Thursday, 13 June 2013

HMS Queen Elizabeth

I'm not certain why I'm fascinated with the new aircraft carriers being built by and for Britain, but I am. The first of these, HMS Queen Elizabeth will look almost complete this weekend when the aft "island" is attached to the deck. I'd like to make a few points about this project from a viewpoint substantially higher and more general than usual.
Computer graphic of HMS Queen Elizabeth moored beside the British Parliament
First, why is Britain building an aircraft carrier? Britain learned a lasting lesson about the importance of having aircraft carriers when Argentina attacked the Falkland Islands in 1982. Britain would, most likely, have lost the Falklands War if it didn't have the old aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and the smaller one HMS Invincible. I say "most likely" instead of "certainly" because it was recently revealed that President Reagan would have approved the loan of the USS Iwo Jima to Britain if anything had happened to either carrier.

Now HMS Hermes, HMS Invincible, and HMS Ark Royal have been paid off, HMS Illustrious is coming to the end of her life, and the Harrier fighter planes that flew from these ships have been sold to the States, Britain wants replacements for both the ships and the planes.

The next question, of course, is how big the ships should be. Other carriers are in the 20,000 ton range (like the Illustrious), 40,000 ton range (like the French Charles de Gaulle), 60,000 ton range (like the Chinese Liaoning) or 100,000 ton range (the American carriers).

Bigger is better in terms of capability since bigger can carry more planes and use them more efficiently. In addition, planes are getting bigger, too, so a carrier that is just big enough in the start of its career may well be too small for the next generation of planes. That is especially true if the ships are intended to last for fifty or more years.

Bigger is also more economical (if not necessarily cheaper), as anyone who buys laundry detergent in big tubs knows. As Admiral Sir Michael Boyce (later the First Sea Lord and then Chief of the Defence Staff) said "Air is free, and steel is cheap"; the electronic and weapons systems are expensive, but they cost the same on a large ship as a small one. The difference in cost between a larger and smaller ship comes down mostly to labour costs.

The design process for the ships reflects these truisms. Two proposals were made to the Ministry of Defence. One was a large ship with relatively inexpensive electronics and weapons; the other was a smaller one with more expensive electronics and weapons. The Ministry took the larger one as a base, but instructed that it have the more expensive systems from the other design. Of course, it ended up too expensive. The lead designer started to remove this and that, replace this with that, all to get the price back down again. However, he fought to keep the ship's size intact.

(That is really simplified. The full story is on the Navy Matters blog. Be careful, though. Like the taste of a sausage, if you want to enjoy the design of the Queen Elizabeth class, you may not want to know too much about its origins). 

Another aspect to cost is the size of the crew. The sailors need to be paid, and there is a limit to how many the government is willing to hire. Automation has worked wonders here. The Queen Elizabeth Class ships will require about the same number of sailors as the old Invincible Class, despite being three times larger.

Finally, what plane would the ships carry? The trade-off here is that simpler planes demand more complex, expensive ships, while more complex, expensive planes allow simpler, cheaper ships. This is true, at least, for the two planes that Britain considered.

The F35C (the "Carrier" version) has a lower price, longer range, fewer moving parts, and 25% less maintenance cost. On the other hand, it needs large, expensive, heavy catapults for the launch. These add to the expense of the ship, whether the traditional steam catapults or the new electromagnetic ones are chosen.

The F35B (the vertical take off and landing version) is more expensive, shorter range, has more moving parts, and is 25% more expensive to maintain but does without the catapults, reducing the cost of the ship. As a bonus, RAF pilots will be able to land on the ships with less training than they would need for other planes: landing on a moving target so that a hook on the plane catches the arrestor wires on the ship requires special expertise; landing vertically or coming to a short, rolling stop, less so.

A final consideration in determining the size of the ships is the size of your dock. There, Britain was lucky. No. 1 Dock in Rosyth, Scotland, was built in 1907 for the construction of battleships. With a little modification to take the flat bottom of a 65,000 ton aircraft carrier, as opposed to the classic "V" shape of a battleship, Rosyth could handle the construction of the carriers.
No. 1 Dock, Rosyth, being prepared
Construction is well advanced on the first of the carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and some of the construction blocks are ready for the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales. This Youtube video gives a good look at the final design.

We can now judge how good the choices that shaped their design have been. If we compare the two British ships with the newest American carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, we find quite a few similarities.
Computer graphic of the USS Gerald R. Ford

The combined displacement of the British ships, when fully loaded, is 130,000 tons, so almost a third more than the Gerald R. Ford. They can carry up to thirty-six planes each, or a combination of planes and helicopters, for a combined total about the same as the American ship. Since each British ship carries about 1,600 men, including both the crew and the air component, they require 3,200 together, which is considerably less than the 4,297 on the Gerald R. Ford.

