The significance of Britain’s new aircraft carriers
WARSHIPS International Fleet Review celebrates HMS Queen Elizabeth’s arrival in Portsmouth
The maiden arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth in her Hampshire home was a moment of great, good cheer not just for local people but also for the Royal Navy and the nation too. The creation of such a mighty vessel – on the cutting edge and with immense potential to project power in safeguarding the UK and its allies – also safeguards the continuation of Portsmouth as the Royal Navy’s foremost base.
Throughout the ages warships have been a highly visible expression of a state’s defence strategy, and the most complex and expensive of systems. HMS Queen Elizabeth, at over 65,000 tonnes, is the biggest warship ever built for the Royal Navy – consisting of 17 million components. That she arrived in Portsmouth two days early after seven weeks of sea trials since first steaming from Rosyth was a triumph for all concerned. The principal players in the success story have been the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Navy and their Aircraft Carrier Alliance partners (comprising BAE Systems, Thales UK and Babcock International).
The carrier programme is not a cheap venture, for Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship Prince of Wales will cost over £6.2 billion along with infrastructure costs of £100 million at Portsmouth alone. The good news is that those costs can be amortised over the fifty-year lifetime of these magnificent vessels. The carriers demonstrate a government committed to strengthening the RN and to maintaining British influence globally. In an ever more unstable and uncertain world, with growing threats from state and non-state actors, the two ships are ideally suited to project power and exert influence across the oceans and even deep inland.
A salute by the First Sea Lord
In the words of the current First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, Queen Elizabeth is ‘much more than a floating airport, more than a bulky weapon of war, a statement of national intent about the future’.
Admiral Jones has described the supercarrier’s arrival in her home port as ‘another seminal moment in the long history of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth’. He added: ‘In the golden years of the second Elizabethan age, a new era of British maritime power is beginning. And in fifty years’ time, people in Portsmouth will still talk about the day they saw this 65,000-tonne giant arrive for the first time.’
The First Sea Lord saluted the massive effort undertaken to deliver such awesome new capability to defend the nation. ‘Within the Royal Navy and within British industry, a generation has dedicated the best years of their professional careers to making the Queen Elizabeth Class a reality,’ he said on arrival day.
‘I’d like to pay tribute to all in the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, and their leadership, for all they have done to enable this moment. Today is the culmination of their achievement – not only in building this ship but in proving to the world, and to ourselves, that the United Kingdom remains a great maritime industrial nation.’
Admiral Jones also thanked the US Navy, the US Marine Corps and the French Navy, who have enabled the RN to maintain its strike carrier skills in recent years, following the decision by the coalition government in 2010 to suddenly axe the previous generation of carriers and their jets.
All have played their part, felt Admiral Jones, in ensuring that ‘in the years and decades to come, Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship will demonstrate the kind of nation we are – not a diminished nation, withdrawing from the world, but a confident, outward-looking and ambitious nation, with a Royal Navy to match.’
The strike force
As a strike carrier Queen Elizabeth will provide every aspect of maritime mobility, flexibility, availability, delivery of response, sustained reach and resilience. She and her sister vessel also offer equally important aspects of presence and defence diplomacy. Presence buys influence, but at the same time the new strike carrier provides freedom of action, intent without constraint, and both political and military choices.
She will fly the STOVL version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the ‘B’ variant of the F-35, the Lightning II, of which the government has so far committed to buy 48 (out of a hoped-for total of 138 F-35s). The carrier will also carry the Merlin Mk2 helicopter fitted with Crowsnest airborne early warning (AEW) radar.
Of course there are concerns, not least over the spiralling costs of the F-35, though even at £100 million each that aircraft costs far less than the RAF’s Typhoon fighter (total programme cost nearly £18 billion). Per plane the F-35B is also £40 million cheaper than the RAF’s new tanker.
The size of the proposed carrier air group – at most 40 aircraft – seems small. A US Navy carrier embarks far more aircraft per tonne. Some commentators are still suggesting the ship should carry a different aircraft, launched by catapult, but Queen Elizabeth is here and the F-35Bs have been ordered; the first pilots are trained and ready.
The Prime Minister’s message
Besides the ship, perhaps the most significant element of arrival day at Portsmouth was the presence of the Prime Minister, who had not until then shown much overt interest in naval matters.
The PM reminded Queen Elizabeth’s ship’s company that a great many political expectations have landed on the carrier’s flight-deck. Yet construction of Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, even at a time of straitened budgets, demonstrates Britain is still a major player in the West’s defence, available for high-intensity war fighting against a state foe, targeted action against terrorists, or providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of the United Kingdom as a great global, maritime nation, and a stunning piece of twenty-first century engineering. She is a true testament to British shipbuilding and design. Britain can be proud of this ship, of what she represents, and the message she delivers – that the UK intends carving out a positive, confident role for itself on the world stage in the years ahead. It is determined to remain a fully engaged global power, capable of working closely with friends and allies around the world.
The Prime Minister has renewed the government’s commitment to increase defence spending every year and meet NATO’s target to spend two per cent of GDP on it annually. ‘Many times in our history we have called upon the Royal Navy to defend our island and protect our interests and those of our citizens around the world,’ said Mrs May. ‘The threats we face have changed and naval technology advanced beyond all recognition. But in the fifty years of service to come from this vessel, we can be inspired by those traditions to face the new challenges of the twenty-first century with the same determination and resolve which have always been the Royal Navy’s hallmarks.’
A need for ongoing commitment
As the new strike carriers approach operational capability, it is essential that Mrs May’s government ensures they are properly protected. More frigates need to be built and crewed as quickly as possible. It is also essential that defects in the power generation systems of Type 45 destroyers are rectified without further delay, for they are the carriers’ primary defence against air attack. So far the May administration has been tardy in this regard, with orders for new frigates and repair programmes for the destroyers too long in gestation.
Even so, during her visit to Portsmouth and HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Prime Minister said that throughout history the Royal Navy has been there to protect the United Kingdom and would continue to do so.
Mrs May made it clear she believes the new carriers will be at the heart of defending the nation via their primary role: ‘Alongside her supporting task group, including state-of-the-art aircraft, helicopters and escorts, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will in time give the UK a truly world-class carrier strike capability for decades to come.’
This is an edited and extended version of the Odin’s Eye leader commentary as originally published in the October 2017 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review. It is used here by kind permission of the editor of WARSHIPS IFR and that magazine’s publisher Tandy Media.