Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Royal Navy aircraft carriers – vulnerable or fit for the fight?

There have been frequent suggestions that aircraft carriers are inherently vulnerable and have been rendered obsolete by a new generation of weaponry. Here we look the range of conventional threats the carriers might face in a high-end conflict and how the RN and the Queen Elizabeth Class are configured to deal with them.

The Russians have called the QEC “large and convenient targets”. A cute sound bite that is frequently rehearsed in various forms across the media and helps create the illusion that they are just passive floating airfields, lacking their own offensive power or the ability to defend themselves. Some forget that a prime purpose of the carrier battle group is to go on the offensive and strike in a proactive way, and if necessary to eliminate what may threaten them before it may mount an attack. That said, it would be complacent to think that any aircraft carrier is invulnerable. Recent developments in stealth aircraft, hypersonic and ballistic anti-ship missiles and ultra-quiet submarines are a threat to all surface combatants. Even the mighty US Navy is stretched to cope in this environment, so how much more is the threadbare RN at risk?

On the day HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Portsmouth for the first time we met Commodore Andrew Betton, commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group and asked him if he considers the RN can offer the ship adequate protection, particularly if faced with high-level threats. He replied “The maritime task group operates with layers of force protection, some of which is delivered by ships & aircraft. We also have satellite surveillance to support our understanding of what’s around us. We can bring in extra layers of protection when needed. Every deployment of the carrier & structure of task group around will be based on an intelligence assessment of the threat likely to be faced and the operational tasking.” These layers of protection and defensive measures the UK is able to provide the QEC are worth closer examination.

Seven layers of protection

1. Situational awareness

The outer defence of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) are aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon’s, satellite imagery, undersea acoustic sensors, and even basic human intelligence could all contribute to this awareness. Depending on the circumstances and the ability to collect this data, this kind of information may be plentiful at times or almost nonexistent on other occasions. History has proven for example, that land-based aircraft, even if dedicated to the task is almost incapable of sustaining round the clock protection or intelligence to naval vessels. It is always extremely challenging to secure and maintain real-time data on distant threats. This works both ways, to attack the CSG from distance, the enemy also needs accurate location data on ships that may cover over 400 nautical miles in 24 hours.

The QEC and some of the RN’s escort ships now benefit from some exceptionally capable new radars. The high-resolution Artisan 3D (Type 997) radar has a range of over 100nm. The carrier’s (Type 1046) S1850M long range air search radar has a range out to 200nm. The large size of the QEC allows the aerials to be mounted high above the waterline, extending the range at which sea-skimmers can be detected.

2. Carrier aircraft

The first active line of defence are the F-35B Lightnings flown from the carrier itself. Able to strike land targets, and intercept aircraft and attack ships that threaten the CSG. A major strength is that the F-35 has exceptional sensors and can be networked with other aircraft to monitor a large area, feed data back to the carrier and respond quickly. A potential weakness here is the un-refuelled combat radius of the F-35B (without drop tanks that compromise stealth and handling) at approximately 500nm.

The Searchwater radar of Crowsnest helicopter has an approximate maximum range of 150nm and operate up to 450nm away from the carrier with sorties lasting up to 4.5 hrs. As the range of anti-ship missiles increases, the combat radius and limited number of aircraft (12-24?) that can be deployed against potential launch platforms become critical.

3a. Area defence (air)

The Principal Anti Air Missile System (PAAMS) carried by the T45 is possibly the best and naval air defence system afloat anywhere in the world and is theoretically capable of detecting and simultaneously engaging multiple aircraft and missiles travelling up to Mach 4. The Sea Viper missiles provide an air defence umbrella that extends out to about 65 nautical miles over the CBG.

Once the propulsion problems have been fully cured by the mid-2020s, with just 6 Type 45s, the RN is likely to be able to assign a maximum of two these destroyers for escorting the CBG. Even if the MoD actually holds sufficient missile stocks for all the T45s to embark a full outfit, they can carry a maximum of 48 and cannot be replenished at sea. One can have great confidence an initial saturation attack would be successfully repelled, but repeated attacks could exhaust limited ammunition quickly. The comparable AEGIS-equipped Arleigh Burke destroyers of the USN can embark up to 96 missiles and the Ticonderoga cruisers up to 122 missiles of various kinds. The US Carrier battle group would typically be escorted by 4-6 of these AEGIS ships. At present, the RN has no ability to destroy ballistic missiles (anti-ship or otherwise) but there is the potential for the RN to buy the Aster Block 1NT for the Type 45 in future.

3b. Area defence (underwater)

Of all the threats to the CBG, the submarine presents the most danger as they become increasingly quiet and hard to detect. Submarines are usually the best means of finding and sinking other submarines. Of the 7 SSNs possessed by the RN, it would be expected that one will be assigned to protect the CBG (The USN typically assigns 2 SSNs to a carrier group). Usually, the SSN will work as a ‘freelancer’, not especially close to the CGB but in the best tactical position to intecerpt and track hostile ships or submarines. The Merlin Mk2 helicopters operating from the deck of the QEC and the escorts are the only other means of prosecuting submarines (unless ASROC missiles are purchased for the Type 26 Frigates). Finding submarines will be the primary job of the Type 23/26 frigates. Their Type 20xx towed array sonar is the usually the best tool for detection at a safe distance away from the CBG. They will then direct the Merlin to the target which can be localised using its FLASH dipping sonar. The escorts all have bow-mounted sonars but detection ranges in both passive and active modes are usually considerably less than that of the towed array, but which time a submarine could be close enough to have achieved a firing position. Unfortunately, despite the quiet electric motors that propel the Type 45, the QEC and the supporting Tide-class RFAs, they all have noisy diesel engines and auxiliary machinery bolted directly to their hulls. Without dampening measures, this radiates noise and vibration into the water which interferes with sonars and may aid enemy submarines in locating the CSG.

The P-8A Poseidons may also be able to contribute to the ASW effort surrounding the carrier, but this would very much depend on the area of operations.

In broad terms area, defence against submarine and air threats is much easier to conduct in the open ocean. It the littorals close to land and in congested and noisy shallower seas, defence of the carrier becomes significantly harder.

