HMS Queen Elizabeth: laudable or unaffordable?


HMS Queen Elizabeth: laudable or unaffordable?

Peter Divey assesses strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s latest hard power capability: HMS Queen Elizabeth.

As recently as 1996 UK defence spend stood at three per cent of GDP. That has now shrunk to two per cent. That is a significant reduction in spending; it is not austerity-light. Defence chiefs are constantly looking at ‘efficiencies’ with capital spend. Hugely expensive big-ticket costs are unavoidable with military procurement. Ships. Aircraft. But personnel will always be the biggest cost: wages, training, pensions. It is almost impossible to reduce those costs without cuts, so cuts there have been. Everywhere. Schemes are ongoing, sub-contracting maintenance, recruitment, even training. Helpful, but really little more than tinkering. It is unsurprising that the Royal Navy’s (RN) splurging on its new aircraft carrier capability is controversial. Costs are massive. Scrutiny has been intense and relentless.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales have some notable design features. Efficiency and pragmatism are to the fore. Propulsion is diesel-electric rather than nuclear because it is much cheaper. The ship’s crew will be less than 700, modest compared to other ships of similar size and class. Efficient. There are two towers giving these ships a distinctive profile: the forward tower for ship command the other for flight control. The flight-deck has a launch ramp but does without either aircraft launch catapult or landing arrest wires. This decision saved money but has had a big effect on future flexibility as the carriers must now use short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The Royal Navy is expert at maximising this setup because it exactly mirrors their prior Harrier setup on HMS Invincible. From 2025, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will bestride the globe, protecting and furthering Her Majesty’s interests. The carriers will always be accompanied by a specialised protection and logistic fleet. The Navy call it Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP).

CEPP depends almost entirely upon the mysterious qualities of the Lockheed Martin F-35B STOVL jet fighter. A modern fifth generation stealth-enhanced design. Critics have been savage. The F-35 programme is over-priced, late, too heavy and complex, unfit for purpose. A joke. This is the aircraft that the Royal Nave and Royal Air Force will purchase as many as 138 aircraft through to 2035. There is a 15 per cent work share arrangement on UK bound aircraft which could create up to 24,000 jobs. The performance of the F-35B is as yet unclear, much is still secret. Will it be as awful as the critics say? As outstanding as Lockheed Martin say? There are some clues: senior RAF personnel have talked about deploying the Typhoon (Britain’s current air superiority fighter) out front as “the tip of the spear” taking it to opposing aircraft with the F-35 sitting in behind acting as a “force-multiplier”.  This presumably refers to the futuristic sensors and battle-space awareness of the F-35B enabling it to control and direct a conflict, “multiplying” the lethality of the Typhoon. Or maybe the F-35 is too expensive to risk? Or maybe it just can’t fight a damn? I am optimistic and expect the F-35B to perform well. The Navy will of course have to “take it” to any aggressors without any Typhoon led spear-tips.

What will CEPP actually do? Surprisingly little actual fighting I expect. Restraining pirates off the African coast, famine relief, thwarting drug runners and people smugglers. Maybe even policing UK waters post-Brexit? It would be fool-hardy to directly challenge one of the carriers and its accompanying fleet. Walk softly when you carry a big stick. The threat alone should be sufficient… unless an enemy has made an entirely different assessment of the merits of the controversial F-35B. If it is useless you will be unable to project meaningful power. Time will tell.

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  • Peter Divey
    Peter Divey
    Peter Divey's dormant interest in British and American politics has been reawakened by last year's Brexit referendum result and Trump's ascendency to the White House. In his spare time he enjoys playing chess and has a growing collection of vintage wrist watches.
    • AndrewTheTaxpayer

      Actually defence spending is closer to 1.9%. And to get it that high the books were seriously cooked. My service pension; along with all the service pensions and widow’s pensions, war pensions etc, were included in that %age.

      • Corporate Kitten

        Lower Andrew…. it’s 1.7%

        The MOD get around £42bn… this is just over 2% of GDP
        However, £9bn of that is immediately redirected to the foreign aid.
        Actual defence spending is around £33bn & as you said, that includes pensions and redundancy payments that should not be considered.

        If anything, real defence expenditure is probably below 1.5%

    • These things are helicopter carriers intended for an EU navy, alongside French aircraft carriers. How can they operate independently without top down radar cover, and how can they have top down radar cover if they can’t launch anything to provide that? Dropping the catapult has rendered these things pointless white elephants.

