Is the concept of aircraft carriers 'without planes' a myth and if so, what is the reality of the aircraft carrier programme?
At some point 2019 the Royal Navy will have, for the first time in nearly 50 years, two ‘fleet’ aircraft carriers at sea. With HMS Queen Elizabeth (QE) now firmly in commission and successfully continuing her operational work up programme ahead of the vessels first full deployment in 2021, HMS Prince of Wales will soon also put to sea in order to conduct her initial sea trials.
After 20 years of planning and UK industry delivering the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy into service, attention will turn to the next stage of the process – namely turning them into fully operational vessels, complete with embarked aircraft.
Unfortunately, a prevailing myth has grown up suggesting that these are aircraft carriers without aircraft and that they are unable to operate in their intended role.
The purpose of this article is to try and explain what is going on with the aircraft carrier programme, why the ships went to sea initially without jets embarked and what the next key milestones are in this project.
The ‘carriers without planes’ myth exists because of two main reasons.
Firstly, the public perception of delays in the F35 programme that have reportedly slowed down delivery of the jet. Secondly, other people think that because in her early trips to sea, no F35s were embarked, this means that the carriers do not have any aircraft.
The original plan for the carriers dates back roughly 20 years, and under the initial timelines, saw the UK bringing the first carrier into service in around 2012, with the F35 entering service in a similar time frame.
This plan was changed due to the combination of budgetary challenges slowing down the carrier build time in the mid-2000s, delaying the arrival of the ships into service. At the same time, delays in bringing the F35 into service also meant that the plans changed, with both the carrier and F35 introduction to service slipping several years.
In the same rough time frame, the UK also chose to delete the Harrier from service. In the late 1990s, the plan was for this much loved, and venerable aircraft, to stay in service until potentially around 2018.
Both the Royal Navy operated FA2 variant, and the RAF GR7/9 variants were embarked in the Invincible-class aircraft carriers, and theoretically it could have seen Harrier embark briefly on the Queen Elizabeth (QE) class ahead of the full introduction of the F35 into service.
Defence cuts saw the Sea Harrier scrapped in 2004, and the 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) took the difficult decision to scrap the Harrier in order to help balance the defence budget. This in turn created a capability gap as in late 2010 the Royal Navy ceased to operate fixed wing aircraft at sea, but it was not due to fill it until late 2018.
The result was the Royal Navy (RN) focused its work on operating its remaining aircraft carrier (HMS Illustrious) purely as a Helicopter Carrier alongside HMS Ocean (a dedicated helicopter carrier). Between 2010 and 2018 both vessels only embarked helicopters, leading to the perception by some people that the UK possessed aircraft carriers without any aircraft.
While the RN may not have been embarking fixed wing aircraft on their own ships, over in the USA a great deal of work was being done to retain the critical pool of knowledge required to conduct fixed wing operations. The US Navy was incredibly generous in offering to provide training spots for British aircrew to qualify on the F18 Hornet, and then fly as exchange officers with US Navy squadrons. Dozens of British pilots have qualified on the Hornet and retained the critical knowledge of how to operate at sea.
At the same time, hundreds of Fleet Air Arm ground crew were embarking in US carriers on deployments to work as part of the flight deck crews, responsible for launching and recovering the aircraft. These skills are highly perishable and if not practised regularly, quickly lost. The support of the US Navy in ensuring that the Fleet Air Arm could retain enough institutional knowledge to operate safely at sea was critical to the quick regeneration of the carrier capability in 2018.
When the decision was taken to withdraw the Harrier in 2010, it was also decided that the Queen Elizabeth would be converted to a conventional carrier (e.g. she would be fitted with catapults to launch aircraft, and arrestor hooks to recover them). This plan led to a delay in the build process while amendments were considered (the ships were designed from the outset to be converted in this way).
These plans were quickly changed when it was identified that the proposed conversion would be expensive and potentially technologically highly risky. The proposed catapult solution (known as EMALS) that would have been fitted is currently being trialled in the US Navy and has proven to have significant challenges and higher than expected failure rates.
The other risk of converting into a ‘conventional’ carrier for the RN was that only one of the two ships under construction would have been converted. The plan instead was to mothball or sell the other carrier, and the RN would have been a ‘part time’ carrier navy with just one carrier, like the French Navy.
Not only would this plan have significantly reduced the ability of the RN to put carriers to sea, it would also have made it harder to keep them deployed due to the need to train pilots and qualify them on carrier landings.
Had the QE been converted, then Britain would have potentially ended up with a part time carrier navy unable to deploy very often. Instead the decision to keep the ships as ‘STOVL’ carriers (Short Take Off, Vertical Landing) means that the UK will be able to operate both at the same time, with both able to embark jets as required.
