Naval Air: Britain Regains Its Carrier Capability


January 13, 2018: Although Britain was one of the pioneers in developing and operating aircraft carriers, they have had none of them operational since 2011. In December 2017 Britain commissioned their first Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. This symbolic act ends a period during which Royal Navy has been without operational carrier. Meanwhile navy aviation personnel had had to maintenance their skills by operating together with U.S. Navy counterparts. This cooperation included having Royal Navy pilots work with the U.S. Marine Corps, which is the first user of the F-35B, the vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35 both Britain and American aviators will used on carriers. The Queen Elizabeth has a ski jump deck for aircraft to take off with heavier loads than they can handle with vertical takeoff. While the U.S. does not use the ski jump flight deck, Britain has adopted it because of cost considerations and changes in weapons technology.

Although the current steam catapult was designed by a British naval officers in the 1950s and were essential for launching the new, and heavier, jet aircraft hauling tons of missiles and bombs these catapults are expensive to build and maintain. The British eventually abandoned the large carriers, and steam catapults in 1979 because of this. At one point the high cost of the F-35B led to examination of installing steam catapults so the cheaper F-35C (conventional take off) could be used. That idea was scrapped because it would have increased cost of the project by about $3 billion. There was also the realization that smart bombs made it less vital that carrier based jets carry heavy weapons loads.

The 65,000 ton Queen Elizabeth is one of two identical carriers built under a $8.3 billion program that had to be constantly revised because of escalating costs. The second carrier, the Prince of Wales will be delivered in 2019. The Queen Elizabeth will undergo helicopter trails in early 2018 followed by a voyage to the United States with some F-35Bs for training exercises. The British F-35Bs are expected to be certified as capable for operating from land bases in in 2018 and for combat operations from the carrier in 2020.

The Queen Elizabeth is expected to serve for around 50 years as the Royal Navy flagship. The carrier will be able to provide 72 or more F-35B sorties a day (which can be increased if needed) and onboard Artisan radar system can track up to 800 potential targets at the same time and is built to be resistant to jamming. These carriers have a crew of 1,200 from of which half will operate the ship while the rest is an aircrew for aircraft operation and maintenance. Maximum speed around 45 kilometers an hour. The ship uses an integrated electric propulsion powered by two MT30 gas turbine alternators providing 70MW and four diesel engines providing 40MW. Endurance is about seven days between replenishments from accompanying a tanker and supply ship. The carrier is expected to reach full operational capability by the late 2020s and will be able to carry up to 36 F-25Bs (plus four helicopters) but so far the budget will only provide 24 F-35Bs per carrier. The carrier itself isn’t armed but it will be accompanied by support vessels: two destroyers, two anti-submarine frigates, a nuclear submarine, a tanker and a supply ship.

The Queen Elizabeth entering service is a very important step for Great Britain to restore its restoring its carrier strike capability. Britain always had and still has ambitious to play a key role around world. The carriers are very useful at projecting power and influence over specific areas thus securing interests. However British capabilities to play that role are much more limited than a few decades ago. Because of this only one of two carriers will be operational at any given time, as Britain doesn’t have the manpower or other resources to simultaneously operate the two carriers. ---- Przemysław Juraszek




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