      • Corporate Kitten

        Crowsnest will do that just fine.

        The S1850 & Artisan are more than capable also.

    • NickG

      HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales have some notable design features. Efficiency and pragmatism are to the fore

      That’s just silly inversion of the harsh truth; it’s embarrassing propaganda.

      The Queen Elizabeth class carriers are stymied because of two ‘notable design features’, that are inefficient and not pragmatic…

      1) The decision to build a conventionally powered fleet carrier – unlike the US Nimitz and Ford Class and the French Charles de Gaul. This has 4 effects that impinge directly upon capability -a) Limited range – conventionally powered carriers have to be refueled every week or two. Nuclear powered carriers go 20 years between refueling. b) The marine diesel on board limits the storage for Jet A1 – jet fuel, which impinges upon operational capability. c) Nuclear powered carriers have virtually unlimited power fpr generating fresh water for de salination and for operating electromagnetic catapults, conventional powered carriers do not d) Because the carriers need continued support from tankers it creates a massive force protection overhead, this in a navy with only 19 major surface ships.

      2) The decision not to put electromagnetic catapults in limiting them to hosting vertical landing and short take off aircraft. The knock on effect is to make our carriers NOT inoperable with the 10 US fleet carriers and the one French carrier. It cannot take F/A18 Super Hornets the French Rafale nor the new Lightning F35C (carrier catapult variant) and we are relegated to operating the range and payload limited F35B (vertical landing and take off) variant that has a heavy, complicated, high maintenance and expensive vertical take off system. Because of commonality between the Feet Air Arm and the RAF the RAF are limited to this variant too, which is bonkers. The effect is that our new Queen Elizebeth ‘fleet’ carries are more akin to a pair of the 8 conventionally powered US Wasp class landing ships used by the US Marine Corps as littoral amphibious platforms that operated the Harrier and are transitioning to the F35B. Which is why our fleet air arm crews are working up training on the F35B on these rather than on the proper US blue water fleet carriers.

      British military hubris rears its head ….again.

    • Fubar2

      In principle, laudible. In practise, perhaps not so. More of a triumph for industry than a true strategic asset that it should be.

      The problem is that successive 1SL’s have repeatedly sacrificed other projects to keep the carriers alive, to the point where while yes, you do have a nice new shiny carrier, you dont have enough vessels to form a proper Carrier Battle Group, nor the surface assets to protect it. The F35B is limited in range and offers a reasonable strike capability against land targets but not as a fleet defender to protect the asset – and because the jets have a more limited range/endurance than the A or C variants, it has to get closer to trouble in order to deliver its strike capability. There is a capability gap where area fleet defence, SSN’s/SSK’s, ASW capability, Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft etc – assembling a CBG to take on a mission like the Falklands, if it happens in the next five years is going to be nigh on impossible.

      And thats been because the Chiefs Of the Services have had a serious case of shiny kit syndrome. it has been done with far more reliance on maintaining a sovereign defence capability of sorts, industrially rather than what is strategically needed. It would have been better to have bought the F18 SuperHornet instead and had cats and traps on the carrier and made sure that the rest of the CBG package is up to the job.

      The main problem is political. We’re either a serious world player militarily, and we scale our forces appropriately or we stop pissing money up the wall into BAe’s pockets.

    • George Drake

      What is the argument against a dispersed fleet of small warships that can launch and recover unmanned drones? These would have more strategic and tactical flexibility, be more resilient, and be much cheaper to build and operate. I don’t understand why the RN went with carrier technology when one solid hit would put the main platform out of action. With a swarm of smaller vessels linking their capabilities the enemy would have to take a large majority of the craft out before achieving the same effect.

      • Corporate Kitten

        What would these baby remote control boats that are somehow ocean navigable be carrying?

        • George Drake

          Quite small vessels are ocean navigable. The ships themselves could be remotely operated, or manned. They can carry whatever is needed. My point is that building one or two large manned ships to fly manned aircraft off of is not exactly going to be the warfare of the future. Even in current warfare a ratio of one manned aircraft to four drones is becoming usual.

          • Corporate Kitten

            lol…. no George.

            You your “small warship”…. so, say something the size of the Type-23.
            You have your remote boats…. say the size of a RHIB
            They carry f*ck all fuel so can’t go anywhere and can’t operate above Sea State 4 (RC boats are especially vulnerable to chop.

