A Brief Analysis On the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers

As you may know, the Royal Navy has commissioned a new class of aircraft carriers to augment its existing littoral capability provided by vessels such as the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and to provide force projection on a level that has been unattainable since 2011 and the decommissioning of the last carrier HMS Invincible. What, specifically, are the capabilities and downfalls of the HMS Queen Elizabeth which as of 27/10/2017 is undergoing sea trials and the under construction HMS Prince of Wales?

 

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HMS Queen Elizabeth getting introduced to Portsmouth harbour for the first time.

Size

In the world of aircraft carriers size does, indeed, matter. It is therefore only fitting that the two vessels will be the biggest ships ever commissioned into the Royal Navy in its 471-year history. With a displacement of 70 600 metric tons, a 280m length (over 30 double-decker buses),  and a 39m beam at the waterline, the QE class eclipses any other ship in the Royal Navy arsenal. Currently only two classifications of ship in the world- the American Nimitz class and their replacements the Gerald R. Ford class- have it beat on sheer size. The Charles de Gaulle of France, Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov, and China’s Liaoning and Type 001A all come in at under 55 000 tons without a full load. Its bulk is hefted by conventional diesel engines instead of nuclear power, meaning the Royal Fleet Auxiliary has its work cut out for refuelling, but it also means that no lengthy mid-life refuelling and refurbishment will cut carrier capability for as long as a nuclear-powered vessel, with the Charles de Gaulle needing to be refueled every 7 years in a painstakingly long process.

Complement

Thanks to automated technology the crew size is remarkably small for such a vessel standing at under 700 with capacity for 1600. It is planned to carry the F35B Lightning II- the multinational multi-role fighter that will be used by US Marine Corps vessels- designed to be deployed from carriers of a STOVL configuration. STOVL, or Short Take Off  Vertical Landing, does mean a reduced combat load for jets compared to the Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system employed on the largest carriers such as the Nimitz class, but at a significantly lower cost. As the Invincible class of Royal Navy carriers were also STOVL utilising Sea Harriers in conflicts such as the Falklands the Royal Navy does have more solid doctrines based around the deployment of STOVL carriers. Compared to the F35C, F35Bs have a lower tolerance of G-forces, a reduced range, and combat load. Despite well-publicised teething issues the F35 Lighting II in either of its A, B, and C configurations is an advanced multirole fighter with stealth capabilities and state-of-the-art sensors. Due to its stealth configuration it cannot match the payload of aircraft such as the SU-27 of the Russian Air Force without using external hardpoints thus compromising the effectiveness of said stealth capabilities, but extra payload can be externally mounted if necessary.

Each ship is able to carry up to 40 aircraft, with realistically up to 36 being F35s and the other 4 being helicopters for roles such as airborne early warning (AEW). Its regular combat load, however, will be closer to 24 fighters and supporting helicopters and a peacetime loadout being suggested by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review consisting of closer to 12 F35s. As part of a war load 14 helicopters could accompany the fighters for operations in deeper waters as part of a force protection package consisting of Merlin HM2s on anti-submarine duties and Merlin Crowsnests for AEW purposes. Crowsnests have far smaller effective ranges than the’ E2 Hawkeye turboprop aircraft used by US aircraft carriers but are advanced nevertheless. Alternatively as part of a littoral manoeuvre loadout aimed at supporting amphibious operations a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Air Corps Apache gunships, and Merlins and Wildcats can be used. This is significantly lower than what is typically and what can be carried by their Nimitz counterparts who can carry up to 90 aircraft, but closer to that carried by the de Gaulle and the Chinese carriers when fully operational. Lightning IIs and Merlins are generally the more capable aircraft of the range used in aircraft carriers and due to the QE class’ size and deck configuration they can be launched consecutively very quickly thus increasing sortie rates.

What the ageing Admiral Kuznetsov lacks in traditional aircraft capability (and abilities to reliably move under its own power and receive launched aircraft without them crashing) it makes up some of it in its offensive capabilities. It is technically not a dedicated aircraft carrier such as fielded in the US Navy and as seen in the Queen Elizabeth class and is classed as an aircraft cruiser combining the roles of aircraft carrier and missile cruiser coming armed with 12 feared Granit ship-to-ship missiles. The QE class actually falls behind their international rivals in armament boasting only a handful of 30mm machine guns and Phalanx Close In Weapons Systems (CIWS), but this disadvantage should be negated by proper use of supporting ships such as the anti-air Type-45 destroyers and the anti-submarine Type-23s.

Capability

Aircraft carriers around the world vary from Russia’s archaic carrier best used as a missile cruiser, to the pocket carriers of Spain and Italy only suitable for launching Harriers IIs, to the cannibalised Soviet designs employed by China and India. Although many countries- and many potential adversaries- are working on domestically producing an aircraft carrier of indigenous design, few outside North America could match the QE’s class Artisan sensor technology, crew efficiency, and sortie rate estimated to be six times faster than any previous Royal Navy carrier. The Royal Navy’s long past with aircraft carriers should prove a great advantage in the face of the likes of China still working off capable but outdated Soviet design, while the QE class were produced almost entirely in the UK using British shipyards, Rolls Royce gas turbine engines, and Artisan sensors. F35B Lighting IIs are a very new aircraft to the world stage showcasing technology that hasn’t ever been used on such a wide scale and should be more than capable of facing most airborne threats if properly used. Some of the bigger issues aren’t the carriers themselves but whether Royal Navy budgetary restraints will allow them to operate effectively and safely with the necessary support and auxiliary vessels.

-KD

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