Britain’s New Aircraft Carrier
and the Growing Naval Cooperation with US and Other Allies
The HMS Queen Elizabeth and her task force left the naval base of Portsmouth, England on May 1, 2021 for a worldwide cruise called Carrier Strike Group 21. It is the first British naval aviation exercise in nearly a decade (since the last British carrier HMS Illustrious was decommissioned) and the largest naval task force in four decades – since the Royal Navy recaptured the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s.
The task force is international. 10, F-35 fifth generation fighters from the US Marine Corps are onboard the Queen Elizabeth, One of the three destroyers, USS The Sullivans, is American (providing the task force with protection from high altitude, long range ballistic missiles), and one of three frigates is Dutch (HNLMS Eversten). During the cruise, ships from India, France, Australia, the US, Japan, and South Korea will be involved in joint naval exercises.
After NATO exercises in the North Atlantic, the task force will travel to the Mediterranean for exercises with the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle. One British and one Dutch ship will detach to enter the Black Sea. The task force will carry out air operations against ISIS before transiting the Suez Canal and stopping at a British naval port in Oman. It will visit India and carry out joint naval exercises with the Indian Navy before travelling to Singapore. It will then move to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises with US, Japanese, Australian, South Korean, New Zealand, Malaysian, and Singapore navies.
The operation is meant to be a show that Britain is committed to a global reach and is not limiting itself to an Atlantic mission. Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander of the strike group said, “HMS Queen Elizabeth is at the center of this operation; it’s an international operation with the Americans and the Dutch, but to have the Royal Navy at the heart of something like this shows that we are well and truly back on the global stage.”
But, in an era where many navies, including small nations like Thailand, have aircraft carriers, is the new British carrier that much of a threat? Or is it just a high-profile target?
HMS Queen Elizabeth – Not Just Another Small Deck Aircraft Carrier
The HMS Queen Elizabeth is named for Queen Elizabeth I, not the current Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) saw the rise of the Royal Navy as a force in naval power, especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The first warship named the Queen Elizabeth was a WWI battleship.
Britain was a pioneer in naval aviation and still has corporate knowledge in the shipbuilding industry and the Royal Navy to build and operate large carriers.
In a world of many carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are larger and better than all but the American nuclear supercarriers. It is the largest Royal Navy ship built and it displaces 66,000 tons. That makes it larger than the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle at 42,500 tons, Russian Admiral Kuznetsov at 42,000 tons (this class includes the two active Chinese carriers), and the domestically built Chinese carriers of 50,000 tons displacement.
British shipbuilders used new technologies in the Queen Elizabeth Class of carriers (the second ship of the class is the Prince of Wales, which is currently operational). It has solved the age-old question of where the ship’s superstructure should be (forward for ship operations or aft for air operations) by building two superstructures – each with back up for the other superstructure in case of battle damage). By making each superstructure smaller, it reduces air turbulence over the flight deck and provides more deck space for aircraft. The super structures are also curved to improve “stealth” capabilities.
Although it is not nuclear powered, it does have a range of 10,000 nautical miles – further than that of its potential competitors (Russia and China).
To make it harder for enemy submarines to detect, it has integrated electrical propulsion, which lessens the engine noise because it decouples the engines from the electrically driven propellers. It also has diesel engines for fuel conservation and gas turbines for high speed.
It was also designed to operate seamlessly with US nuclear carriers. As a result, it was designed in conjunction with American Navy input.
The ship class has two ships, and it is planned that one ship will be always available for operations.
The ships were designed to carry about 36 F-35 joint strike fighters and launch 75 sorties a day for five days. This, it was felt, would allow the ship to have the same “clout” as one of the American nuclear carriers, but without the extra classes of aircraft (ASW, transportation, helicopters, cargo, etc.). Clearly, this ship class was designed to fill in for an American nuclear carrier – a class of ships which is frequently overextended in today’s volatile world. In fact, the US had to call upon the French to deploy their carrier during the Afghan campaign.
What makes this ship class a serious strategic force is its use of the fifth-generation fighter the F-35. Like the Harriers, which the British carriers used for vertical takeoff and landing, the F-35 can operate by taking off and landing vertically. However, since vertical takeoff uses so much fuel, the Queen Elizabeth class of ships use a “ski jump” ramp that allows the aircraft to get airborne quickly without using as much fuel.
The ship uses what is known as a “rolling landing” to reduce fuel consumption during landing.
Except for US nuclear carriers, this is the only carrier class that is currently carrying a fifth-generation fighter. The US and UK governments have signed an agreement that allows British F-35 aircraft to be stationed aboard US carriers, while US F-35 aircraft can be stationed onboard UK carriers (as is happening with the US Marine F-35s stationed onboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth for this deployment).
About 250 American Marines and sailors are currently onboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The ship also fields four Merlin helicopters that carry airborne radar (Crowsnest) that will be used as an airborne early warning system. The British learned during the Falkland Islands operation that airborne radar is critical to protecting its task force from enemy aircraft.
The ship class can also integrate with the American E-2C airborne warning radar.
One of the interesting facts about the F-35 is that it appears to be the naval aviation fixed wing fighter choice of the West. The two Italian aircraft carriers, Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi will be F-35 capable. The Cavour (which has gone through its F-35 integration exercises in the United States) will be able to handle up to 15 F-35s in its hangar and on its flight deck. It appears that Spanish and Australian carriers may also carry small numbers of F-35s.
Although the Japanese Constitution prevents the production of aircraft carriers, the Japanese have a helicopter class ship, (Izumo and Kaga) that is designed for anti-submarine warfare. Despite some political opposition it appears that both ships are F-35 capable and could embark about a dozen F-35s per ship.
Japanese naval doctrine is to establish a blockade stretching from the Philippines to Japan and to pursue Chinese submarines that break that blockade. The Japanese carriers would use the F-35 to provide air defense for a task force and establish air supremacy at a “theater level.”
So, what we see is not purely American naval aviation. Several American allies are intending to use the F-35 as a quick way to establish a naval aviation presence. At one end of the spectrum are the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are designed to fill in for an American supercarrier. At the other end are American allies like Japan and Italy that can assist in naval operations.
Then, there are some allies like Spain and Australia that are still considering ship borne F-35s.
Despite stories of the aircraft carrier’s demise, they remain as popular as ever. Although only the US and France can afford the cost of a nuclear carrier and only the US can build a large deck, multipurpose carrier air arm, several Western and NATO countries are investing in smaller carriers and modern fifth generation aircraft which will give them a serious combat capability and the ability to operate seamlessly with American naval aviation.
While the American nuclear supercarriers may remain the major target for Russia and China, it appears that there will be more than enough ships to base modern fighter aircraft in the world’s oceans.
It appears that the naval chessboard is getting more crowded.