Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Queen Elizabeth class carriers

The first of two new large carriers to serve in the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is due to leave Rosyth to begin her sea trials in early 2017 and be based in Portsmouth from March 2017.

Whoever decided that the name ship for the class of the two large carriers being prepared for service in the Royal Navy would be named for Queen Elizabeth appears to have had a sense of history.

The Royal Navy's previous Queen Elizabeth ships were a class of five super-dreadnought battleships which came into service almost exactly a hundred years before the new supercarriers.

The first HMS Queen Elizabeth, commissioned in 1915, (above) was the first ever battleship armed with the configuration of eight fifteen-inch guns in four turrets, two forward and two aft, which was to be repeatedly copied both in subsequent British ships and by other nations; and she was also the first  battleship powered by oil-fired boilers rather than coal. Her class were the fastest battleships of their day, the most powerful ships the world had seen to that date, and probably the most successful class of dreadnought battleships the Royal Navy ever operated.

They served in every theatre in both world wars, often in the thick of the most intense fighting, and despite coming under repeated heavy attack all five survived the first war and four of them survived the second.

The German C in C at the battle of Jutland, which took place a hundred years ago this year, credited the 5th Battle Squadron, composed entirely of Queen Elizabeth class ships, with shooting "with extraordinary rapidity and accuracy" and nearly a quarter of a century later they were still competitive with the best naval gunners of the time. At the battle of Calabria in 1940 HMS Warspite scored a hit on the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare at a range of over 26,000 yards, which was and remains one of the longest-range naval artillery hits in history.

The new carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are far and away the largest vessels ever built for the Royal Navy at 65,000 to 70,000 tons displacement depending on how you measure tonnage, and over nine hundred feet long. Their cost is considerable - over six billion pounds for the two ships - but if they serve their country as well as the first Queen Elizabeth class did, they will be worth every penny.

Not that their construction has been free from controversy. After they were originally ordered by the last Labour government, a defence review in 2010 argued that only one carrier was needed, but it turned out that the penalty clauses on the contract signed by the last Labour government would have made cancelling the second carrier so ruinously expensive that it was actually cheaper to finish building her than to cancel the order!

I still can't quite decide whether this represents ruinous incompetence by the Labour treasury or a brilliant stratagem by some admiral or defence planner who correctly foresaw that at some stage the bean-counters were bound to try to cut the project down to one ship, but if they were forced to complete the construction of the second vessel by a punitive cancellation clause, then public opinion would never allow her to be sold off or mothballed rather than brought into service.

The next problem was what planes the new carriers would carry and it appeared at one stage that we might for several years have carriers but no planes. Howeve, it currently appears that their main fixed wing platforms will be the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-role stealth fighter - almost certainly the F35B short take off and vertical landing version - which will begin trials from the new carriers in 2018 with fully operational squadrons operating by 2020.

The Queen Elizabeth class carriers will also deploy helicopters for AWACS and anti-submarine missions and possibly also amphibious operations.

There is an interesting article by George Allison published today on the UK defence journal site about the latest views on what aircraft the Queen Elizabeths are likely to operate, which you can read here.

Unless I live to a very great age, I probably won't be around when the Queen Elizabeth carriers need replacing - I have seen it suggested that they have been designed for an operational life of fifty years and their closest equivalents currently at sea, the USA's Nimitz class carriers, have very nearly achieved that. But I hope we have learned from the lessons of this handover period. They should have been ordered several years earlier, and the questions  of what aircraft they were to fly sorted out at the same time, so that we did not have an interregnum of six years between the service life of the Invincible class light carriers, the last of which was decommissioned in 2014, and the Queen Elizabeths, the first of which is scheduled to be fully operational in 2020.

Supposing the UK had desperately needed a carrier for the conflict with DAESH in 2015 or 2016 we would have had a problem wouldn't we? We can't exactly say "Sorry Mr Al Baghdadi, can you please wait until 2020 when we're ready for you?"

Neither would it be ideal if we urgently need the power-projection capabilities of an aircraft carrier in, say, early 2018 and have to take emergency measures to get one or both Queen Elizabeth ships into active service in a hurry. Britain has been fortunate enough to have had people who worked miracles to do things like that in the past but it's not fair to our sailors and airmen/women to put them in that position.

But one lesson we can learn from this - let's make sure we get moving on the nuclear submarine successor programme so that HMS Dreadnought and the rest of the new class of submarines which carry our nuclear deterrent will be ready to take over immediately when the present Vanguard class of trident subs come to the end of their operational life.


Keith Sware said...

The NHS receives >2.5bn each week, but the carriers have no submarine defence, no M41 launch tubes or French shorter range cruise missiles either, no nuclear power, no ground to air missile defence, no LaWS (see uss dewey and uss ponce) and if one Phalanx system JAMs then the whole carrier is vulnerable to missile attack. So who should we fire? The Whitehall accountants or the folks who decided and a Russian submarine launched ramjet missile flying at Mk6 is not a threat and is not worth the investment of a viable defence for a warship? Did the Falkland's conflict not teach the MPs a lesson that warships that could not power up their communications systems at the same time as their radar would get destroyed by exocet sea skimming missile attack? http://nationalinterest.org/feature/bull’s-eye-the-5-most-deadly-anti-ship-missiles-all-time-12411 Like the F35 the carriers are slow and cannot recycle and rearm the American marines aircraft fast enough to be credible in a hostile challenged environment. Lusty is getting scrapped this week and HMS Duncan had to return to port with a fault; the russians patrol the skies above Portsmouth in aircraft that can drop nuclear weapons and russian aircraft carriers patrol the English channel!?*!@# The labour party destroyed more warships than the Argentinians and the Navy is not credible even in home waters l!?*!@#

Keith Sware said...

Just to balance up the negativity in the previous comment, here is some good news https://youtu.be/fASWl9P4gp4 It would be better if the UK government could invest a lot more capital in reaction engines, who are after all, a gateway into the next industrial revolution, as well as being an inspiration for hope and enthusiasm for the next generation in schools, universities and technical colleges today. https://youtu.be/Fdh0xAQ27nM

Chris Whiteside said...

Thanks for those thoughts, Keith. As I understand it the Air Group for the Queen Elizabeth carriers will include nine anti-submarine Merlin helicopters. I sincerely hope your other concerns are being looked at. You'd think it should be possible to equip a ship twice the size of a WWII capital ship with adequate missile defences. the point about reaction engines is very interesting.