The myths surrounding the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers
By George Allison
November 28, 2017
UK Defence Journal
No aircraft, no escorts, no kettles. How much truth can be found in the many myths surrounding HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister HMS Prince of Wales?
There are scores of myths, rumours and outright nonsense circulating on the internet and even in newspapers about the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. We spend a lot of time pointing out these myths, writing articles about them and directing people to the different articles in an attempt to set the record straight. One of our readers recently asked, ‘Why not just write one article covering the myths?’, so we have.
There’s simply not enough time to discuss or counter everyone of the myths about these vessels so let’s take a look at the most common and resilient myths surrounding HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister HMS Prince of Wales.
If there’s anything we’ve missed, please let us know!
1. ‘The carriers will not have any aircraft’.
This one even gets repeated by politicians, many of you will be aware of our Twitter campaign
to correct this claim across the political spectrum. Claims the carrier will not have any aircraft are simply incorrect.
Merlin helicopters were the first aircraft to begin flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth and they will soon be followed by F-35 jets in September this year.
In order to prepare for operating from HMS Queen Elizabeth, Royal Navy sailors have also trained alongside their US Navy counterparts on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp.Recent F-35 trials aboard the USS Wasp weren’t just an operational test for the United States Marine Corps, with much of the data produced being used to inform the USMC’s declaration of initial operating capability but also for the United Kingdom.
UK personnel were fully embedded in the USS Wasp trials and will use the data gathered from this event, future trials and operational deployments to support the UK’s flying trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth off the US coast in a few months.
British F-35 pilots also recently embarked on the USS America for at-sea developmental testing phase 3 (known as DT), the last trial that paves the way for the US Marine Corps to deploy the jet operationally on amphibious assault ships.
BAE Systems test
pilot Pete Wilson said about the upcoming trials on the HMS Queen Elizabeth:
“This will not be a DT phase. Testing on the Queen Elizabeth will be like DTs 1, 2 and 3 combined.
We don’t need to use fully instrumented aircraft; we already understand most of the loads on the aircraft systems, as we have tested that during earlier tests.”
F-35B flight trials at sea.
The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions.
Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:
“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed.
We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”
In 2023, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.
In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2. The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.
We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.
2. ‘The computer systems run on Windows XP’.
Confusion on this often brought up myth seems to come from the fact former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon didn’t deny the suggestion the vessels used Windows XP after an image of a laptop appearing to use the operating system (OS) surfaced, the only trouble with this is he doesn’t actually seem to know any better. The Queen Elizabeth class run on the Shared Infrastructure operating system.
While I was on-board, a number of monitors displayed the XP boot screen, this has been reported by many to indicate the carrier runs on Windows XP. Now, why is it wrong to say the carriers run on XP?
Simply put, the system is used in the same way Windows RE is used on commercial machines today, as a recovery and maintenance environment. The use of one operating system in the maintenance of another is not uncommon. XP doesn’t run any systems on-board either carrier.
The vessel is already largely dependent on the Shared Infrastructure OS, for various systems to use XP or a derivative alongside this for anything other than testing, calibration etc would seem to make little sense. While many on board systems used by contractors for various tasks use Windows XP, Windows 7 and various other operating systems, none of these are directly involved in running the vessel and will not be present when the ship enters operation service according to the Ministry of Defence.
It should be noted that none of these systems that use XP in this manner are vulnerable to outside attack in the same way the NHS and other organisations were hit. Speculation was rife on this very topic two years ago an image of Windows XP was seen on a technicians laptop during a documentary, let’s dig a little deeper shall we?
The earlier rumours seem to have stemmed from a wallpaper on the laptop owned by an engineer that was visible on a recent documentary while the later rumours again seen to have stemmed from a background on a laptop coupled with the Defence Secretary not being particularly knowledgeable on naval operating systems and being unable to comment.
“The MoD can confirm that Windows XP will not be used by any onboard system when the ship becomes operational, this also applies to HMS Prince of Wales.”