            Don’t pretend you can wave your fantasy on through with a “they can carry whatever is needed”.
            Show me a picture of something the size of a RHIB with a Harpoon missile on board and I will buy you a cookie.

            • George Drake

              I was thinking something more the size of a fishing trawler, big enough to operate world-wide and enough to carry the desired weapon systems. The harpoon has reached the end of it’s operational life in any case, and we can’t afford a replacement because we spent all the money on two giant floating tables. Why not spend the cash on developing a container-size modular reactor, as China is doing? Wouldn’t need to worry about fuel then. Again, if one craft gets hit, then you have others. If the QE gets hit, that’s you out of the fight.

            • Corporate Kitten

              And what will the swarm of unarmed nuclear fueled fishing trawlers be deployed from?

              This gets better.

            • George Drake
    • stuartMilan

      what use is this expensive toy against the 23k jihadis who have been allowed into the country?

      • Corporate Kitten

        What use is anything bought by the MOD against the Jihadis allowed into the country?

        Stupid ant-logic

    • Dougie

      Treat with caution any statements about the F-35B from “senior RAF officers”: they have an instinctive antipathy towards naval aviation and vigorously opposed the procurement of carrier-capable aircraft for the RAF.

      • AndrewTheTaxpayer

        True. The RAF have shafted the Navy ever since they “moved” Australia several hundred miles in the 60s to ensure the cancellation of CVA-01. The Invicible class ships were never intended as Aircraft carriers and were properly titled “through-deck cruisers”.

        The RAF also tried to get Apache transferred to the RAF, claiming that close air support was an RAF role. However they were stymied by the Army saying that moving troops and stores round the battlefield is tactical logistic role so would they handover the Chinook/Puma/Merlin/Wessex fleet in exchange.

      • derek

        The RAF seem to vigorously oppose anything that doesn’t revolve around them. Apache going to the Army gave them conniptions didn’t it. Maybe it’s time for the RAF to be shared out between the Army and Navy.

    • Jonathan Miller

      Try laughable. HMS Vanity will not last two minutes against a capable foe.

      • obbo12

        If fortunate that the biggest threat comes drunk incompetent Russians isn’t it.

    • Skellan

      It’s a great piece of kit and the F35b will work and be fine. At this stage of the process every fighter in modern times has always had a huge lobby saying it’s underperforming over budget and crap. Then they turn out fine after they go through the Mk2 process.

      Ignoring the US Navy this is the biggest best most up to date and capable aircraft carrier fleet in the world.

      Cheap at the price.

    • Dr Evil

      No catapult though. Since the aircraft that do VTOL and vertical landings aren’t ready, get a cat fitted in the US. BAe are being difficult because of their tie in with the aircraft already ordered. We need to rent some US Navy Fighters in the short term to fill the gap. Frankly, they should have nuclear power plants.

      • Thomtids

        It is not possible to retrofit cats and traps. The failure to install them when building (a decision made by Cameron demonstrating his having a brain the size of a small planet) was entirely deliberate to render the F35 an unavoidable choice Britain having been suckered into a joint development arrangement and anticipating our ability to be involved in disasterous investments in major capital programmes and end up scrapping the homegrown product and buying someone else’s.
        QE is and will remain a political bribe by Brown to Scotland, the F35 is a dog’s breakfast that is a monument to Cameron’s vanity, e.g. The Yanks say that it is “stealthy”. So it is, but requires reskinning every 100 hours flying time……and are we building our planes? No. The Italians are.

        • Corporate Kitten

          “but requires reskinning every 100 hours flying time”

          That’s a lie….. so, I will ask you to give a source.for your make believe.

      • obbo12

        It will cost millions to put on a new catapult and in the time it would take the new aircraft will be ready. The first F35s will be delivered in 2018. The carrier will not be operational until 2025 due flight tests and training of new generation of carrier pilots, not just fleet air arm but RAF pilots too.

      • Corporate Kitten

        And then you add more time and much much more cost.

        So, why?

    • Corporate Kitten


      It is affordable while at the same time not anywhere near the best of its kind.

      It will serve Britain well for the next 40 years.

