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HMS Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers

Issue 105

The fact Great Britain is an island nation necessitates maintaining a strong navy that can project power in distant parts of the World, and aircraft carriers are the backbone of any force projection capability.

When the HMS Queen Elizabeth Class was commissioned in 2017, the Royal Navy did not have an aircraft carrier in its inventory for 3 years and did not conduct aircraft operations from its carriers for 11 years. The arrival of the HMS Queen Elisabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales was a jubilant moment for the Royal Navy after a long period of designing, planning, re-designating and re-planning, and construction was finally over along with what seemed like an unending political tug-of-war. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are by far the largest ships ever constructed for the Royal Navy. The size truly matters as these warships are designed to meet nine key user requirements.

The class is expected to be able to operate with joint/combined forces to deliver medium-scale offensive air operations and integrate with all elements of this joint/combined force. The class will have high readiness for one unit for medium or small-scale carrier strike operations at all times while being able to deploy to core areas of interest. These ships are expected to conduct operations lasting up to 9 months away from port facilities and support air operations up to 70 days with afloat support. The class is expected to be able to carry up to 40 aircrafts in surge operations and create 110 air sorties per day. The class is expected to survive and protect themselves against natural incidents as well as existing and future threats. Furthermore, these ships will be able to operate and support a full range of different rotary and fix winged aircraft and will be able to deploy agile mission groups.

The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers have an empty displacement of 65,000 tons. Their waterline length is 263 meters increasing to 280 on the flight deck. The beam of these warships is 39 meters at the waterline increasing to 70 meters on the flight deck. 

The flight deck is the heart of any aircraft carrier, and the total area of the Queen Elizabeth class flight deck spans 14,000 m2. Of this area 2,000 m2 is treated with a thermal coating made from a combination of titanium and aluminum to withstand the enormous heat from the engines of F-35B Lightning II aircraft. The Queen Elizabeth class lacks the mechanical means to propel the aircraft into the air such as catapults. Therefore, there is a 61-meter ski jump with a 12.5-degree angle, which enables F-35B planes to launch with their full load.

Photo: F-35B STOVL Aircrafts on board

Like their predecessors, the Invincible class, the new carriers lack an angled flight deck. Since F-35B planes can perform landings using both vertical thrust from the engine and lift from the wing the flight deck is large enough to recover the aircraft without the angled flight deck. This type of landing will be unique to Royal Navy as other naval F-35 operators have either arrester cables (such as the US) or not enough flight deck space (such as Italy). 

Immediately below the flight deck is the 168-meter-long hangar with a floor area of 4,800m2. The 29-meter wide and 7-meter-high hangar provides enough space for 22 F-35B sized aircraft. To move the aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck and vice versa are two large aircraft elevators. These are located aft of each island. Each aircraft elevator can lift 70 tons. They are large enough to carry a Chinook sized helicopter with its blades unfolded.

An important design feature of Queen Elizabeth class ships is the high automation envisaged since the early conceptual designs of these ships. 

Weapon handing, machinery, damage control, communication and even food preparation on board have been designed to work with a minimal crew. The result is these ships need 672 sailors to run without the aircrew. In contrast, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has a core crew around 1,250. Both carriers carry an addition crew of around 600 strong to fly and maintain the aircraft on board.

The high degree of automation on board the Queen Elisabeth Class makes these ships more affordable to operate and they are more comfortable for the crew. The ships have space to house 250 extra troops such as Royal Marines or if needed, refugees. 

In February 2021 the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers have occupied a place in Turkish public opinion when there were rumors that one of these warships might have been bought by the Turkish Republic. It is nice to observe that this topic was only briefly discussed and quickly forgotten. 

It is neither easy nor cheap to build, own and operate a an dedicated aircraft carrier. There are a small number of navies operating aircraft carriers, few navies have such capability. Nevertheless, as the examples of Argentina and Brazil have demonstrated, it is an expensive elite club.

Aircraft carriers are very potent and mighty weapons, making them not only a military instrument but also instrument of foreign policy, thus a political tool. The existence of an aircraft carrier must be supported not only by economical means but by political means as well. Thailand is a good example of a country that owns an aircraft carrier without a political need and objective to have one, essentially that ship is mainly used as the King of Thailand’s yacht.  

To have an aircraft carrier is a symbol of technical, operational, and doctrinal maturity for a navy. An interesting and certainly worthy of being an alternative are large amphibious assault ships such as the Juan Carlos 1 or America-class warships. While these ships lack the airpower of a full-fledged aircraft carrier, these versatile ships can offer more options for their users including the ability to project power ashore by landing troops, armored vehicles, and other equipment.  

A warship, like many ships, is a living system consisting of crew, equipment, systems, and subsystems on board. Learning the inner workings of an organism is best done when observing the intricacies of a living example and posting Turkish naval officers as liaisons on board aircraft carriers of our NATO partners is an effective way to learn about the multiple aspects of operations on board rather than dissecting the cadavers of decommissioned aircraft carriers send to break yards in Aliağa.