This would appear to agree that XP (or rather, a varient of Windows similar to XP) is being used to test and calibrate the systems by contractors prior to operational service.
3. ‘Smaller carriers would have been a better idea’.
Much has been made of the claim two or three smaller ships would be cheaper or more effective than two large carriers but is this really true? The two Queen Elizabeth class carriers can accommodate around twice as many aircraft as the three Invincible class. This metric isn’t the primary advantage of a larger ship class as each F-35B is considerably larger than a Harrier and has much better performance.
There’s very little reason not to build larger carriers, it was once estimated that steel accounted for only about 20 percent of the cost of the ship.
The smaller the carrier, the fewer aircraft it can support and the greater waste of resources it becomes when compared to larger carriers. The smaller the carrier, the more the vessels size restricts the performance of the aircraft onboard. The three Invincible class carriers, which the Queen Elizabeth class will replace, operated small and relatively low performance Sea Harriers. The larger F-35 that will operate from the new carriers is more effective than the Sea Harrier. It carries much more and it flies much faster and much farther. It’s also a more complicated aircraft, requiring more equipment and personnel.
A carrier accommodating as many F-35Bs as the Invincible accommodated Sea Harriers would be far larger by necessity in order to effectively operate the modern, larger aircraft.
The ships former commanding officer, Captain Simon Petitt, rightfully pointed out that there is a lot of symbolism in modern warfare and that having a ship the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be the navy’s biggest ever, was significant. The sight of a heavily equipped 70,000 tonne carrier, which is almost 300 metres long, heading towards a potential enemy had a deterrent effect that is essential if the UK wants to project influence across the world Petitt claims.
“It is massively visible, you can range back in history and see the value of this. Everything from Nelson deterring Admiral Villeneuve from leaving Cadiz all the way to the big battleships of early 20th century, to what we are doing now.
The Americans use it all the time. We currently haven’t got this level of carrier capability. The bigger the capability the more influence you have to bear.”
So great is the impact of larger vessels as a deterrent, they’re often used as a geopolitical chess piece. American governments have, since the second world war, moved aircraft carriers around to demonstrate American resolve.
The particular benefits of using carriers in this way are that they operate on the high seas, where permission is not needed from other countries. Indeed, since modern US carriers are large and imposing they “show the flag” to great effect due to their sheer size alone.
Equally, it is often argued that had the Royal Navy had two full sized carriers in 1982 it is more than possible that Argentina would not have attempted to take the Falklands in the first place. Larger carriers don’t have to be packed to bursting point with aircraft to achieve their greatest effectiveness, even with fewer aircraft on board, a ship with a large flight deck can rearm and refuel aircraft much more quickly, this is typically why they allow for much higher sortie generation rates than smaller vessels.
The more crowded the flight deck, the slower the turn-around of each aircraft, the lower the sortie generation rate.
Size also offers greater storage capacity, larger vessels do not have to be resupplied as often, impacting both the effectiveness of the carrier and her vulnerability. Because a carrier is more vulnerable when being replenished, the vessel typically withdraws from station for that function. Much of the time lost is the time spent heading away from station and returning. The smaller the carrier, the more time lost and a bigger logistics chain required in support.
A larger ship is likely to survive damage that will sink or disable a smaller one. The smaller the proportion of a ship that gets damaged, the better the chance that the ship can survive the damage and keep on fighting. It takes sheer size to provide enough protection against all the weapons likely to be used against a carrier, from bombs to cruise missiles to torpedoes.
If a complement of aircraft that would typically be found on one large carrier is split among several smaller carriers, then each vessel needs its own escorts unless they operate together. This would require more resources to operate effectively. It might be argued that splitting up a carrier force would make it more difficult for an enemy to deal with all of it at once but the price paid in escorting ships would be high, making it unfeasible for most navies. Indeed, the most significant effect this would have would be requiring more smaller carriers to do the job of one large vessel, further increasing costs. Each of the smaller carriers in the group is less survivable, more wasteful and less effective than a single larger ship.