3c. Area defence (surface)

A rather obvious gap in the CSG defences is the lack of medium or long range anti-ship missile carried by the RN’s escorts (from 2018 to around 2030 when the FCGWS project may bear fruit). When the Sea Venom missile comes into service the RN will have an excellent weapon for use against fast attack craft or corvettes, but attacking major warships must be delegated to the F-35s or a supporting submarine.

Sea Viper and Sea Ceptor. The ship-launched missile systems key for air defence of the CSG

4. Point defence

Missiles or aircraft that evade the area defences should then encounter the point defence Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems that protect individual ships or a few ships in close company A point defence SAM would typically have a maximum range of 10-12 nautical miles. The QEC has no point defence system of its own and will entrust this task to its escorting ships. Other navies think differently. The French carrier, Charles de Gaulle is fitted with 16 x Aster 15 SAMs and 2 Sadral SAM launchers. US carriers have both RIM-7 Sea Sparrow SAM and RIM-116 Rolling Airframe SAMs. The new Sea Ceptor SAM fitted to the Type 23/26 frigates looks to be very effective in this role and has significantly greater range than the Sea Wolf system it replaces. The point defence ‘goalkeeping’ mission requires the escort to stay in close touch with the carrier and its arcs of fire may be restricted by the carrier or other ships. At times the frigates may need to operate at some distance away from the carrier in order to deploy towed array sonar and listen for submarines, undisturbed by the self-generated noise of the CSG.

The Type 45 can also provide point defence using its shorter range Aster 15 missiles but the number of ships and available missiles is again the problem. Fitting at least a few Sea Ceptor cells to the QEC would not be especially difficult and this omission has everything to do with saving money and nothing to do with tactical wisdom.

5. Close in weapons systems

The QEC will has a very standard CIWS fit of 3 x 20 mm Block 1B Phallax guns and 4 x 30mm Automated Small Caliber Guns (ASCG). The ubiquitous Phalanx system is used by many navies across the world, is simple and reliable but how it would perform in saturation missile attack is unknown. The ASCGs are cued by electro-optical mounts high on the ship and can be controlled from the ops room. They would probably be very effective against small boat swarm attacks. It is assumed the QEC will also be fitted with a variety of decoy launchers and the Surface Ship Torpedo Defence (SSTD) decoy system. The USN fitting an active variant of SSTD on its carriers that launch mini torpedos to destroy inbound torpedos, rather than just attempt to confuse them.

6. Light weapons and force protection measures

The inner layer of protection consists of a selection of removable M2HB machine guns and Mk44 mini guns on pintle mounts around the ship. On all RN vessels, these weapons are manned on entering or leaving port as protection against attack from small craft or drones. In battle conditions, they may also serve as useful last-ditch defence particularly against aircraft or small boat swarms. Being manually aimed, they are of minimal use against missiles.

7. Damage control and survivability

If the worst happens, the QEC have been carefully designed to withstand significant battle damage. The designers wisely avoided the pressure to reduce costs by cutting corners on construction standards. This kind of protection would be very difficult and expensive to retrofit at a later date and resistance to blast and splinter and flooding provides reassurance that the ship can survive some hits or near misses without catastrophic structural damage and is able to float, move and fight in difficult conditions. The RN is also recognised as a world leader in training its sailors in effective damage control.


This is a whistlestop tour of a very complex subject but this basic assessment shows there are weaknesses that restrict where the QEC could be safely operated without assistance from the US Navy and other NATO nations. By withdrawing from standing commitments, at a stretch, the RN will probably be able to muster 2 destroyers and 3 or 4 frigates to provide sustained escort to the carrier. The QEC and its bare minimum supporting assets do offer the option of mounting an independent British operation but only against a lesser adversary (ie not Russia and certainly not China). Even a ‘Falklands conflict’ style operation would still entail considerable risk, given the slim escort and lack of strength in depth.

No one seriously expects the UK to take on a peer-level opponent alone but beyond the apocalyptic scenario of major state-on-state conflict, the carriers still have huge utility. Even if the RN cannot act independently, the QEC significantly adds to NATO and western naval capability and deterrence which is presently inadequate in the European theatre. The QEC also come with all the other attendant soft-power capabilities such as diplomatic and trade missions, humanitarian and relief operations and the ability to help enforce foreign policy without firing a shot or putting troops on the ground. They are also highly valued by the US who see them as able to plug gaps to relieve pressure on their fleet.

Asked if he expects to operate mostly with coalition warships Cdre Betton said; “Coalition operations are attractive as they spread the burden, and give us a shared authority. But the new carriers are a capability that is sovereign at core and allow us to act unilaterally if we wish”.



from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth – are aircraft carriers too expensive?

The arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth was a day for celebration and pride. Beyond the flag waving and excitement, there are many critical voices who question the whole carrier project. Here we address some of the issues about the financial impact of restoring the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier capability.

There are some serious defence journalists such as Deborah Haynes at the Times and Jonathan Beale of the BBC who are broadly supportive of the navy but, as is rightly their job, are asking hard questions about the future shape of the navy and the funding shortfalls in the equipment plan. HMS Queen Elizabeth is arriving in the fleet just as the MoD lurches into yet another major funding crisis. The Commons Public Accounts Committee has identified a £10Bn shortfall in funding for the equipment plan on top of £10Bn of cuts and economies the MoD is already attempting to find. Analysts at PwC estimate the total “black hole” could even be as much as £30Bn over the next decade. To compound the financial problems, the post-Brexit devaluation of the Sterling potentially adds 30% to the cost of purchase of major items such as F-35 Lightning and P-8 Poseidon aircraft from the US. Inevitably in this climate, big ticket items such as aircraft carriers come in for greater scrutiny and unfair criticism.

