The Ministry of Defence have clarified the details regarding the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and their complement of aircraft.
Merlin helicopters will be the first aircraft to begin flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth, soon followed by Apache, Wildcat, Chinook and F-35 in 2018.
Merlins will start simple flight activities from the deck of the supercarrier later in 2017 and the UK is on target for its new F-35B aircraft to reach initial operating capability by 2018 and expects to have 24 of the jets available for service on the carrier by the year 2023.
According to the Ministry of Defence:
“We are fully committed to both the F-35 and the Queen Elizabeth Carrier programmes -both of which are on track to enter initial maritime operating capability in December 2020 as planned.
We expect Queen Elizabeth carrier to commence sea trials in 2017, and have been clear that UK F-35 aircraft will begin flying from Queen Elizabeth in 2018.”
It has also been revealed that the first of the two new Queen Elizabeth carriers will conduct F-35 flight trials off the eastern coast of the US in 2018.
Ian Booth, managing director of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance said:
“Pretty much everything is now installed in the ship and working. We’ve had lots of prior factory testing before putting systems on board and so far, it’s all looking pretty good.
Over the next few months we will finish compartment handovers, and complete work to coat the flight deck. We will also conduct harbour events and acceptance trials for virtually all systems – propulsion, steering, navigation, or communications – here [at Rosyth] before we go.”
Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, said:
“As Britain’s pre-eminent operational partner, including in our current fight against Daesh, the inter-operability of British and American forces is crucial. Having British and US F35s alongside each other aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on its first operational tour, will further cement our close defence ties as Britain steps up internationally.
Britain and America’s longstanding defence and intelligence sharing epitomises the special relationship that helps keeps both our nations safer and more secure.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to start sea trials in March, followed by sister ship HMS Prince of Wales in the coming years.
Uniquely for a vessel of this type, it will be common to see the jump-jet F-35B appear to land conventionally. This is a process called Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). It 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.
SRVL landing is under development for use with the F-35B when it enters service with the Royal Navy in 2018. Rolling landings will enable the F-35B to land on these carriers with an increased weapon and fuel load and will use the aircraft’s computer controlled disc brakes. However, a number of defence analysts have suggested that operational SRVL landings may only be possible within a limited range of sea states and weather conditions.
What will the vessels carry?
The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). 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.
Recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The addition of US Marine Corps aircraft will see HMS Queen Elizabeth sail with 24 or so F-35Bs in addition to around 14 or so helicopters for her maiden deployment. It is understood that the US aircraft will augment British jets on coalition operations.
We understand that the composition of the CVW is a balance between ship capacity and squadron availability. Squadrons assigned or ‘programmed’ to sail on deployment will mostly in the case of the aircraft carrier be unique to it, for example the airborne early warning helicopters that have no other purpose but to serve the carrier force.
In addition, we have also been told by a senior source that we will shortly see decisions like this for the F-35B and “maybe a utility helicopter (or tilt-rotor in future) type”.
The source we spoke to told us that his expectation is that the vessels will sail with a larger number of F-35 than previously expected because “It is not that they can’t do land based operations, just that there is a need to get the return on investment for the well found forward deployed bases that these aircraft carriers that form the centre of the CSG are” and that “the capacity of the F-35B force in the near years in particular is very limited and it is unwise to do other deployments”.
We discussed this with retired Air Marshal Greg Bagwell who expressed doubt that the composition of the CVW would develop this way initially, referring to the idea of set numbers being assigned so far in advance he said:
“There is absolutely no need to fix a flexible capability so far in advance – it hems politicians in unnecessarily.”
Another source we spoke to, currently flying the jet, explained to us that the vessels will deploy with the number and type of aircraft required for a specific deployments:
“Where F-35B is based is entirely down to the most suitable basing option for the tasks/missions is being sent to do. If that’s a well-founded host nation base, great; if it’s the Carrier, great; if it’s an austere location, fine.
Range, logistics and other ‘enablers’ such as AAR and connectivity will determine what’s the best option.”
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.