On December 4th, the British Royal Navy’s two newest aircraft carriers docked together for the very first time at their home base in Portsmouth. The HMS Prince of Wales has been docked there since November 2019.
It was joined by the HMS Queen of Elizabeth, which is the lead ship of the class, after it returned from the US where it took part in test flights of its F-35B Lightning fighter jets.
Major upgrade work has been carried out on the jetties at Portsmouth to allow the two giant ships to berth beside each other.
The outlining of the project began back in 1997, when it was established that the Invincible-class carriers needed replacement after a long service.
The initial concepts were for an aircraft carrier that is bigger than the Invincible-class, and has the capability for vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft.
Operational analysis suggested that 50 aircraft would be needed to ensure campaign success in medium-intensity scenarios and would probably require a ship displacing at least 38,000 tons.
The decisions of the 1998 Defence Review were generally sound and promised the navy would have “two 40,000-ton aircraft carriers, with a complement of up to 50 aircraft and helicopters each. The first will have an in-service date of 2012”.
In 1999, the Key User Requirements were laid down, which the future aircraft carriers needed to cover:
- Interoperability – able to contribute to joint and international operations
- Integration – able to integrate with the joint battlespace and support air group operations with command, control, communications and intelligence functions
- Availability – able to provide one operational ship available at all times
- Deployability – able to deploy worldwide
- Sustainability – able to mount sustained operations
- Aircraft – able to deploy offensive air power without host-nation support
- Survivability – have a high probability of surviving damage
- Flexibility – able to operate the largest possible range of aircraft
- Versatility- able to operate in the widest range of roles.
Initially, the assessment phase began in 1999 and by 2001 it became clear that the UK would be part of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
In September 2002 it was confirmed the design would be an ‘adaptable carrier’ configured with a ski jump for STOVL but capable of being fitted with catapults and arrestor gear if required at some point in the future. The displacement had by now grown to 60,000 tons.
In December 2002 the Thales/BMT Alpha concept was selected by the Integrated Project Team (IPT) as the preferred design, beating the proposal from BAE Systems who had been expected to win. The Alpha was seen as more innovative and technically developed than the BAES design.
The Alpha shit, however, was found too expensive and unaffordable, and thus other designs were proposed. The Bravo and Charlie had various issues, related to durability, among other things.
In 2005 BMT announced it has tested 4 different CVF hull form models and assessed them for propulsion efficiency, maneuverability, seakeeping and noise signatures. It also investigated skeg length, rudder size, transom stern flaps and bulbous bow designs.
The basic Delta concept went through many further iterations and development before the design was considered sufficiently mature by late 2006 for detailed cost estimates to be drawn up prior to ordering long-lead items. Complex funding and industry arguments held up progress considerably but Queen Elizabeth class ships were finally ordered on 25 July 2007.
The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers have a large, 16,000m2 flight deck in a flexible layout optimized for best aircraft traffic flow with a single runway and ski ramp.
The 4,727m2 (29,000 metre3) hangar has a maximum capacity of about 20 x F-35s or a larger number of helicopters.
Without the need for catapults, the QEC can utilize the large gallery deck for aviation offices, aviation stores and an aircrew refreshment bar.
Selecting a large ship offers a generous allowance for weight growth margins of up to 16% for additional equipment to be added through the planned 50-year life of the ship.
The ship has Integrated Electric Propulsion (IEP), four electric motors drive twin shafts in a conventional arrangement.
Two gas turbines and 4 diesels provide the power for propulsion, electronics and the hotel load with a large extra margin of power available for future requirements.
Automation has been used wherever possible, especially for weapons and stores handling to reduce manning needs. Modern waste disposal equipment is fitted to make the ship as environmentally friendly as possible.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth (named after Queen Elizabeth I, not the current British monarch), was laid down on July 7th 2009. It was launched on July 17th, 2014, commissioned on December 7th, 2017.
On June 26th 2017, the new carrier left Rosyth for the first time to commence sea trials. Flight trials with helicopters began in July 2017 and the F-35B Lightning fighter jet trials began in 2019 and were finalized in December 2019.
The aircraft carrier is expected to enter full combat duty sometime in 2020.
The HMS Prince of Wales had some issues, rather political than anything else, and mostly related to costs.
The 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) declared that the UK needed only one aircraft carrier. However, penalty clauses in the contract meant that cancelling the second vessel would be more expensive than actually building it.
The SDSR, therefore, directed that the second aircraft carrier, Prince of Wales, should be built but upon completion be either mothballed or sold.
The Royal Navy’s 2012/13 yearbook stated “both carriers are likely to be commissioned and may even be capable of operating together”. In 2014, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the HMS Prince of Wales would be commissioned and used.
Construction of the ship began in 2011 at Rosyth Dockyard and ended with launch on 21 December 2017.