Cost and context

A frequent complaint is that the cost of aircraft carriers has created an imbalance, draining the defence budget. RUSI Research Fellow, Dr Peter Roberts moans that “They have stripped out the rest of defence in order to get these two new behemoths.” It is certainly true that defence has been “stripped out” far beyond what could have been imagined when the decision to build the carriers was made in 1998. At that time there was an affordable plan to build a balanced fleet centred around the two carriers at a time when the RN still had 32 escort ships. Unfortunately, Britain’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan had very negative implications for the RN. Much of the MoD equipment budget of the early 2000s was raided to finance these campaigns and we are still suffering the hangover. A good example are the planned 12 Type 45 destroyers which were cut to 6 ships, sacrificed to pay for these ill-fated counter-insurgencies. While this lost decade is being partially redressed now, critics, especially from the Army, vociferously complain the about expenditure on RN equipment.

While Blair and Brown embarked on a major public spending spree on health, education and welfare, during the economic ‘good times’ when in office, this did not extend to defence. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition began to address the ballooning public debt, this was forgotten and defence was unfairly expected to shoulder a heavy burden of cuts. The RN was slashed in 2010 with the escort fleet cut down to 19 ships. The magic number of 19 ships is now all the RN is allowed to plan for. (Should the Type 31 programme produce more than 5 frigates, it offers the prospect of numbers on day rising above 19, but this is very vague aspiration for more ships is spun as evidence of a “growing Royal Navy”). It is therefore not the fault of the carriers that the RN has been cut to the bone, rather a reflection of misguided government priorities. Major navies recognise their aircraft carriers as the centrepiece of their fleet and removing them relegates you to a very limited force.

When you buy a house you do not complain it’s too expensive because has a roof.

Economy of scale and value for money

Putting an exact price of the full cost of every element of CEPP (Carrier Enabled Power Projection) is very difficult. We can be sure it runs into billions of pounds and will continue to demand a significant portion of the defence budget. However unlike Trident for example, which has a single and precisely defined purpose, CEPP is multifaceted and the people, ships, aircraft and weapons involve may be used to protect British interests in a myriad of different ways, either acting independently or as part of the carrier strike group. Even if we were crazy enough to abandon the carriers, we would still be funding much of the supporting cast, the frigates, the people and the RAF would probably be getting F-35.

The specific cost of constructing the 2 ships can be pinned down to around £6.2 billion. These are well-founded ships that should last for up to 50 years. Even allowing for the £1.5Bn added to the price tag by deliberate government-induced delays to the programme, they represent good value. Manpower is the biggest single overhead for the RN and the QEC are exceptionally lean-manned with a ship’s company of just 700. Embodying a highly innovative design, they have enormous potential to evolve over time to respond to both developments in aircraft technology, and new threats. Their upkeep and refitting costs will be significant but you cannot obtain such powerful strategic conventional effect on the cheap.

Some say we should have built cheaper “pocket carriers” similar to the Invincible class. Over the life of the vessels, this proves to be a false economy and reduces their capability. A carrier 50% the size of the QEC would be more than 50% of the cost and deliver less than 50% of the capability. As steel is relatively cheap it makes sense to build a larger, more efficient platform that can deliver a better aircraft sortie rate with lots of room to be modernised over its 50-year lifespan. With great improvisation, the RN achieved remarkable things with the Invincible class but they could not deliver strategic impact comparable to the QEC. They were cramped, lasted about 30 years and could not be significantly upgraded.

Many critics talk as if the billions of pounds spent on CEPP as if the money has vanished from our economy forever. The carrier project has employed thousands of people around the country, supporting skilled manufacturing jobs. It is maintaining sovereign industries that need continuity of work to keep supplying the RN in future. Britain has a 15% work share in every single F-35 built for the MoD and customers worldwide supporting 24,000 UK jobs. There is evidence the carrier project has also helped businesses invest and expand. The tender to build the Antarctic Research Ship RRS Ernest Shackleton was won in open competition by Cammel Laird. Carrier work has been a factor in helping CL and other yards begin a modest revival of commercial shipbuilding in the UK. This is good for the UK economy and strategically beneficial for the future needs of the RN. Large defence projects do not just maintain jobs and and support apprenticeships, but also return a large proportion of the money spent to the Treasury in VAT, corporate and income taxes.

The Admirals are fools, I read it on the internet

There exists a caricature of the RN as old fashioned, run by too many admirals, smug about their shiny new carriers and out of touch with evolving threats. This is far from the truth and some very sharp minds are focussed on the future. No doubt frustrated by inadequate funding, RN leaders are attempting to wring every penny of value from their resources. During Exercise Unmanned Warrior (October 2016) the RN partnered with industry to test the potential of a variety of autonomous systems. Exercise Information warrior (March 2017) explored cyber, AI and big data in a naval context. Although small steps, it demonstrates the RN mindset is not about “re-fighting the last war” but is alive to new possibilities. The MoD launched its own Defence Innovation Initiative in 2016. £800m has been allocated for research over the coming decade. 1.2% of the entire MoD budget is now spent on defence research, science and development of new technologies.

Lazy critics who blame the carriers for every woe of the navy should look at the bigger picture. Apparently, every problem, from the Type 45s propulsion to the Astute submarine delays, is the fault of these “2 big ships”. There is no doubt the RN is suffering, but it is a matter of systemic underfunding and chronic procurement mismanagement, rather than just cost of CEPP.

Critics who lambast the RN for buying large carriers at the expense of smaller, supposedly more ‘relevant’ ships have missed a point about the battle for the long-term survival of the RN constantly being fought out in Whitehall. If the carriers had been cancelled it would be much more likely the RN would have been run down into a very modest force of a few frigates and OPVs. Possessing the carriers, instead, the RN is now in a “pull” position better able to draw in the resource to see the project through, properly equipped and protected and able to make a strategic impact at the government’s bidding. Without the carriers, the RN would be in a weaker “push” position, somewhat sidelined and constantly having beg for scraps. This might be viewed as cynical empire-building, but if we had politicians and a Civil Service who really understood the benefits of maritime power and supported it accordingly, such considerations would not matter.

