by Roger Näbig (Twitter). He works as a lawyer and freelance journalist in Berlin with a focus on global conflicts, defense, security, military policy, armaments technology, and international law. He also gives lectures on defense policy issues. For a German version of the article see here.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth (QEC) is the namesake of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and, with its sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales (PoW), the UK’s most expensive armaments project (at a cost of ca. €7 billion) as well as the largest Royal Navy warship ever put into service. Its displacement (65,000 t) is three times larger than that of the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (22,000 t), which was retired in 2011, but 1/3 less than that of the new U.S. Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers (100,000 t). Its design is unusual and not merely a copy of comparable U.S. carriers: two islands, a highly automated weapons storage and ammunition distribution system, an integrated redundant, non-nuclear propulsion, and a 16,000 m² flight deck without catapults or safety ropes but with a ski-jump ramp on the bow. The size of the QEC, in contrast to U.S. carriers, requires a relatively small crew of only around 700 sailors, who can always be reached anywhere onboard using a wireless communication system. Fully staffed, 1,600 men and women, including a company of Royal Marines with 250 soldiers, perform their duties onboard the QEC (George Allison, “A Guide to the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers“, UK Defence Journal, 14.10.2019). With a length of 284 m and a width of 73 m, the 4,727 m² hangar below the flight deck is large enough to simultaneously accommodate up to 36 F-35B fighter jets and four transport helicopters (Andrew Hankinson, “Replacing the Invincibles: Inside the Royal Navy’s Controversial £6.2 Billion Warships“, Wired UK, 19.03.2017). Planned is to station a squadron of 12 F-35Bs each on both the QEC and its sister ship, which are expected to be increased to 24 starting in 2023 and up to a maximum of 36 fighter jets later. However, the exact composition of the aircraft and helicopters will depend on the mission. As an alternative, the QEC can also carry up to 12 Chinook or Merlin helicopters and eight Apache attack helicopters (“Built by the Nation for the Nation“, Aircraft Carrier Alliance). There are also plans to convert the HMS Prince of Wales so that it could also be used as an amphibious assault vehicle with an equally large contingent of helicopters. As a precaution, both aircraft carriers can handle up to an additional 16% in weight for later retrofitting, true to the motto of the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce: “air is free, and steel is cheap” (“Development of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carrier – a Design History“, Save the Royal Navy, 02.10.2018).
Why the QEC has two islands…
The QEC is the only aircraft carrier in the world with two islands, making it immediately eye-catching. One important reason is the separation of the chimneys for the two machine rooms, which are housed in two separate ship complexes, each consisting of a 35 MW Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbine. Additionally, there are two 10 MW diesel engines below in the hull, which supply the integrated electric propulsion and the ship itself with energy. In the event of a catastrophic hit in an engine room, the QEC could continue to make enough speed with the help of the other gas turbine. Even if both gas turbines fail, it can still supply the electric propulsion with the remaining four diesel engines. Also, two separate islands, as opposed to a single large one, reduce the air turbulence that occurs on the flight deck, caused by the wind and the movement of the ship, which would hamper flight operations for an extended time. Finally, the two powerful QEC main radars on the two deckhouses could be set up sufficiently far apart to avoid mutual electronic interference or blind spots during radar detection. The front island serves as a bridge for the QEC’s captain; one floor below is the flag bridge for the admiral commanding a carrier battle group. The rear island is intended for flight control. It was developed in collaboration with Tex ATC, a leading manufacturer of civil and military control towers. The rearward position allows landing planes to be optimally observed. What is striking here is an oriel projecting into the side of the flight deck with three-meter-high bullet-proof glass panoramic windows for the air traffic controllers, which are to provide a 290-degree view of the entire flight deck and withstand the impact of a rotor blade from a heavy transport helicopter. The rear island also has a second bridge, which can be used if the front one is damaged or destroyed. (“The Reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth Has Two Islands“, Save the Royal Navy, 14.08.2017).
