- With HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the British Navy once again has aircraft carriers.
- They reached a milestone this year by carrying out simultaneous exercises with fixed-wing aircraft for the first time.
- These exercises have taken place on both sides of the world, reflecting the global reach Britain is looking for.
In September, the Royal Navy announcement that its two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers conducted simultaneous fixed-wing exercises for the first time.
The exercises involved the launch and recovery of F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing version of the stealth fighter, HMS Prince of Wales in British waters and HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific, 7,000 miles apart.
Queen Elizabeth Class
The decommissioning of the last Invincible-class aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, left the Royal Navy without an aircraft carrier for the first time in nearly a century. With the commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the UK now has two fully operational and fully modern flattops.
At 65,000 tons and 920 feet long, the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are almost three times the size of the Invincible Class aircraft carriers they replace, and they have a number of improvements.
Although they are not nuclear powered, they do have a integrated electric propulsion system composed of two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines and four Wärtsilä 38 Marine diesel engines. They each have a range of around 10,000 miles.
The most notable feature are the two islands, rather than one, on the decks of aircraft carriers. The forward island manages navigation, while the rear island manages the flight controls of the carrier’s air wing.
The two-island configuration provides a certain unique advantages, allowing greater visibility, increased survivability, a larger flight deck and more efficient use of space, as well as reduced air turbulence above the flight deck . It also incorporates the two exhaust stacks that every ship should have.
The ideal air squadron would consist of 36 F-35B fighters and at least four helicopters, probably a combination of Merlin Mk2 Where Mk4 and Wildcat AH1. The extra space, however, can accommodate larger air wings if needed. Carriers can also transport Chinook helicopters and V-22 tiltrotor plane.
The carriers also have a modern suite of technologies and equipment. The new weapon handling system, for example, requires only 48 crew members to operate instead of the 160 previously required.
HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth entered service on December 7, 2017 and has amassed an impressive CV. After three years of testing and development, it form a strike group for the first time in October 2020.
Since May of this year, it has been the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 21, a task force that includes the British nuclear submarine HMS Artful, the Dutch Navy frigate HNLMS Evertsen and the US Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans on a 28-week deployment to 40 countries in Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East.
He deployed with the largest fifth-generation air wing ever on a ship – 10 F-35Bs from Fighter Attack Squadron 211 of the US Marine Corps and eight F-35Bs from 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.
The aircraft carrier also participated in fighting for the first time, carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq a month after the deployment began. The strikes put the carrier and its planes in a game of “cat and mouse” with Russian forces, who kept a close watch on them as they operated in the eastern Mediterranean.
The aircraft carrier is expected to return home in December and is now in the Mediterranean, where it has taken another, less welcome step: a British pilot had to refloat an F-35B during flight operations, just the fifth F-35 to be lost in an accident.
HMS Prince of Wales
HMS Prince of Wales entered service on December 10, 2019. Since then, the aircraft carrier and her crew have undergone nearly two years of intense training and fitting out.
More than 20 ships, dozens of aircraft and more than 3,000 personnel from a dozen countries took part in the exercise, which included airborne assaults, amphibious landings and live fire exercises.
After Joint Warrior, HMS Prince of Wales was declared fully operational. The aircraft carrier will become NATO’s command ship in 2022, making it the flagship of the alliance.
A small wing
The two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – there are no plans to build any more – have been declared operational and have proven their worth in several exercises, but they still have problems with their air squadrons, in particular their small size.
With the Harrier retreat in 2010, the F-35B was the only fixed-wing aircraft capable of operating on British aircraft carriers. In 2015, the United Kingdom announced its intention to acquire 138 F-35s. Only 48 have been ordered and only 21 have been delivered – 20 after the plane was lost this month – with the rest in production.
The UK’s active F-35Bs are in service with the Royal Air Force, including those aboard aircraft carriers. While some RAF F-35Bs are flown by Royal Navy pilots, the Royal Navy should not have its own F-35B squadron until 2023.
The small number of British F-35s available is probably one of the reasons the US Marine Corps F-35Bs deployed aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. Officials have touted this cooperation, but it has raised concerns that the Royal Navy may have to rely on allies to fill the hangars of its aircraft carriers.
Jeremy Quin, British Defense Procurement Minister, has noted that the UK will order more F-35s “by 2025”, but has not given an exact number or confirmed that the UK is still considering acquiring 138.
The British Army has other aircraft programs underway. The Royal Navy is studying aircraft carrier-launched versions of the Wingman drones developed by the Royal Air Force. The UK is also developing a sixth-generation stealth fighter, known as the Tempest, intended to outperform current fifth-generation jets.
Despite concerns about the air squadron, the number and variety of planes that the new British aircraft carriers can carry means that the Royal Navy will soon have one of the most powerful aircraft carrier forces in the world.