The very considerable investment being made in the ships and their aircraft is the sensible choice for a nation that has been a major maritime power for centuries. Aircraft carriers have served Britain since before the second world war and proved to be flexible, powerful and constantly in demand. When carrier capability was “gapped” in 2010 it was just a temporary financial expediency but the plan was always that carrier capability would be restored. Fortunately, BAE Systems was sensible enough to lock the MoD into a contract that made cancelling construction uneconomical, otherwise George Osbourne would have blithely axed them in 2010. Amazingly, within just four years, David Cameron had begun to recognise the value of carriers and reversed the decision to mothball or sell HMS Prince of Wales. The The QEC is really just a modern iteration of a an enduring concept. The money being spent is not some sudden new excess on the part of the Navy, just part of an ongoing commitment to ensuring Britain’s security and natural place in the world as a naval power.

In the next article, we will address claims that aircraft carriers are too vulnerable and incompatible with modern threats.


from Save the Royal Navy

Saturday, 19 August 2017

What’s next for HMS Queen Elizabeth?

After the impressive entry into Portsmouth on 16th August, HMS Queen Elizabeth is now safely tied up alongside Princess Royal Jetty. She may look close to being the complete article, but there is a lot of work to be done before she can be added to the Royal Navy’s order of battle.

Despite being more symbolic than of military significance at this stage, QE’s entry into Portsmouth was a major public relations success for the RN. Rather out of the media spotlight for some time, the senior service has been overshadowed by the army-centric campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The formal naming ceremony for her younger sister, HMS Prince of Wales will be held on 8th September in Rosyth. Just before Christmas, it is expected HMS QE will commission in Portsmouth in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. This date has been brought forward from the original plan to commission in 2018. These milestone events will help keep media focus on the RN and the carrier project.

Theresa May on HMS Queen Elizabeth

The visit of the Prime Minister to QE on her arrival in Portsmouth was a significant endorsement of the aircraft carriers that will eventually be a strategic national asset. Theresa May said, “Britain can be proud of this ship and what it represents”.

QE is still owned by her builders and has only completed the first part of her test and commissioning phase. The first phase of trials focussing on engines, steering, and auxiliary machinery was apparently completed very successfully. By coming to Portsmouth sooner than originally planned, her ship’s company can now get some well-deserved summer leave and a tricky re-entry into Rosyth is avoided. She will remain in Portsmouth for some time, probably around 8 weeks while planned engineering work is completed and issues encountered during trials are addressed. In the Autumn she will then sail for part 2 trials with a greater focus on mission systems, radars, communications, and electronics.

At this very early stage, QE is still more ship than warship, she has not yet even been fitted with her self-defence decoys, close in weapons systems (CIWS) and has no armament besides light machine guns.

For her arrival in Portsmouth, she embarked 5 Merlin helicopters but this was primarily for display and demonstration purposes.

Even when QE is a commissioned warship there will be a long process to fully train the ship’s company (pass Operational Sea Training), conduct flight trials and work up the air group before she can declare initial operating capability in 2020. Full operating capability (Carrier Strike) will not be achieved until 2023.

Next year 820 Naval Air Squadron will be the first operational squadron to embark aboard QE. Their Merlin Mk2s will practice their primary role of anti-submarine warfare, protecting the carrier from the underwater threat. In the last quarter of 2018 the first British F-35B Lightning will land on QE off the eastern coast of the United States. An 8-week flight testing period will be another landmark on the long road to restoring UK carrier capability.


In our next article, we will look more deeply at some of the concerns raised by critics arguing against the carrier project.



from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth comes home – in pictures

Today is a day to celebrate a great British achievement. HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived safely in her home port for the first time this morning. She remains several years away from becoming fully operational and there are serious challenges ahead, both for the aircraft carriers and the Navy as a whole, but the engineering achievement of her builders and the hard work of her ship’s company should be recognised. Here are some of the best images from her arrival.

About to enter Portsmouth for the first time. Accompanied by a Wildcat helicopter, part of the force protection effort

Through the narrows with no problem, passing Semaphore Tower and HMS Diamond

You can’t keep your eyes off her!

Sailors and contractors stand proudly to attention during procedure Alpha

“The pride felt when doing procedure alpha will be incredible! The day I go into Portsmouth, thousands lining the streets and the world media focused on this behemoth of a ship… that’ll be one of the proudest moments of my life, to be a part of history”  Rating serving aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth

Eased carefully aginst the pontoons at her new home – the Princess Royal Jetty

Royal Marine Band on hand to provide a rousing welcome

The First Sea Lord address. “This is a seminal day for the Royal Navy… A generation of workers have dedicated their best to building the Queen Elizabeth class… As we prepare to leave the EU, these ships will demonstrate our commitment to our partnerships and that the UK is outward looking and confident”

Defence Procurement Minister Harriet Baldwin in fine form and talking to media with gusto about the “growing Royal Navy” [cough]

from Save the Royal Navy

Monday, 14 August 2017

The reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth has two islands

Many have wondered why HMS Queen Elizabeth has two ‘islands’. Here we consider why she is the first aircraft carrier in the world to adopt this unique arrangement and the benefits it brings.

Redundancy and separation can be good

In a moment of inspiration back in 2001, an RN officer serving with the Thales CVF design team developing initial concepts for what became the Queen Elizabeth Class, hit upon the idea of separate islands. There are several advantages to this design but the most compelling reason for the twin islands is to space out the funnels, allowing greater separation between the engines below. QEC has duplicated main and secondary machinery in two complexes with independent uptakes and downtakes in each of the two islands. The separation provides a measure of redundancy, it increases the chances one propulsion system will remain operational in the event of action damage to the other. Gas turbine engines (situated in the sponsons directly below each island of the QEC) by their nature require larger funnels and downtakes than the diesel engines (in the bottom of the ship). The twin island design helps minimise their impact on the internal layout.

In a conventional single-island carrier design, either you have to have a very long island (like the Invincible class) which reduces flight deck space or, the exhaust trunkings have to be channelled up into a smaller space. There are limits to the angles this pipework may take which can affect the space available for the hangar. The uptakes can also create vulnerabilities, the third HMS Ark Royal was lost to a single torpedo hit in 1941, party due to progressive engine room flooding through funnel uptakes.