…and a unique warehouse management system…
One of the most complex but also innovative systems onboard the QEC is the highly mechanized weapon handling system (HMWHS). It is the first application of a land-based automated storage system on a warship of this size. So far, a similar system has only been used on the new U.S. Zumwalt-class destroyers. The HMWHS moves palletized ammunition in the ship along rails and via a large number of lifts from the armories located deep in the central third of the hull to the ammunition preparation areas, from there to the hangar or flight deck and back again. In contrast to other aircraft carriers, the QEC’s armories are unmanned, the movement of the pallets themselves is remotely controlled from a central location and personnel are only required if the weapons are to be stored or prepared for use for the first time. The HMWHS speeds up the delivery of the ammunition and significantly reduces the size of the crew otherwise required. Only 50 (instead of 150) sailors are still required to operate the entire system; in an emergency, one can get by with 12. The engineers’ drive to automate QEC as much as possible as part of the fundamental development effort to reduce personnel, one of the most significant cost factors for a warship throughout its life. This design goal was achieved since the required personnel was reduced by 65% compared to conventionally designed ships. Compared to the U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, which have a crew of around 3,200 at a displacement of around 95,000 t, the QEC manages a crew of about 700 at 65,000 t. In light of the Royal Navy’s difficult personnel situation, this is an advantage that should not be underestimated. (Peter Roberts, “The Queen Elizabeth Class: How Innovative Is the Design?“, RUSI Defence Systems, 09.09.2014).
…but no nuclear propulsion…
Although the advantages of nuclear propulsion at the QEC could not be denied, namely the unlimited range and higher speed, the Royal Navy nevertheless opted for conventional gas/diesel engines. This means that the QEC still has a considerable operating radius of around 20,000 km at 18 kn (33 km/h) and reaches a top speed of 25 kn (46 km/h). Since the support ships of the QEC carrier group have conventional propulsion systems, a nuclear engine would not have been a great advantage for the QEC alone, which could have justified the higher consequential costs for the long-term operation. The higher speed and the associated higher wind speed above deck are not so important when launching STOVL F-35B fighter jets due to the ski-jump at the bow. Another reason for a conventional propulsion was the fact that the British shipyards have sufficient experience with the construction of smaller nuclear reactors for submarines, but never before has a nuclear propulsion system for a larger surface ship been planned or built there. The Royal Navy was also deterred by the French’s bad experiences with the nuclear engine installed in their aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which had been struggling with technical problems since delivery. Since it is considered to install an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS; however, this is unlikely to happen in the next 20 years) rather than conventional steam catapults, for which a nuclear ship propulsion system with its large amount of water vapor would have made sense, the integrated electric engine with about 100’000 HP provides enough power to cope with additional EMALS catapults in the future. The quick start-up and shutdown of the conventional system compared to a nuclear propulsion and the lower number of maintenance personnel were also critical to the decision. After all, if the QEC were to have a service life of 50 years, at least it would have been necessary to refill the nuclear reactor with fuel rods, which would have banished the carrier to the shipyard for about three years. (“The Reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth Is Not Nuclear Powered“, Save the Royal Navy, 09.08.2017).
…and has no catapults or arresting cables
During the development of the QEC, three different configurations for the flight deck were examined: a conventional variant with catapults and arresting cables like the larger U.S. Navy aircraft carriers (CATOBAR), as an alternative a deck with short-launch capabilities and arresting cables (STOBAR) and finally the variant chosen for the QEC with no catapults and arresting cables but with a ski-jump and vertical landing of the combat aircraft (STOVL). After the UK joined the U.S. JSF/F-35 program in 2001 as a privileged Level 1 partner for the development of a 5th generation stealth fighter jet, the STOBAR variant was discarded first. In 2002, studies showed that a CATOBAR version would make the QEC at least 10,000 t heavier and would extend its construction time by years. Since steam catapults were not considered due to their design, only EMALS remained, whose technical development for operation on an aircraft carrier was still in its infancy in early 2000 and is still not considered to be mature even today. The Royal Navy, therefore, opted for STOVL in connection with an EMALS retrofit option due to its future installation in the gallery deck, which is located between the flight deck and the hangar and is currently used for offices and recreation rooms, among other things. In the STOVL configuration, 110 sorties within 24 hours for 36 carrier-based F-35B fighter jets should now be possible even in adverse weather conditions, based on the experience of the Royal Navy during the Falklands War with its vertically launching Harrier jets.