The most important comparison is the overall cost. The two British ships cost about £5.9 billion ($9.2 billion US) for the whole program, whereas the USS Gerald Ford costs $9 billion for the carrier itself or, if the R&D is included, $14 billion.

On the other hand, the British will, most often, be operating only one of their carriers at a time, which may not halve the operating cost for the two ships together, but would certainly reduce it. Over fifty years, that should add up to a lot of savings.

Despite all the debate and backtracking and compromise during the design of the new aircraft carriers, I think the result makes a lot of sense. Britain will be the only nation able to match a single American carrier strike group in power, yet will be able to leave half of that power in port most of the time. Two ships are clearly more survivable in battle than one, as well. The choices of a large ship, a relatively small crew, and the simpler, cheaper ship design allowed by VTOL planes, still meet the Royal Navy's needs for air power, for amphibious landing support, and for humanitarian aid after a natural disaster.

So, in summary, Britain's getting a supercarrier with about the clout of an American one, for about the cost of an American one, only split into two hulls.

By the way, the French were interested in adapting the British design to create their next carrier, the Porte-avions 2 or PA2. The most recent information is that they have decided to go with a different design. It will still be 65,000 or 70,000 tons, and conventionally powered, but have catapults for its Rafale fighter planes, and a single island rather than the unique two-island design on the Queen Elizabeth class. When or if the money will be made available for this, who knows? In the meantime, the design is being proposed to Brazil.
Model of the proposed French carrier
Update: From this page on the "" blog:
Combined the two ships are planned to have an availability of 584 ship days a year (292 per ship), a 6 day interval between docking and a refit interval of 6 months.
Update on costs (4 July 2013). According to Bloomburg, the cost of the USS Gerald R. Ford has gone up 22% in the last five years due to problems with "Technical, design and construction challenges.” The GAO's current estimate of its cost is $12.8 billion but "The Pentagon’s independent cost-estimating office, the Congressional Budget Office and a Navy-commissioned panel project final costs as high as $14.2 billion, the GAO said."

On the other hand, the most recent information I can find on the British carriers is "The NAO is sceptical that overall project costs will remain at the £5.46 billion promised by the MoD, but accepts that rises will be inevitable." That is why the figures quoted in the posting are that they will cost £5.9 billion ($9.2 billion US). I am assuming that "overall project costs" include the R&D and design work.

If we compare $9.2 billion to $14.2 billion, which is a decent guess at the final figures, then the British will be getting roughly the same plane-carrying ability as the Americans for about two-thirds the price. (64.7% of the price).

Update on size (4 August 2013). There's a good article on the Royal Institute of Naval Architects website summarizing the progress to date on building, designing, and even deciding the future ships of the Royal Navy. Its title is, appropriately, "Progress being made but uncertainties remain." One remark that stood out is on the Queen Elizabeth class: 
Work on the circa 70,600tonne ships (an increase of 4,600tonnes over the original estimates) continues and on 14 March 2013 the forward island of Queen Elizabeth was attached to the hull at Babcock International’s yard in Rosyth. She is scheduled to be ‘launched’ next year and fitted out by ‘early 2017’ and will probably now be commissioned in 2017 rather than 2016 as originally envisaged. Trials will also begin in 2017 and she should reach full operational capability in 2020.
I had not heard elsewhere that the displacement had been increased to over 70,000 tonnes.

Update (25 Sept 2013). The Aircraft Carrier Alliance has released new computer graphic images of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Quite nice and detailed. The people in the pictures give the scale of the ships.


  1. Like the blog very detailed and good info, I like the new carriers also I think its the two tower set up (looks the nuts) they take up more real-estate but looks nice and I guess there's only so much flight deck needed with x- amount of aircraft any way.

    Whats your view on the cats and traps set up over VSTOL / VTOL?, I personally would rather of seen them with cats and traps.

    Keep up the good blog mate.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I'll definitely keep posting on various subjects and updating my older articles as needed.

      Your question about the two islands on deck is interesting. I think the designers came up with it for one reason (two funnels=two islands), then found other reasons the design was useful. The island at the back is well placed to see the planes coming and going, so that can be the Flying Control; the one at the front lets the captain actually see where he's going, so use this for navigation. Contrast this with the bridge position in the USS Gerald Ford: I bet the captain can't see much except the deck and the horizon.

      As for the wasting of space in a two island design, I don't believe it. Put the two existing islands together and you get one island, but twice as big. Nor is the space between the islands wasted. There's a big elevator (lift) there.

      As for the "cats and traps vs. VSTOL" question, I look at it this way. Britain's on a budget. It can -barely- afford to build the two carriers it is building. The current government once tried to cancel one of them, and found it couldn't afford to. It then tried to convert one to cats and traps and mothball or sell the other (not a good idea) and found it couldn't afford to. Now it's coming around to thinking that it will be able to operate both of these ships when they're ready: but that's only because ships designed without cats and traps are cheaper and simpler to build. It's too bad that French Rafales and American F-18's can't land on a QE class carrier, and it's too bad that Airborne Early Warning planes can't take off from the ships, so helicopters have to fill that role, but the ships will be there, and functional, and at least the US Marines can bring their planes on-board as needed. If money is ever found to buy Ospreys for the QE class, there won't be many tasks that aircraft carriers currently do that they cannot do, and well.