The twin island design has several other benefits. Wind tunnel testing has proved that the air turbulence over the flight deck caused by the wind and the ship’s movement, is reduced by having two islands instead of one large one. Turbulent air is a hindrance to flight operations and aircraft carrier designers always have to contend with this problem. Twin islands allow greater flight deck area because the combined footprint of the two small islands is less than that of a single larger one. By having two smaller islands it allowed each to be constructed as a single block and then shipped to Rosyth to be lifted onto the hull. The forward island was built in Portsmouth and the aft island built in Glasgow.

This arrangement solves another problem by providing good separation for the main radars. The Type 1046 long range air surveillance radar is mounted forward while the Type 997 Artisan 3D medium range radar is aft. Powerful radars, even operating on different frequencies, can cause mutual interference or blind spots if the aerials are mounted too close together. Apart from a slim communications mast, both the Artisan and 1046 have clear, unobstructed arcs.

The flag bridge below the main bridge can be clearly seen in the forward island. The emergency conning position and the large Flyco can be seen in the aft island. Note the tall funnels designed to keep exhaust gasses away from the flight deck

Bridge – forward

With separate islands it is possible to site the bridge further forward than in a conventional single-island design. This gives the officer of the watch (OOW) a better view of the bows and what is immediately ahead, especially useful when in confined waters. The QEC bridge is spacious and has very large windows with a wide field of view, similar to the Type 45 destroyers. Carpeted with a dark blue-grey finish and wooden trim around the control panels, it has a very different feel to the cream and pale grey interior of preceding Invincible class carriers. The QEC are fitted with a state of the art Sperry Marine Integrated Navigation Bridge System (INBS) including the Naval Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS-N).

The captain has a day cabin just behind the bridge for use at sea but as is usual on a carrier, his spacious main cabin is down aft with the other officer accommodation. There is a small lift that allows him to quickly get up or down from the bridge to the operations room which is situated seven decks below.

Like the Invincible class, the QEC has facilities for the Admiral commanding the carrier group and has use of his own ‘flag bridge’ below the main navigation bridge. It offers a good view and a useful space for his staff, away from the ship’s personnel.

When no admiral is embarked, the flag bridge is available for the ship to use and is a convenient place for meetings and to entertain guests. Note the circular wooden table, inlaid with the ship’s crest. US Navy photo.

The steering position on the bridge of fifth HMS Ark Royal seen in 2009, complete with classic chintzy seat cover.

Steering HMS Queen Elizabeth, 2017

Flyco – aft

The QEC aircraft control position, known as flyco is a major change in design philosophy. Instead of being just an appendage to the navigation bridge it has been designed in partnership with Tex ATC Ltd, one of the world’s leading providers of military and civilian airfield control towers. By siting the Flyco separately, it can be positioned in the optimum place to view aircraft as they approach the ship for landing. This is the moment when the pilot requires most help from the ship and a dedicated aircraft controller sitting in Flyco (usually a former pilot) can help talk the plane down if needed. The QEC flyco projects out from the aft island and has enormous 3-metre tall windows with providing a 290ยบ view over the flight deck. Such tall windows allow a good view of high flying aircraft for all, including for the personnel sitting in the small raised gallery at the back of the Flyco. In some older ships, the cramped flyco position looked like an afterthought it was sometimes necessary to get right up close to the small windows to see high flying aircraft.

The 3 metre high, multi-layered armoured glass panels are slightly tinted for protection against glare and are strong enough to withstand a direct hit from the rotating blade of a Chinook helicopter.

Flyco can issue instructions to the aircraft handlers on the flight deck via their headsets but also using large LED displays mounted on the side of the aft island. It is also connected to the hangar control room below where orders are issued to prepare aircraft to be brought on deck. The Commander Air, “Wings” also has a day cabin in the aft island but does not have his own lift, like the Captain up forward. The aft island also features a ‘bridge’ which has replica ship controls and, in the event of damage to the forward island, could be used as the emergency conning position.

The new Project 23000E “Shtorm” concept from the Russian Krylov State Research Center (KSRC) for a 95,000 ton conventionally-powered aircraft carrier has copied the twin island design. Shtorm is a Putin fantasy, unlikely ever to be realised as Russia has not managed to build a surface ship larger than a frigate since the 1990s. Italy is also building a new LHD ‘flat top’ with twin islands, although the aft island only contains a funnel.


For aircraft carrier veterans the completely separated bridge and flyco will take some adjustment. Because the ship’s course and speed need to be carefully coordinated with flying operations, the close proximity of the OOW to the flight controllers helped them work together. In the new arrangement, they will not be able to see each other and are reliant on the intercom. No doubt everyone will quickly adapt and the benefits of additional space for both navigators and flight controllers will outweigh any disadvantages. It is highly subjective, but some carrier ‘purists’ have said the twin islands make the QEC look “ugly”. Others see the QEC as quite beautiful and despite their quite angular shapes, represent just another step in the evolution of carrier design appropriate for the 21st Century.

The QEC will benefit from a ski-ramp to assist aircraft on take off and twin islands, both of which were invented by the RN. It is encouraging to see the RN retaining its place at the forefront of aircraft carrier innovation.

Main image: courtesy @fightingsailor via Twitter


from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth is not nuclear powered

Many people have wondered why the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers do not have nuclear propulsion like the US Navy’s Nimitz class ships. Here we consider the many good reasons why a conventional, although innovative propulsion system was selected instead.


Range and Replenishment
The primary advantage of a marine nuclear power plant is the unlimited range and available power it provides the ship. This range and power would be desirable for the QEC, but the costs and other factors largely outweigh these benefit. USN carriers are a few knots faster than the QEC, the speed of the ship can generate more wind over the deck to help heavily laden aircraft take off. This wind is less critical for QEC’s ski-ramp launched VSTOL aircraft.

When on operations, the ship’s air group will consume considerable amounts of aviation fuel. Even if the ship is nuclear-powered, she must be accompanied by a tanker to conduct RAS (Replenishment At Sea) at frequent intervals. If you have to conduct RAS with an auxiliary tanker anyway, it is not a big effort to refuel the ship at the same time. The escorts ships that will nearly always accompany the carrier are also conventionally-powered so nuclear powered carrier does not eliminate the need for RAS. The 4 Tide class tankers that will soon be joining the RFA can replenish the QEC with aviation fuel and diesel simultaneously, using rigs plugged into receiving points on the carrier’s port side. The US Navy has to operate in the Pacific where distances can be huge. Nuclear propulsion may make more sense in the vast Pacific but how frequently will the QEC be deployed over huge distances where there are no refuelling opportunities?