It should not be disputed that a CATOBAR version of the QEC would have given greater flexibility in the choice of the usable aircraft, which because on STOVL, is now limited to the F-35B and various helicopters. Already another article mentioned the ongoing problems with the F-35B itself, which is currently being used by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) on its amphibious assault vehicles. Among other things, permanently low average availability rates of around 50% due to missing spare parts and unnecessary repairs, persistent software problems with the external automatic logistics information system (ALIS), and the internal block 3F system software, are just a few. Another weakness is the limited operating radius of the F-35B of only approx. 925 km. Air refueling to increase the range is not possible since the QEC’s lack of catapults and arresting cable means no conventional tanker planes or drones (e.g., Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray) can take off or land. The purchase of appropriately modified VTOL V-22 Ospreys at a unit price between €75-80 million was out of the question for the Royal Navy for cost reasons. The same applies to carrier-based early warning aircraft (e.g., E-2D Hawkeye), as well as to all other fixed-wing aircraft.
However, the Royal Navy has found a practical solution to at least another problem of its F-35B STOVL fighter jets with the so-called shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL). Previously, the F-35B had to potentially drop excess fuel and weapons to reduce weight over the water before landing vertically. If considered how valuable kerosene is as a logistical resource for an aircraft carrier and that, for example, an AIM-120D AMRAAM costs more than €2.5 million each, one can gauge how important SRVL will be for operations on the QEC. Instead of approaching the QEC from the side, as previously planned and practiced, and then landing vertically (see video below), with SRVL, the F-35B flies directly to the carrier from behind, similar to a conventional carrier landing but at a much lower speed (see video here). A combination of the thrust of the rear nozzle and the front lift fan and the lift generated by the airflow over the wings enables the F-35B to land with up to 3,175 kg more total weight without the need for arresting cables. The fighter jet finally comes to a standstill with the help of its brakes. So far, this special landing has only been carried out in daylight under favorable sea, visibility, and weather conditions. Also, the USMC is interested in this method because it reduces the material stress on the flight deck caused by the 1,500 degree Celsius hot engine jet during vertical landings and also the engine wear on the F-35B itself.
Should Russia look at the QEC with envy?
In 2017, even before their first big test drive, there was a diplomatic exchange of blows. Michael Fallon, the UK Defense Secretary at the time, claimed that Russia would look at the new British carrier with envy and admiration given its quite old Admiral Kusnezow. The head of the press department of the Russian Ministry of Defense then replied that the QEC was simply “a large convenient naval target,” which it would be better to keep close to its warships for its protection.
Like a bee, the British aircraft carrier is only capable of independently releasing planes from its belly closely flanked by a swarm of warships, support ships and submarines to protect it. That is why … the British aircraft carrier is merely a large convenient naval target. [..] It is in the interests of the British Royal Navy not to show off the ‘beauty’ of its aircraft carrier on the high seas any closer than a few hundred miles from its Russian ‘distant relative’. — Igor Konashenkov, the head of the press department of the Russian Ministry of Defense, cited in Andrew Osborn and Dmitry Solovyov, “Russia Calls Britain’s New Aircraft Carrier ‘a Convenient Target’, Reuters, 29.06.2017.
The critics also overlook the fact that the QEC is not a passively floating airfield that lacks its offensive power or cannot even defend itself. Instead, the British carrier has several defense rings that can be fully or individually activated depending on the threat situation. The outer ring is formed by the extended situational image detection, which uses data and information from P-8 Poseidon sea reconnaissance aircraft (starting mid-2020), satellites and underwater sensors as well as the ship’s high-resolution Artisan medium-range air/ground surveillance 3D radar (type 997) with a range of about 200 km and the long-range air tracking radar S1850M (type 1046) with a range of up to 400 km. According to the manufacturer’s information, the Type 997 radar should be able to track more than 800 targets the size of tennis balls up to Mach 3 with “unrivalled detection performance and world beating electronic protection measures against even the most complex jammers” (George Allison, “HMS Queen Elizabeth Has Radar Fitted“, UK Defence Journal, 07.10.2015). S1850M is a passive phased array radar that can automatically detect and track up to 1,000 targets, including stealth fighters, low-flying cruise, and ballistic missiles.
The F-35B 5th generation stealth fighter jets follow as the first active line of defense, that can attack any land and ship targets and intercept enemy aircraft. A major strength of the F-35 is the large number of its sensors, its stealth technology, and the networking with other aircraft in order to monitor a large area around the QEC and to be able to return corresponding data to the carrier for further evaluation. The Merlin helicopters, which are still stationed onboard, will be used both for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and as an airborne early warning and control system (AEW&C) with an advanced Thales Searchwater ASaC radar, but its range is only 278 km. The AEW&C Merlins also only have a range of approx. 830 km with a flight duration of around 4.5 hours. Also, the helicopters intended for the AEW&C role cannot then be used to defend against submarines at the same time. The corresponding conversion from the ASW- to the AEW&C role and vice versa takes up to 24 hours. However, if 5 AEW&C Merlins, which can guarantee 24/7 all-round radar surveillance of the carrier group, and nine more are stationed for ASW onboard the QEC, then time-consuming conversions for one or the other task may not be necessary.
