiting from the massively bigger order from the US and so getting the plane a lot cheaper thanks to economies of scale.

Maybe the supersonic harrier would have been ok, but i suspect it wouldn’t be better than the f35b or cheaper.

Mike Saul

I consider our involvement in the F35 project as a tier 1 partner to be one of our few defence industrial successes of the past 50 years. Despite the delays and cost overruns, the F35 will be the benchmark against other combat aircraft will be compared for the next 30 years. I just hope we buy enough of them to fulfil our stated operational needs.


Mike and Steve- The RAF definitely wanted the TSR2. The ONLY reason the F111 came in to the picture was because Harold Wilson cancelled what was the considered the best long range bomber in the world. The F 111 only achieved modest success and the RAF got botched F4 Phantoms instead as 3rd choice-botched because they were fitted with RR engines as a sop to British Industry creating the slowest and thirstiest Phantoms in the World. As to the P 1154-it was already in production with several airframes on the factory floor! As I said inter Service bickering and Wilson’s… Read more »

Mike Saul

Geoff in the TSR2 lost bomber by Damien Burke, he published RAF documents (top secret at the time of course) where the RAF clearly stated that the TSR2 did not and could not meet its operational requirements. For the example the navigation system would not be able to provide accurate outside of north west Europe. The RAF saw the F111 as far superior aircraft that could meet its requirements, plus it appeared considerably cheaper than the TSR2, it seems the RAF was falling in love with all things American. The death of the TSR2 is to be regretted, but I… Read more »

Mike Saul

One further point the P1154 never flew and never built in any form. At its cancellation it was still a paper project. The route for the UK aircraft industry should have been similar to the French one, aircraft for mass market at an affordable price for potential customers like Mirage 3, 5, F and 2000. However Duncan Sandys report destroyed any hope of that.


From memory(promise I never googled it! 🙂 ) the test pilot was Trubshawe(the Concorde man) who waxed lyrical about the handling of the TSR2. Remember the Lightning battling to keep up with the test aircraft. OK so speed is not everything but all the criticisms you mention could have been addressed as have the myriad problems with the F35. Also-and I am NOT a conspiracy theorist, but the Americans were known to have employed some very shady tactics to kill off the opposition and I am sure the demise of the 60’s Brit jets as with the Canadian Avro,was partly… Read more »


ps Embarrassed-I was wrong about Trubshaw flying TSR2-he flew Concorde. I SHOULD have googled it 🙂


While this rather nice ship will be mostly leased to the USMC, when there are occasionally UK planes on board what weapons will they bear?

What anti-ship weapon will the UK’s F-35B carry?

Paul Whitehouse

All we have at the moment are two expensive targets. AWACs will be provided by four Merlin helicopters (max altitude 14,000 ft). AWACS should be provided by the Northrop Grumman Hawkeye, which can fly higher (34,000 ft) and can therefore detect in-comings much sooner. The Hawkeye is also cheaper to run and maintain along with superior duration compared to the Merlin. The Hawkeye needs a catapult to get airborne. I believe the Queen Elizabeth class has been fitted for but not with the Electromagnetic Launch System (EMALS), currently completing development in the US. EMALS will not only get the F35s… Read more »

Tony Rosier

Yes I totally agree but holding back on the launch system looks to be a good plan bearing in mind it’s gonna need a lot of developing the long term perhaps we can develop our own aircraft for future use with fully capable modified carrier’s. I believe we should also be developing a third carrier perhaps geared to conventional aircraft and slightly bigger to be available mid to late 20s.


The IMF (Bank of America)killed off the TSR 2 not Wilson. The knew it was a world beater and didn’t want competition with F111. Britain was on its knees financially and was billed out on the condition TSR2was cancelled,all prototypes scrapped ,including jigs and fixtures.Senators in US said we are giving these guys money to put Americans out of work.Fact not conspiracy.


I may be missing something here, but where are the embarked force to be accommodated, or are we to have ‘camp beds in the hanger’!