RFA Tiderace – carrier fuel station at sea. Note the two starboard side RAS rigs, ready to provide diesel and aviation fuel to the QEC. Photo: US Navy

Nuclear reactors cannot be quickly re-started from cold. A careful sequence of procedures is required to start the reactor and the steam plant to prevent heat stress from damaging the system. Since the 1970s when the RN began to move away from steam propulsion, it has enjoyed the benefit of gas turbine and diesel ships that can be started and shut down very quickly. This is a useful tactical advantage allowing quick departure from harbour when needed. It also has a lower manpower requirement as nuclear plants require constant monitoring, even when shut down.

Cats and steam
Except for the newly commissioned USS Gerald R Ford, US Navy carriers use steam-powered catapults to launch aircraft. Nuclear propulsion has the advantage of providing plenty of steam for the catapults. The older generation of RN carriers had steam turbine propulsion and their boilers also provided steam for the catapults. If the QEC had been fitted with catapults and traps, the intention was to adopt the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) that has been developed in the US for the Ford class carriers. Considerable electrical power is needed but this system does not require steam, another reason that nuclear power is less critical. (Although EMALS offers a great leap in aircraft launching capability, the US Navy is struggling with developmental issues and the USS Ford may not be ready for combat operations until 2022 at the earliest). It is possible the QEC may one day be retrofitted with EMALS (Probably not in the next 20 years) but there is sufficient spare electrical generation capacity already available.


Building capacity and capability
The only facility in the UK building nuclear-powered vessels is BAE Systems yard at Barrow. The Barrow site has been running at full capacity for the last 10 years constructing the Astute class attack submarines and that will continue into the future as work starts on the 4 Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines. Barrow is probably the only UK site with the skills and experience that could have constructed a carrier reactor, although their workforce is very much focused on submarines. Even if Barrow could have fitted such work into its schedule, the hull sections containing nuclear power plants would have had to be transported by barge to Rosyth for the assembly – a potentially hazardous journey.

The UK has considerable experience building nuclear submarines but has never constructed a nuclear-powered surface ship. Theoretically, the PWR2 nuclear power plant fitted to the Vanguard and Astute class submarines could have been up-rated and adapted for use in the carrier. It would have required at least three PWR2 plants per ship, each of which generate around 27,500 shaft horse power. (The propulsion system of the QEC, as built today, can generate 100,000 shp). There would still have been considerable cost and complications in adapting the submarine plant and associated gearing and shaft arrangements for the ship. Alternatively, at great expense, an entirely new and more powerful reactor could have been developed specifically for the carriers.

Avoiding the French experience
France completed their single nuclear-powered carrier, the Charles de Gaulle in 2001 but she took more than 11 years to build (QE took 8 years) The de Gaulle was delivered 5 years late, expensive and beset by technical problems with her propulsion. The K15 nuclear reactor design, derived from existing submarines, proved underpowered and inadequate shielding exposed crew members to doses of radiation that exceed regulations. France is already studying options for replacing the de Gaulle, a ship that has spent more time in dock than operational.

Nuclear engineers in short supply
France struggled to build the de Gaulle, despite having a much larger nuclear industry than the UK, more nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians. The design and construction of two British nuclear carriers would probably have required expensively imported nuclear expertise from France or the US. The RN is already hard-pressed to find sufficient qualified personnel to man its existing fleet of 10 nuclear-powered submarines. In the current climate, there would be another struggle to recruit and retain more nuclear watch-keepers for two aircraft carriers.

Attractive conventional options
Despite the unhappy experience with the Type 45 destroyers propulsion, advances in marine engine technology make conventional power attractive. Accumulated experience, extensive testing and the selection of proven low-risk engines will ensure that QEC is very unlikely to have similar problems. The CODLAG (combined diesel-electric and gas turbine) arrangement adopted by the QEC is both efficient, reliable and allows great design flexibility. By using electric motors to drive the propellers, the diesel and gas turbine generators can be placed where convenient, rather than having to sit on the shaft line, as in traditional designs. The gas turbines are actually sited inside the sponsons on the starboard side of the ship with their exhaust uptakes going through the two island structures immediately above. The saves internal volume, allowing for bigger hangars. Nuclear power obviously removes the need for uptakes and funnels entirely but modern gas turbines and electric motors have a very much higher power-to-weight ratio than a heavy nuclear plant with lead shielding and reduction gears. Servicing simple diesel engines is an entirely different prospect to maintaining a nuclear plant. The QE’s gas turbines are also easily accessible and can be replaced with new units in a matter of days if required.

The PWR2 reactor was designed not to need refuelling and to have a life of around 30 years. Unfortunately, HMS Vanguard’s reactor has required refuelling after 22 years service at considerable expense because it appears her PWR2 core H may not last as long as expected. Since the QEC have a design life of up to 50 years, if nuclear-powered they would need a mid-life reactor refuelling refit. Even if a reactor can be made to last for that long, refuelling is a colossally expensive process and could take the carrier out of commission for at 3 years.


The lifetime cost of a nuclear-powered vessel is much higher than that of a conventionally powered vessel. Initial construction outlay is also greater because of the physical complexity and regulatory framework that the builders would have to work within. The bill for filling up QE with diesel fuel runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds each time, but the total cost of installing, maintaining and disposing of a nuclear power plant over the life of the ship, would far exceed that of the fuel. Disposal of nuclear vessels also presents a significant problem. The US Navy benefits from a dedicated nuclear vessel disposal facility in Puget Sound and the waste is stored away from populated areas in Idaho, deep in the vast land mass of America. Rather embarrassingly, the UK has yet to completely dispose of a single decommissioned nuclear submarine, although tentative steps to start this process have finally been made. Disposal is slow, costly and the storage of nuclear waste is controversial. A nuclear-powered carrier would one day create another expensive decommissioning headache.