The carrier combat group’s anti-aircraft ring defending against enemy fighters, drones, and supersonic low-flying anti-ship missiles within a radius of 120 km is taken over by the Daring class destroyers (Type 45) with their integrated warning and fire control system Sea Viper (similar to the Aegis Combat System). Should the propulsion problems of the Type 45 destroyer be eliminated in the near future, the Royal Navy will be able to park a maximum of 2 of them for the protection of the QEC combat group. However, they only carry 48 VLS cells with Aster 15 or Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles per ship, which cannot be refilled at sea. Two Type 45 destroyers would not be able to repel repeated saturation attacks with a large number of aircraft and guided weapons in the long run. Another weak point is the lack of capability of the British Sea Viper combat system to engage ballistic missiles of all kinds and hypersonic cruise (e.g., Russia’s 3M22 zircon) or glide missiles. Only with the Aster 30 Block 1 NT or Block 2 BMD missiles to be procured would it be possible to defend against medium and long-range ballistic missiles, which could be used above all by China with its Dongfeng 21D to combat US aircraft carriers (“How Vulnerable Is the Royal Navy’s Surface Fleet to a New Generation of Weapons?“, Save the Royal Navy, 18.05.2016).
Tracking and fighting enemy submarines, which are getting quieter and quieter, making them more challenging to track down and thus a significant threat to the QEC, remains a high priority. This is one of the tasks of the Duke class frigates (Type 23). The Royal Navy has been planning to give two Type 23 frigates to a QEC combat group for these tasks. In addition, an Astute class attack submarine will also support the group with ASW. However, it is known that the Type 23 frigates for submarine hunting will have to be further away from the QEC. The carrier’s diesel engines, which are attached directly to the hull, generate so much noise and vibration due to the lack of additional damping that otherwise, the frigate’s sonar is severely affected. This means that in the event of a saturation attack, they may not be available for defense in the vicinity of the carrier (“Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers – Vulnerable or Fit for the Fight?“, Save the Royal Navy, 30.08.2017).
The Type 45 destroyers and Type 23 frigates can currently only use Harpoon anti-ship missiles for fighting large surface vessels within a radius of 140 km, which were intended for retirement at the end of 2018, as they are technically completely outdated. Now, because the Royal Navy could not or did not want to obtain a replacement due to cost reasons, they should continue to be used until 2023. The UK will not have developed a successor system until 2030 at the earliest. The ASuW capability gap of the escort vessels can only be closed in the following years by the QEC F-35B fighter jets (“Failure to Replace the Harpoon Anti-Ship Missile Would Be Inexcusable“, Save the Royal Navy, 14.12.2016; George Allison, “Harpoon Gains Reprieve as Decision to Retire the Anti-Ship Missile Is Deferred“, UK Defence Journal, 17.09.2017).
Enemy aircraft and guided missiles that have successfully broken through the outer air defense circle of 120 km must then be fought by the carrier combat group’s short-range air defense within a radius of up to 25 km. Again, the QEC has to rely on its escort ships because it does not have any defense systems. The British Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missile intended for this purpose has so far only been used on the Type 23 frigates, which, however, must remain near the carrier for this task, as a result of which they are then no longer available for submarine hunting. The Type 45 destroyers could also perform this task with their Aster 15 missiles, but here too, the small number of missiles carried is a problem.
The QEC only has three onboard Phalanx MK15 1B with a 20mm Gatling cannon (CIWS) for immediate close-range defense. Phalanx is fully automated or autonomous and has a combat range of 1.5 km. The system identifies approaching and also supersonic rockets based on their flight path, size, and speed classifies them into hazard categories and then combats them independently without external intervention. Besides, Phalanx can also be used against sea mines, drones, airplanes, small boats, and helicopters. So far, whether the Phalanx CIWS could successfully ward off a guided missile saturation attack has not been proven and is rather doubtful. The short-range defense is additionally supplemented by automated small-caliber guns (ASCG) to ward off swarm attacks on smaller boats and a torpedo defense system.