    • geo

      a carrier projects power. It is a big target that requires a lot of protection. its very costly.

      does the UK need to project power? No, we dont – our focus these days needs to be at home. The Falklands are secure as is Gibraltar. most of the rest of our possessions arent under threat.
      Can we protect a target that size? No we cant, not without stripping ships from just about everywhere including the Henley Regatta.
      Can we afford it? No we cant. Our armed forces are and have been for some time at breaking point. Gordon Brown ordered these carriers as an F U to the new tory govt and set up the contract to make termination prohibitively expensive. They are white elephants and thats before we get to the mess with the F35.

      labour .. ensuring the UK armed forces are under equipped for the wrong war at all times.

      • obbo12

        The Falklands are not as secure as Gibraltar. The Argentinians are buying Mig 29s from the Russians now. The previous Argentinian government was also in talks about leasing Russian Su 24s.

        • Corporate Kitten

          I don’t think that Mig deal is going anywhere.
          The latest is for a dozen Super Étendards from France.

      • Dr Evil

        So it’s about time we had at least 100 more warships. We are a maritime power and should act like one.

        • Fubar2

          We WERE a maritime power. Many years ago. Not any more. Havent been since the late 50’s/60’s.

          Given that we are an island and rely on sea trade, we still SHOULD be a maritime power. But, sadly, we’re not.

        • Duke_Bouvier

          Well – not 100 but enough to provide routine escorts for both carriers and our other missions within normal parameters and be able to put two fully spec’d carrier groups out within closing down the rest of the RN. And we urgently need Airborne Early Warning/Control capability too.

    • Busman

      I believe the cost was £3 billion. Whether that is a waste of money is arguable but at less than 10% of the projected final cost of HS2 it would seem to be relatively good value.

    • Malcolm

      The Royal Navy, if the UK is serious about being a truly global defence power, needs to have a carrier capability; the decision to scrap the Invincible Class carriers and their recently upgraded Harriers, before replacements were operational was an absurd, dangerous, account-driven gamble which betrayed the total lack of strategic military understanding of today’s political class. We may, if we are very lucky, get away with it, but who knows in today’s highly volatile world? Politicians always want to be able to project power on the world stage, which is laudable, but wish to do it on the cheap, which is not. A carrier capability does not come cheap, especially when the indispensable escort fleet is included in the cost, and you can’t have carriers afloat without them. If they wanted to cut the cost of these new carriers, why when they were dispensing with catapults and arrester wires to reduce the price (and at the same time the inter-operability with allied naval aircraft which require them), didn’t they just build smaller vessels? If they are only to embark VTOL aircraft what was wrong with a smaller hull that could accommodate them as did the previous carriers? The fact that so much is now being made of HMS Queen Elizabeth being the largest ship in the RN’s history, when a smaller one would have achieved the same end result without catapults, smacks of an ego project. I wish her and her sister ship well, but cannot do the same for the myopic politicians and MOD staffers who want a five star service with a pound shop price tag.

      • obbo12

        1) The Harrier was too old, and Mig 29s too common. No amount of upgrading can make a 1960s subsonic airframe compete against a 1980s supersonic airframe.

        2) The Invincible class was primarily an ASW helicopter platform with the ability to keep 2 aircraft in the air to deal with Russian Bear recon aircraft. Basically an updated version on a WW2 escort carrier. Making a smaller vessel will not give the capability for air wing large enough to maintain an air patrol over the carrier and launch escorted airstrikes. If you reran the Falklands war with the situation in 2015 when Argentina was looking to lease 12 Su 24s and buy MIg 12 29s would give a strike of 12 bombers escorted by 12 Mig 29s. Only having 12 aircraft to counter would not be a good situation. On the HMS Queen Elizabeth the air wing is 36 F35s, clearly enough to deal with a 24 attackers.

    • A real liberal

      ‘Bestride the globe’. Oh dear. They will either bestride Portsmouth harbour for want of the resources to sail safely; or bestride the African coast on humanitarian missions for want of ships that could do the job at a quarter the cost; or bestride the wake of a US fleet for want of self defence; or bestride a politician’s PR photo for want of any sense of shame and embaressment. But ‘bestride the globe’! Come on, get the jingoistic, nostalgic tears out of your post-imperial eyes. These scandalous wastes of public money are Gordon Brown’s vanity project, conceived to ladle more taxpayer’s cash into the pockets of lazy, spendthrift Scottish Labour voters. How’s that going for you, Gordon? The British defence budget shrank years ago below the level at which any sensible person would spend money on aircraft carriers, which have huge support needs and overheads. Submarines and frigates yes. Infantry battalions yes, yes, yes. Attack helicopters yes. Even hospitals and schools yes. But aircraft carriers: never.

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