Protest magnets
Some nations will not allow a nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessel within their territorial waters. This would not be a particular problem but highlights the additional political baggage and sensitivities that come with nuclear vessels. Aircraft carriers are high profile ships and are intended as a tool for trade and diplomacy in a way that secretive nuclear submarines actively avoid. There is a strong anti-nuclear movement and a nuclear-powered QEC would inevitably attract unwanted controversy and protest. In the very unlikely event the ship was sunk or damaged by enemy action or in a serious collision, the presence of a nuclear reactor presents a long-term environmental hazard that could leak radiation into the sea. While this calculated risk makes sense for submarines where there is no alternative source of air-independent propulsion that can provide the required performance, for a surface ship this is an avoidable risk.

Think of the paperwork…
Sensibly, all British nuclear submarines and facilities are subject to strict regulation and inspection. There is no avoiding this complication that would add further manpower, cost and security overheads to an already complicated aircraft carrier programme. Nuclear-powered submarines have to make use of specially prepared “Z berths” when alongside in the UK. These berths have to be certified as safe and secure and the local authority is required to have plans in place in the very unlikely case of a nuclear accident. Although her size prevents her from entering many ports, a nuclear-powered QEC would be further restricted as to where she could dock, both in the UK and abroad. Maintenance of nuclear vessels in the UK can only be conducted at certified “X berths”. Currently, they are only available in Devonport and Faslane. As Portsmouth-based ships, there would be further considerable investment required for nuclear-certified infrastructure at Portsmouth.

The selection of conventional propulsion for the QEC will undoubtedly prove to be the correct choice over the lifetime of the ships and maybe a big factor in ensuring they are affordable to operate and remain in service for many decades. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where a future aircraft carrier CO will be wishing his vessel was nuclear-powered.



from Save the Royal Navy

Friday, 4 August 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth likely to enter Portsmouth for the first time on 18th August

There are very strong indications that the future flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be arriving in her home port of Portsmouth on the morning of Friday 18th August. This is not a certainty as the ship still has further trials to complete and other factors such as the weather could change the plan.

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance that constructed the ship had originally scheduled an approximately 11-week sea trials period, which began when she sailed for the first time on 26th June. Despite the issues with the propeller shafts that required 2 weeks alongside in Invergordon, other aspects of the trials are reportedly proceeding very well and ahead of schedule. Original estimates given out earlier this year had said she might arrive in the Autumn but better progress has been made than initially anticipated.

Harbour dredging operations and the construction of the Princess Royal Jetty where the Queen Elizbeth class carriers will berth in Portsmouth are all complete. Inshore survey craft, HMS Gleaner was recalled early from her planned work in Jersey and has been conducting a bathymetric survey of the harbour seabed and the Spithead anchorages. Her measurements will provide confidence that there is the adequate depth of water for a ship that has a draught of 11 m. Additional extra contractors have been brought in to Portsmouth Naval Base in the last few weeks to ensure shoreside facilities needed for the ship are ready, slightly earlier than had been expected.

Although nothing like as restricted as her departure from the basin at Rosyth, entry into the narrow mouth of Portsmouth harbour is also dependent on weather and tidal conditions. In the event of high winds, she may have to anchor in the Solent an await the right opportunity. High tide on the 18th of August is around 9.30am so expect the ship to pass the Round Tower at about that time.

When HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in Portsmouth it will be another landmark moment for the Royal Navy and its centrepiece aircraft carrier programme.

Portsmouth City Council and the Police have been considering arrangements for this event for some time as large crowds are expected. Official sources are understandably reluctant to commit to a specific date and want to manage expectations. They will only say she will arrive “in the next few weeks”. Final confirmation of her arrival time will probably only be given out at relatively short notice.

Please note, like all naval movements, this plan could easily change and is subject to operational, technical or weather considerations.


from Save the Royal Navy

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Getting jets to sea – more squadrons, more pilots please

As HMS Queen Elizabeth undergoes initial sea trials there is considerable discussion about her future embarked air group. Amidst endless media and online gibberish about “aircraft carriers with no aircraft” the UK is in fact, building up its fleet of F-35B Lightnings ready to go to sea. Here John Dunbar considers the concerns about the number of jets that will be available to form the Tailored Air Group, and how their efficiency might be maximised.

British F-35 numbers in service will be constrained, with around 48 front line aircraft in 4 squadrons, and a further 12 assigned to the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). This suggests that around 16 jets will be routinely available for overseas or carrier deployment at any one time. (More could be embarked in emergencies, although achieving the theoretical maximum of 36 jets would be virtually impossible under existing plans.) The plan for the UK to buy 138 F-35s announced in SDSR 2015 sounds generous, but this figure is the total to be purchased over the entire lifetime of the aircraft (30 years?) and allows for replacement of older airframes.

Split buy. No thanks.

The RAF is arguing for a split purchase between F-35B and F-35A. Only the F-35B variant being purchased currently can operate from the carriers. This may appear superficially attractive and allow for a clear delineation between naval aircraft and land-based fleets. Unfortunately, a split fleet would add to logistic support costs (the different F-35 variants only have around 25% of components in common) and result in an even smaller pool of aircraft available to equip the aircraft carriers. A more detailed explanation of why the RN should resist this RAF proposal can be found here.

Sortie generation rate

Historically, a carrier’s ability to project power has been based on the number of aircraft that can be carried, which in turn determines the number of sorties that can be generated, and the air wings resilience to combat losses and battle damage.

Sustainable fast jet sortie generation rates have remained relatively static at 1 per day for ground-based aircraft and around 1.5 per day for carrier-based aircraft. There are number of factors which limit sortie generation rate – at any one time only 60-80% of aircraft will be available (due to the need for repairs or overhauls); flight checks and maintenance can limit the number of flight hours available to anywhere between 1 and 5 hours per day and pilot fatigue, mission briefing and debriefing can also limit how many missions can be undertaken in a 24 period. Based on current doctrine and taking these restrictions into account, 12 F-35s might be able to generate between 10 and 15 sorties per day.