The QEC transforms into an amphibious assault ship
With the decommissioning of the HMS Ocean in 2018, the Royal Navy lost its last amphibious helicopter carrier, which was previously used in a Landing Platform Helicopter role (LPH, without well deck). In order to take over its tasks, the HMS Prince of Wales, which is currently undergoing sea trials, is being modified accordingly, especially in the interior of storage rooms, quarters and access routes (George Allison,”Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers’ cannot take the Place of Specialised Amphibious Vessels’ Say Defence Committe’“, UK Defence Journal, 16.05.2018). For the QEC, which was already completed in 2017, these modifications will not be implemented until 2025, when it comes to dry dock for the first major overhaul. However, both QEC class carriers lack an additional vehicle deck compared to the HMS Ocean. It is not advisable to accommodate wheeled or tracked vehicles in the hangar with the fighter jets or helicopters for reasons of space and, above all, safety. Incidentally, larger vehicles could not be unloaded because a corresponding ramp or well deck is not provided for in the QEC class. Also, both aircraft carriers for amphibious landing operations are missing even simple landing craft for transporting Marines, which were still available on the HMS Ocean. Since both carriers are not to be used at the same time, the Royal Navy may face a dilemma in the future: if the QEC or PoW carries a maximum of 20 helicopters and 500 marine personnel for an amphibious operation, there is no more room for the F-35B fighter jets. These are then missing in order to establish the (partial) air superiority over the operation area during an amphibious landing operation and to guarantee the necessary close air support (CAS) for ground forces. Besides, the QEC would have to be in shallow waters for a landing operation directly on the coast. In such an operation, the carrier would be extremely vulnerable to mines, swarm attacks by drones in the air or at sea, attacks by land-based aircraft or guided missiles, and by small, conventionally powered, difficult to detect submarines. The Royal Navy is aware that it can and will lose ships in the event of a conflict, as the experience of the Falklands War shows. The sinking of an amphibious assault ship the size of the former HMS Ocean would be a severe blow but barely manageable militarily. However, exposing the flagship of the British fleet to the risk of being hit hard and then for a task for which it was not intended initially does not seem to follow any military logic, but bather, it is due to the constraint to save budget and the distribution of scarce human resources (“Why Your CVF Should Not Moonlight as Your LPH“, Save the Royal Navy, 15.10.2016).
British carriers are platforms developed by economists, not warriors
Peter Roberts, director of Military Science at the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), believes that the main criteria when planning and equipping the QEC were low operating costs for personnel and fuel, to which everything else, including military aspects, had to be subordinated.
The QEC has around 700 sailors with almost as many crews as the former Invincible class light aircraft carriers, but those only had 22,000 t displacement, i.e., 2/3 smaller. The extensive use of automation and remote monitoring was essential in the construction of the QEC in order to achieve this drastic reduction in the core crew at all. Therefore cameras and surveillance devices are installed in almost every area as well as in all critical ship systems on the QEC. While this may make financial sense to lower the personnel assigned to maintenance, Roberts believes, however, that the QEC’s ability to wage war could be substantially lowered. Warships differ significantly from civilian merchant ships in terms of damage control and firefighting requirements. These tasks are very personnel-intensive, as experience with major damage in the Falklands War and through incidents at HMS Nottingham (2002) and HMS Endurance (2008) has shown. The entire crew of the ship had to be deployed to keep the ships afloat. Therefore, at least doubts should be raised as to whether this would also be possible with the QEC, with its comparatively small core crew in the event of massive damage.
According to Roberts, the conventional, integrated electric propulsion on the QEC was also chosen solely from a business point of view in order to minimize fuel costs and not to meet military requirements. Compared to the QEC with its 112 MW total output, the 1/3 larger U.S. Nimitz class carriers produces 1,100 MW for the propulsion alone and the new reactors on the Gerald R. Ford class even three times as much as the QEC. The reactors of the approximately 1/3 smaller French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle still provides around 300 MW. The Royal Navy had sacrificed speed and range with its decision for non-nuclear propulsion. These parameters are only unimportant until heavily loaded fighter jets have to go into the air with a headwind at the highest possible speed of the carrier, or an area of operation has to be quickly reached, respectively, a danger zone has to be quickly left. By deciding not to use EMALS on the flight deck, the Royal Navy has also deprived itself of the opportunity to work with the U.S. Navy and France’s Aéronavale, which until now have only used catapult-launching fighter jets. Also, the Royal Navy is now forced to use the F-35B on the QEC, which has a lower weapon load, a shorter range, and a more sophisticated engine system compared to the F-35C.