4. ‘There are no escort ships to protect her’.
It’s fairly obvious that manning and technical issues with the escort fleet have been causing availability problems but there are still 19 escorts in varying states of readiness. A senior Royal Navy officer recently insisted that the Royal Navy has enough warships to protect HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Rear Admiral Burton, Commander UK maritime forces, said:
“We have enough frigates and destroyers to protect that task group. We will use coalition frigates and destroyers, but we have enough to deliver a sovereign task group.
We’re building OPVs as well to deliver some of the capabilities that would otherwise be delivered by frigates and destroyers.
So I’m confident that with the eight Type 26s, the six Type 45s, the OPVs and the Type 31s that are coming online, that will be sufficient to protect the task group and deliver the other responsibilities that the department asks of us.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke.
There’s no real doubt the UK will be able to provide enough escorts to sail with HMS Queen Elizabeth should the situation require it, with each deployment sailing with what the Royal Navy believe to be the best fit be it British vessels or a mix of British and allied ships.
5. ‘One of the ships will be sold/mothballed’.
There are no plans to sell either Queen Elizabeth class ship, zero, nada, zilch
. Both ships are also entering service and will both be used, even for trials.
HMS Prince of Wales will take over F-35 trials to allow HMS Queen Elizabeth to return to dock for her routine re-certification work.
Former Captain of the vessel Ian Groom told media that HMS Prince of Wales will need to be delivered during 2019 to allow flight trails to continue whilst Queen Elizabeth is undergoing inspection in dry dock. HMS Prince of Wales is currently on track for float out and to start sea trials in mid-2019.
Quoted in Janes, Groom said:
“There is a further set of fixed-wing flying trials needed and HMS Prince of Wales has to carry them out. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s re-certification period in 2019 means we need HMS Prince of Wales then.”
The builders are already applying lessons from including improvements to the process of preparing its heat-resistant flight deck and installing an improved F-35 landing light systems earlier in the build process. Both vessels, clearly, will be entering service and covering each others refits, maintenance and work up periods.
6. ‘The Americans will be the first to use HMS Queen Elizabeth’.
Recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. However the important thing here is to remember that the US jets will augment the British jets. Not replace them and not operate from them alone.
Squadron Leader Andy Edgell is currently testing F-35 jets in the United States ahead of their trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth next year. He will be the first to fly from the vessel in an F-35.
“She’s marvellous. She has an incredible amount of thrust but it’s more than just brawn that makes her so fantastic to fly – it’s the brains behind her as well.
She’s a masterful piece of engineering and it makes her so effortless to fly. It’s impossible not to be exhilarated every time. She’s a beast when you want her to be and tame when you need her to be. She’s beautiful.
The launch of the F35s from the HMS Queen Elizabeth is a once in a generation historical event. To be the first to fly off the carrier, to have a front row seat, would be an absolute privilege. It wouldn’t just be about the pilot – there are hundreds of people who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this happen and the honour will be theirs too.”
FILE PHOTO: Two British F-35Bs.
There are already 150 UK personnel out in the US working with the state-of-the-art jets, and the latest course of UK pilots have just finished their ground school training and are now ready to fly the F-35B at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.
It is understood that the US aircraft will augment British jets on coalition operations, not replace them and not be the first to fly from the new carriers.
7. ‘The F-35 jets themselves are American’.
The F-35 features a significant amount of British developed components in addition to the 15% of every jet sold globally physically being built in Britain. It’s a multinational effort.
As the only Level 1 partner, the United Kingdom has garnered tremendous economic benefits from the F-35. British industry will build 15% of each of the more than 3,000 planned F-35s, in addition to a large volume of British developed aircraft systems including the electronic warfare suite. Some estimates put the jet at 30% British developed (not built) content. The programme at peak will generate significant export revenue and GDP growth. The programme is projected to create and support more than 25,000 jobs across every region of the United Kingdom. Hundreds of British software engineers with BAE have played a leading role in creating software for the F-35 aircraft that will be operational with the US Air Force later this year.