US super carriers with 80 aircraft are theoretically capable of delivering around 120 sorties per day (or more than 200 in surge conditions) whilst the QEC are designed to develop a maximum of 120 sorties per day in total, of which at least 20 will need to be reserved for helicopter operations to support anti-submarine and airborne early warning operations. In practice, these maximum sortie rates are rarely achieved.

In operations over Libya in 2011 the French carrier Charles De Gaulle averaged 11 sorties per day. During operation Desert Storm, the USS Carl Vinson averaged 55 combat sorties per day.

However, future F-35 sortie rates need to be seen in the context of the step change delivered by 5th generation aircraft. The F-35’s stealth and complex digital architecture allow it to carry out some missions without supporting electronic warfare assets or the need for fighters to provide protection from opposing air forces. Where twelve aircraft were needed in the past, four F-35 can now accomplish the same mission and have better survival rates.

Whilst it may be too early to say that the F-35 is three times more effective than legacy aircraft, the clear implication is that far fewer sorties will be required to deliver the same impact in strike missions. Evidence of excellent air-to-air kill ratios emerging from Red Flag exercises also suggests that F-35 will be able to attain air superiority with fewer numbers than 4th generation aircraft.

Barring a long-term crisis, RN is not expected maintain continuous F-35 deployment. To keep a carrier permanently at sea would require at least 3 ships and the RN will only have 2. However, it is planned that one of the QEC carriers will always be available for deployment at reasonably short notice. It is likely that each carrier will deploy for a total of nine months in any given 27 month period (meaning one of the two carriers will be at sea for 18 months out of 27). It is this deployment pattern that the RN and Joint Lightning Force will need to resource.

Silver linings

There are further reasons to be optimistic. Whilst the choice of F-35B has been over-criticised for its higher cost, more limited range and lower weapons load, it does bring with it the benefit of collaboration with the United States Marine Corps who intend to buy 340 F-35Bs.

The USMC is showing much greater commitment to the F-35B than the US Navy is to the F-35C, and are clearly determined to maximise its capabilities. In doing so, the USMC is updating its ‘Harrier Carrier’ concept to utilise amphibious assault vessels as small carriers deploying 15-20 F-35B.

Remarkably, the USMC has published plans for these platforms to deliver a sustained rate of up to 40 sorties in a 14 hour period across a range of combat operations – more than 3 sorties per day, per airframe. Whilst this does include utilisation of forward operating bases to maximise effectiveness, it still suggests that the USMC has found a way to shatter the 1.5 sortie rate per day ceiling, a doctrinal approach that the Royal Navy would benefit from evaluating.

The US Marine Corps is leading the way developing F-35B operating doctrine. They deployed 12 aircraft on USS America in November 2016 and now have 10 operational aircraft forward-deployed in Japan.

There are a number of reasons why F-35B sortie rates can be increased. The much-reduced workload associated with flying the aircraft and the quantum leap in situational awareness from the fused data and sensor technology could significantly reduce the time need for briefing and de-briefing. This reduces pilot fatigue to the point where two or more sorties per pilot, per day become achievable. The USMC has also focused intensively on ALIS (the Autonomic Logistic Information System) which plays a big role in maximising availability by managing and pre-empting fault detection and organising spares logistics. The Royal Navy’s close collaboration with USMC should make that learning available early in UK F-35 operations.

It is also now certain that USMC F-35 squadrons will operate from the RN’s carriers in coalition operations. Not only does this offer significantly increased fire power, but also opens up the possibility of in-flight refuelling from USMC V-22 Osprey, a capability the RN would dearly like to own itself at some point in the future.

Structuring the Lightning force

If the RN is going to work with the USMC in developing new operational doctrines, it follows that innovation in the F-35 force structure should also be considered.

The RAF has recently moved from 7 squadrons of 12 Typhoons to 8 Squadrons of 10 Typhoons, ostensibly because of improved availability of airframes, resulting from more effective maintenance. The Lightning fleet could follow suit, going from five squadrons of 12 F-35B to six squadrons of 10 F-35B. This could be undertaken in parallel with consideration of innovating the way in which the Operational Conversion Unit is supported.

Rather than having a squadron of aircraft dedicated to the OCU, 5 airframes each should be assigned (with maintenance crews) from 2 squadrons not scheduled for active deployment (preferably squadrons that have just returned from operations and who can feed learning into OCU development programmes). The aircraft remaining in each squadron will be more than adequate to meet weekly pilot flying hour requirements for the full complement of pilots, particularly given increased use and availability of simulators.

The Lightning fleet would then consist of 60 aircraft in 6 front line fighter squadrons (3 each for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm); with 10 UK based aircraft allocated to OCU duties. This can be achieved with the only additional cost being the extra pilots needed as instructors. That is a 25% increase in available combat aircraft derived from an additional 12-14 pilots needed for the OCU.

Lt Cdr. Ian Tidball, the first Royal Navy pilot to fly an F-35 in 2013. There will be a total of 26 RN and RAF pilots trained to fly the aircraft by the end of 2018.

This would also make a radical difference to RAF and RN flexibility in deployment without needing any extra aircraft in service. Rather than squabbling with the navy over the deployment of 16 aircraft, the RAF could be confident in being able to deploy 10 aircraft overseas at any one time, with 15 further aircraft available for UK based operations and training (excluding OCU). Acting in concert with Typhoon, small flights of F-35 can act as significant force multipliers – removing airframe competition for carrier use must be an attractive option to the RAF.

The Royal Navy could also be confident of having 15 F-35B as increasing deployment in increments of five aircraft up to an all-out effort of 30 F-35B embarked would be within the gift of the Fleet Air Arm as and when necessary. Alternatively, deploying with additional RAF or USMC F-35B in could enable a sustainable embarked air wing of 30 – 40 F-35B.

This more flexible structure would also start to allow distinctive doctrines to emerge, with the Royal Navy focusing on the high tempo expeditionary role modelled by the USMC, and the RAF focusing on longer duration deep strike missions supported by in-flight refuelling.


The F35-B is a revolutionary platform that invites further innovation to maximise its impact. A more flexible squadron structure alongside innovation in operational doctrine can help ensure that even with a modest air wing of 15 or 20 aircraft the Queen Elizabeth Carriers will pack a meaningful punch.



from Save the Royal Navy