In addition, Roberts cannot see anything positive about the two-part island on the QEC. The spatial separation and the loss of direct communication between those responsible for flight control and ship control contradict the prevailing principles in behavioral research, how people work together effectively, and do not outweigh the benefits (less turbulence on the deck & less radar interference). So far, no other navy plans to abandon the prevailing traditional design of aircraft carriers with just one bridge.
Finally, Roberts points out another important aspect: the QEC lacks sufficient self-protection. A look at the aircraft carriers of other nations shows that the Royal Navy may also have been guided by misguided frugality. The USA, Russia, and even China would have equipped their carriers with short-range anti-aircraft missiles in addition to CIWS. The QEC had to rely solely on its escort ships, which, however, only had a very limited number of guided weapons and could not be rearmed at sea. In addition, neither the Type 45 destroyer nor the Type 23 frigate has been able to intercept ballistic missiles, let alone hypersonic weapons. So it is not without good reason that critics ask whether the Royal Navy has some unique tactical knowledge that could enable the QEC to navigate the world’s oceans as the only larger aircraft carrier without its anti-aircraft missile system?
With the QEC, the Royal Navy puts everything on one card
The Royal Navy originally wanted to build 12 Type 45 destroyers during the development phase of the QEC and was planning to use a fleet of 30 ships at the time. However, only six destroyers were built, which are currently plagued by propulsion problems. Until today, the surface fleet has shrunk to a total of 19 units, which not all of them can even be equipped with sufficient personnel (“Should HMS Queen Elizabeth Be Fitted with Her Own Missile Defences?“, Save the Royal Navy, 03.03.2018). According to current plans, the QEC combat group will only consist of two, at most four, Type 23 frigates, two Type 45 destroyers, and a nuclear-powered attack submarine as an escort (George Allison, “HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group to Deploy in 2021“, UK Defence Journal, 25.10.2019). In comparison, for example, the U.S. Navy carrier battle groups generally have two Ticonderoga class cruisers, two to three Arleigh Burke class destroyers and two attack submarines. With a maximum of six escort vessels, 1/3 of the British surface fleet would be solely tasked in the escort of the QEC formation. Since in the past, however, rarely more than 50% of all ships were operational due to a lack of personnel, maintenance, repairs and retrofitting, the Royal Navy then hardly has any ships left with the need mentioned above for other tasks. This led Michael Clarke, when he was still director of the RUSI, to remark that with the commissioning of the new aircraft carriers, the entire fleet would only be around the QEC combat group in the future, with which the Royal Navy would put “a lot of eggs in one basket“. However, it must be doubted whether the number and composition of this still small escort will be sufficient for possible QEC missions against (almost) equivalent opponents such as Russia or even China. The UK will, therefore, have to ask its NATO partners, especially the United States, to provide appropriate escort protection. There are fears that large-scale projects such as the QEC, the costly F-35B fighter jets based on it, and the renewal of the British submarine fleet for nuclear deterrence will consume so much money that the British Army or Royal Air Force could miss out in the future.
The U.S. Marine Corps provides the QEC “backup”
The United States and Britain’s navy and the marine corps have a long tradition of mutual aid and exchange of ships and aircraft. Royal Navy pilots have been continued to fly AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 Super Hornets with the USMC since 2011, when the last British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, was taken out of service, giving them their specific flight skills. This means that around 60 British pilots with “carrier experience” are available for training on the new F-35B. The British flight deck crews have also been training for future use on the QEC on U.S. carriers for some time (“First Trials of F-35 Aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth Begin This Autumn“, Save the Royal Navy, 09.07.2018). Since 2017, the QEC has repeatedly been testing the positioning of the future British carrier combat group during maneuvers with U.S. aircraft carriers. On its first mission in 2021, the Royal Navy will only be able to provide its squadron with 12 F-35B fighter planes for carrier use. In order to fully utilize the capacities of the QEC, the USMC will station another squadron with 12 of its F-35Bs onboard the British aircraft carrier from this point in time (“Joint Press Conference by Secretary Carter and Secretary Michael Fallon“, U.S. Department of Defense, 07.09.2016). The USMC seems to be enthusiastic about the QEC. The obvious advantage is the access to another carrier as a maritime platform, which will reduce the pressure on the U.S. ships in the future. The QEC is much larger than the USMC amphibious assault vessels, and above all has more hangar and flight deck area as well as more comfortable accommodation and command areas. The 16,000 m2 flight deck enables even STOVL fighter jets to have a comparatively high deployment rate, as there is more space for refueling and ammunition of the F-35B fighter jets than on the USMC America class amphibious assault ships with their 45,000 t displacement. In addition, helicopters and fighter jets can take off and land on the QEC at the same time or in a denser order. Nevertheless, with all the demonstrative friendship, the question of actual British sovereignty over U.S. fighter jets based on the QEC has so far remained unanswered given the divergent political views of both countries in the event of a conflict (“Looking Ahead – US Marine Corps Aircraft to Embark on Board HMS Queen Elizabeth“, Save the Royal Navy, 13.05.2019).