    2. Thanks for the detailed reply all good points.

      I have a couple of question from your reply.

      1. Why has the ship got two funnels, if their for engines why not route them too a manifold and out one funnel or why don't they use a diesel electric system and then the engines could go any where (although probably somewhere low in the hull).

      2. Would a Osprey really be able to operate as a baby Airborne early warning and control platform and how well?

      Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

    3. What I've read is this: The ship has two diesel engines and four gas turbines. Since their job is to produce electricity that will go to the electric engines that turn the shafts, there is a lot of flexibility about where to put them. Normally the engines would be deep in the bowels of the ship, but getting air to them and taking exhaust from them would use up a lot of piping and waste a lot of space. Instead, they were placed up near the open air. Much simpler. Plus, they were physically separated so that the ship could not be reduced to a sitting duck by a single lucky missile. Thus the two funnels.

      There are references on-line to an AEW version of the Osprey. If you can put the equipment on a Merlin, why not an Osprey? The advantage for Ospreys is that they can fly a lot higher and, thus, get a better view. The advantages of Merlins are that the RN already has some, and they cost only a third as much.

      Ospreys can also take the equipment to refuel fighters or helicopters in the air, according to the Wikipedia page. Anyway, the purchase of Ospreys is purely hypothetical right now. Some news may come about that in 2015 or 2016.

    4. I was wrong. It was four diesel and two gas turbines.

  2. Congratulations on an excellent article. I have read many articles on these ships and this one of the few that seems to understand the fiscal thinking behind their conception.

    Incidentally, do you think, that given the criticism regarding the choice of F35B aircraft, the fact that the UK is significant partner in the overall F35 Project, with about 15% of all manufacture being in the UK have any effect on the fiscal viability of the ships?

    1. Thanks for the kind comment. I tried to do the research before I pulled my thoughts together into this article.

      As for your question, it is not as simple as it seems. I am sure that the UK's profits from the F35 and especially the F35B make the aircraft carriers more politically acceptable to support, but they didn't keep the project from bending over the chopping block on more than one occasion. Remember that the decision to buy the F35 was almost reversed, too, because of a squabble over the Americans' control over the planes' software. So, from time to time, I'd say that some politicians felt better about buying the F35 so they felt better about populating a carrier with it, but that didn't determine whether there would be a carrier to put it on.

      If the UK hadn't been a significant partner in the F35 project, though, then I assume it would be running or forming or joining another project to make a different fighter, rather than just buying up all-American F35s. The UK could have gone ahead with the BAE Replica, which it abandoned for the F35. A navalized version of the Replica or of the Typhoon could have been developed for the carriers.

      I hope that makes sense.


  3. You will always reach wrong conclusion if you compare the USN with RN mate..The two are not in the same league.
    ''The combined displacement of the British ships, when fully loaded, is 130,000 tons, so almost a third more than the Gerald R. Ford ''

    This is absolute ridiculous...I don't see any purpose in this comparison.

    The Ford is a lot bigger and has more new technology like electric catapults and ammo elevaters plus it is the first of a new class, I am thinking there is some R and D dollars in there. Just my .02.
    Also, the QE is said to exceed 25 knots, while a CVN should be one of the fastest ships on the seas, 35+ knots. That's got to cost money.

    UK R&D Costs would have been greater as they are spread over 2 QE Ships as opposed to 9 Ford Ships
    Ford Class Aircraft will be cheaper than the QE Class Aircraft and US defence budget is 10 times bigger than UK's..Anyway QE class carriers are an absolute neccessity for the RN

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hey there. Thanks for commenting. I agree with most of what you say. The British carriers were very much designed to give the biggest bang for the buck while the American ones simply have the biggest bang, so the latter are bigger and faster and more flexible in what planes they can launch. On the other hand, the British carriers are innovative wherever innovation would bring more bang for the same number of bucks or the same bang for fewer. For example,the ammo handling system. The American carrier gets the EMALS system, which required huge R and D costs. The Brits instead leveraged the R and D that had gone into the F35B. New technology either way. As far as comparing the plane carrying capacity of 2 QE class ships to one new American one, the logic goes back to comparing bangs for bucks rather than bangs. The two British carriers were collectively cheaper than one American carrier but if the British ones, if they had both been sent to the coast of Libya in 2011 or Syria in 2015, could provide about as any fighter-bomber sorties as one new American carrier would. In that use case, which does not require the Americans' greater speed or the wider variety of planes made possible by EMALS, the British get a comparable solution for less money. In other cases, that's less true. Do we agree?