The software team at the BAE site in Samlesbury, Lancashire, has worked alongside Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 programme, to deliver the latest update known as ‘Block 3i’. There are more than eight million lines of code required for full operational capability. Block 3i equips the aircraft with 89% of the software code required.
John Brindle, principal engineer for F-35 Lightning II Development, said:
“Beginning with Jaguar, BAE Systems has a long history and world-class expertise in developing software for aircraft systems. We have made a significant contribution to 3i, including producing software for the fuel management system, on-board vehicle systems, structural health management and elements of the navigation and cockpit display system.”
According to Lockheed Martin:
“The fingerprints of British ingenuity can be found on dozens of the aircrafts key components. BAE Systems, GE Aviation, Martin-Baker, SELEX, Cobham, Ultra Electronics, UTC Actuation Systems and Rolls-Royce are just a few of the more than 100 U.K.-based suppliers for the programme.”
UK industry will provide approximately 15% of the value of each F-35 to be built, more than 3,000, worth some £1 billon and generating around 25,000 British jobs. Some have even said the F-35B features more British content than Harrier Gr9.
8. ‘The ships were only built to benefit Scottish yards and have no strategic purpose’.
There were 3,000 people in Rosyth, with another 8,000 people working at sites around Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland were involved in everything from building segments of the hull to parts of the systems installed on the ships. Then there’s the wider supply chain network, involving hundreds of companies around the UK. In short, the jobs created and the effort going into this new British built icon are unprecedented for a single project in the 21st century.
The origins of the massive and sometimes controversial Queen Elizabeth class carrier programme lie in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.
The review re-evaluated every weapon system (active or in procurement) with the exception of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines.
Queen Elizabeth in build in Rosyth.
The report identified that aircraft carriers offered the following:
Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
All required space and infrastructure; where foreign bases are available they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.
A coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.
The report concluded:
“The emphasis is now on increased offensive air power, and an ability to operate the largest possible range of aircraft in the widest possible range of roles.
When the current carrier force reaches the end of its planned life, we plan to replace it with two larger vessels.”
In November 2004, while giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West explained that the sortie rate and interoperability with the United States Navy were factors in deciding on the size of the carriers and the composition of the carriers’ air-wings:
“The reason that we have arrived at what we have arrived at is because to do the initial strike package, that deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and we have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters, and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future.”
9. ‘Nuclear power would have been better’.
Cost is single-handedly the most prohibitive reason the Queen Elizabeth class are not nuclear powered. More conservative estimates say a reactor adds 280% to the lifetime costs of a ship.
Aircraft carriers typically only carry a month’s worth of aviation fuel, including US and French nuclear vessels, so need to be refuelled monthly anyway. There’s no real operational advantage to having the vessels nuclear powered, especially when weighed against the massive increase in costs.
RFA Tidespring conducts RAS trials with HMS Sutherland.
Tide Class tankers, of which RFA Tidespring is the first, are replacing the RFA’s current, ageing single-hulled tankers.A reactor requires specialist nuclear personnel, and facilities, that are expensive to acquire and maintain. While generators, and turbines require much easier and cheaper to train personnel.
Somewhat understandably given the overwhelming public and news media reaction to the slightest of cost increases, the MoD decided not to use nuclear propulsion because of its high cost and has chosen a propulsion system based on Rolls-Royce’s integrated electric propulsion system.
The propulsion system will consist of two Rolls-Royce Marine 36MW MT30 gas turbine alternators, providing over 70MW and four diesel engines providing approximately 40MW, with the total installed power approaching 110MW.
For more on why nuclear power doesn’t make much sense for the new carriers, I fully recommend ‘The reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth is not nuclear powered
‘ by savetheroyalnavy.org.
10. ‘She is named after the current Queen Elizabeth’.
The name HMS Queen Elizabeth is a continuation of an historic Royal Navy name dating back over a century and the vessel herself is not named after the current monarch.
Battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth (1913).