The completed Prince of Wales began sea trials in September 2019 and first arrived at its new home base of HMNB Portsmouth in November 2019.
The ship is to be formally commissioned into the Royal Navy at a ceremony in Portsmouth on 10 December 2019.
It is expected to enter full combat duty sometime in 2023.
The warships have the following characteristics:
- Displacement: 65,000 tons;
- Length: 284 m;
- Beam: 39 m – waterline; 73 m – overall;
- Draught: 11 m;
- Decks: 16,000 m2, 9 decks beneath flightdeck with hangar covering the centrepiece of two decks;
- Installed power: 2 × Rolls-Royce Marine Trent MT30 36 MW (48,000 hp) gas turbine engine; 4 × Wärtsilä 38 marine diesel engines (4 × 16V38 11.6 MW or 15,600 hp);
- Propulsion: Full integrated electric propulsion; 4 × GE Power Conversion 20 MW (27,000 hp) Advanced Induction Motors and VDM25000 Drives; 2 × shafts; fixed pitch propellers;
- Speed: upwards of 25 knots;
- Range: 10,000 nautical miles;
- Troops: between 250 and 900;
- Complement: 679 crew, not including the air element, in total 1,600;
- Sensors and processing systems: S1850M long range radar; Type 997 Artisan 3D medium range radar; Ultra Electronics Series 2500 Electro Optical System (EOS); Glide Path Camera (GPC);
- Armament: At least 3 × Phalanx CIWS; 30-mm DS30M Mk2 guns; Miniguns;
- Aircraft carried: It would typically carry 40 aircraft, with a total possible load of 50, they include: F-35B Lightning II; Chinook; Apache AH64; Merlin HM2 and HC4; Wildcat AH1 and HMA2; Merlin Crowsnest AEW;
- Aviation facilities: Large flight deck with ski jump; Hangar deck; Two aircraft lifts. In total it could potentially carry more than 70 aircraft, depending on the types loaded.
Initially, it was reported that the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers were expected to be capable of carrying forty aircraft, a maximum of thirty-six F-35s and four helicopters. Commodore Jerry Kyd has stated that it could carry up to 70 F-35Bs fighter jets.
The 2010 SDSR anticipated the routine peacetime deployment of twelve F-35Bs, with a surge force of 24 F-35Bs ready to join the carrier; and a number of helicopters. Fourteen Merlin HM2 will be available, as a Maritime Force Protection package on the carriers with typically nine in anti-submarine configuration and five with Crowsnest for airborne early warning.
Alternatively a Littoral Manoeuvre package could include a mix of Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force Merlin HC4, Wildcat AH1, RAF Chinooks, and Army Air Corps Apaches.
In 2018 the Committee of Public Accounts determined that build cost of the two carriers was £6.212 billion, and operational costs up to March 2021 were estimated at £0.6 billion.
Costs for the aircraft were uncertain at the current developmental position but were estimated up to March 2021 to be £5.8 billion on initial F-35s and £0.3 billion on the Crowsnest radar system for Merlin helicopters.
Important additional equipment such as communication equipment and related software for the F-35 was not yet funded. The whole life cost of the first 48 F-35s was roughly estimated as £13 billion, or over £270 million per F-35.
Naturally, no development is without its problems and in August 2019, the commanding officer of the HMS Queen Elizabeth said the ship experienced “weekly” floods. Captain Steve Moorhouse said the ship was ready to sail, nevertheless.
“The design is absolutely world class but it’s inevitable that seals and valves can fail if you haven’t run systems for years, it’s not a surprise.
Floods are part of the business, the really reassuring thing is that my sailors responded exactly as you would want them to, so all done and dusted, we are ready to sail.”
The incident was not the first flood reported on the carrier in previous years. In 2017, weeks after the Queen commissioned it into the navy, it suffered a shaft seal leak, which reportedly let in 200l of water each hour, costing millions of pounds to fix.
Back then, A Ministry of Defense spokesperson insisted that while “minor repairs continue” and “cosmetic after-effects remain, these do not affect the ship’s safe operation”.
It is also worthwhile to mention that as the ships will utilize F-35B fighter jets, their issues should also be kept in mind.
Following the decommissioning of the last HMS Illustrious, the last Invincible-class aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy, the UK currently has no active aircraft carriers.
Both the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales are to enter combat duty at a future point. The HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead ship, was commissioned in December 2017, and it is expected to fully uptake its tasks sometime in 2020, while the HMS Prince of Wales is to be commissioned on December 10th, 2019 and should enter full combat duty sometime in 2023.
Aircraft carriers are primarily a tool of power projection and a rather safe way of carrying out strikes on states and rebel groups with no effective air defense and missile capability. So, one of the main questions is against who the UK is planning to use its brand new aircraft carriers.
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