[…] the Royal Navy is shockingly lean in numbers. It operates just 19 destroyers and frigates. Factor in training, overhauls, and routine upkeep and London can expect to have roughly 10 surface combatants available on any given day. And those vessels must not only perform sentry duty alongside carriers at sea, fending off air, missile, and submarine attacks, but also police the United Kingdom’s offshore waters, show the flag in foreign ports, and execute the other myriad tasks that all sea services execute. It’s doubtful any Royal Navy fleet forward-deployed to China’s or Russia’s backyard would constitute a war-winning force by itself. The inventory is just too thin. — James R. Holmes, Britannia Helps Rule the Waves“, Foreign Policy, 20.02.2019.
The QEC is not a “supercarrier” like the new Gerald R. Ford class carrier. It is a symbol of the disintegration of the claims and reality of British naval power because Great Britain itself has not ruled the high seas since the 1950s. This aircraft carrier is a compromise between the tight defense budget and Britain’s intended military power projection on the world’s oceans. Some analysts see their role reduced to that of a “light” aircraft carrier, which is only used for submarine hunting and the protection of U.S. carrier combat groups. However, it is not a convenient naval target, as Russia claims, even if their self-defense capabilities and their escort are somewhat lacking and therefore a stay near U.S. warships seems militarily advisable, or the European NATO partners of the QEC would have to provide support ships in the future. The design with two islands, the technical innovations, and the small regular crew are remarkable on the one hand, but on the other hand, they have to prove their suitability under operating conditions. One of its strengths is undoubtedly its versatility in acting both as an aircraft carrier and as an amphibious assault vessel. However, without catapults, arresting cables, corrugated decks, and landing craft, the carrier can only fulfill both roles with restrictions. The lack of powerful early warning and refueling aircraft, the somewhat narrow-small bore conventional propulsion, and the choice of the F-35B as a carrier aircraft instead of the more potent F-35C also limit their operational capability in future conflicts. There are doubts as to whether it could hold its own in a military conflict with an (almost) equivalent opponent, such as Russia or China, with a purely British escort. Nevertheless, compared to the Invincible class carriers, the QEC class is many times larger and more powerful. Its large flight deck enables even STOVL fighter jets to have a high daily deployment rate. The F-35B as a 5th generation stealth fighter plane is more modern and significantly more powerful compared to the retired Sea Harrier GR9. If the F-35B is purchased in sufficient numbers, it can significantly increase the combat strength of the QEC carrier combat group with its ISTAR capabilities and compensate for some of the deficits described. Great Britain will no longer be alone with the HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, but in cooperation with its NATO partners, it will again master the seas.
- George Allison, “Why Are the Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers so Big?“, UK Defence Journal, 21.07.2018.
- George Allison, “How Does HMS Queen Elizabeth Compare to the Russian Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov?“, UK Defence Journal, 02.05.2018.
- George Allison, “The Myths Surrounding the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers“, UK Defence Journal, 28.11.2017.
- Joseph Trevithick,”Royal Navy May Sacrifice Its Last Amphibious Ships to Pay For Its New Carriers“, The Drive, 18.10.2017.
- Kevin Curnow, “Wartime Operations – Employing the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers“, UK Defence Journal, 20.08.2019.
- “Munitions Handling on the Royal Navy’s Aircraft Carriers“, Save the Royal Navy, 30.07.2019.
- “HMS Queen Elizabeth – Built to Survive“, Save the Royal Navy, 11.08.2018.