To that end, the UK is now committed to purchasing at least 48, and potentially up to nearly 140 F35B’s for use by both the RN and the RAF. These have been under production for some years now with the first three being delivered in 2013, and the UK force has now grown to some 17 aircraft, with more being delivered on a regular basis. On current plans, by 2023 there will be a front-line force of around two squadrons of aircraft, plus an Operational Conversion Unit in service.
So, if the UK has the aircraft now, why did the Queen Elizabeth spend her first year in service without any aircraft onboard?
Ships are remarkably complicated pieces of machinery and require significant amounts of trials and testing to make sure they work as planned. When the QE sailed for the first time in 2017, she needed to be put through an intensive series of sea trials to make sure that she worked as required.
In laymans terms, this is the equivalent of taking a brand new factory car for a test drive to make sure it works as intended, and that there are no minor problems that require rectification.
The process was covered brilliantly in the TV show ‘Britains Biggest Warship’ by Chris Terrill where it through the hugely complex process of ensuring the vessel could operate as the designers had planned.
These trials were the first step in a process that takes many months as every part of the vessel must be checked to make sure that it works correctly. The trials cover everything from ship handling through to speed trials and making sure that all the systems work as intended.
A warship is an incredibly complex platform to operate and making sure that the systems ranging from navigation radars to internal communications to plumbing to firefighting systems all work as planned and can work together without a problem is critical.
To that end the ship did not sail with any fixed wing aircraft embarked, although within hours of sailing Merlin helicopters were landing onboard. The reason for this was because operating a jet at sea is a very challenging, and potentially dangerous operation. Before you do this, you need to be certain that the ship works as planned, and that there are no unanticipated defects or problems that could cause an accident.
After her initial sea trials, the QE then deployed on a second set of trials designed to discover how she could handle multiple helicopter operations, and how the vessel handled in different weather scenarios, including very bad weather. The reason for this was to build up a set of data that gives an accurate understanding of the ships capabilities, and more importantly the limitations that could constrain how she works.
For example, the state of the weather is a major factor in determining whether a ship can, or cannot, operate aircraft. While on a good day conducting flying operations is perfectly easy, there is a real difference between this, and knowing whether the ship can safely launch and recover aircraft at night in a north Atlantic storm. These trials played a vital role in making sure these limits were better understood.
These trials also took so long because the QE is the first of her class to put to sea, so she is functioning as both a prototype and production vessel at the same time.
Historically, sea trials for first of class vessels always take longer than their successors, to help build up a deep pool of technical information and data for future use and comparison.
It was not until about a year after she’d sailed for the first time that QE embarked jets to conduct flying trials. In this case it was off the coast of the USA, where two specially designed test and evaluation aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to determine the limits, capabilities and challenges of operating an F35B at sea from the carrier.
These tests aroused a lot of complaints from some people who firstly didn’t understand why the carrier didn’t embark a full squadron straight away.
The reason only two aircraft embarked was because collecting data on how the aircraft would work onboard was vital. It was essential to understand what the constraints were, and if there were any unexpected problems that may need fixing. Modern aviation is an extremely risk averse and safety conscious business for both civilian and military operators alike. Every new aircraft, and new platforms are subject to extensive tests by experts to make sure they are safe to fly from before entering regular use.
By late 2018 then the Queen Elizabeth had completed her initial sets of trials and established that she could safely operate a wide range of aircraft and helicopters at sea. What happens next?
In 2019, two major events happen – firstly, the Queen Elizabeth goes back to sea to conduct the next set of trials. This time she is embarking more aircraft and helping build up experience in operating the type at sea, and in operating it effectively. This will again see her going to the USA and working to help prepare her for her first operational deployment in 2021.
Also in 2019 the Prince of Wales will put to sea for the first time, in order to begin conducting sea trials that will be very similar, but probably shorter, to the ones that the Queen Elizabeth went through. By the end of the year there will be two British ‘fleet carriers’ at sea for the first time in nearly 50 years (the last occasion this happened was just prior to the retirement of HMS Eagle in the early 1970s).
Why will there be a delay until 2021 of the first operational deployment?
In simple terms this is because it will take that long to get the ship back home, undergo essential maintenance, begin working up for deployment (so conducting all the operational sea training and other tasks required). There is also a need to get more F35 aircraft delivered and operating in the UK before then building up experience of operating the airwing at sea prior to deploying. This is a significant amount of work to fit in in a short period of time.
The year 2021 is the key date to look forward to then because it represents the point at which the UK will once again have a carrier able to deploy to sea operationally and able to embark a large number (probably 25-30) aircraft and helicopters as part of a much larger Royal Navy task force.
It is easy to understand why people think that the RN has carriers without aircraft – images of ships at sea without any aircraft embarked always cause people to ask what is going on.
But the truth is that every navy uses the same process of carrying out lengthy sea trials before embarking aircraft or sending a ship on an operational deployment.
The process followed by the RN here is no different to that used over many decades of successfully building and operating aircraft carriers. There is always a short period of time at the start of a vessels life when it is not capable of being deployed operationally. It naturally feels a long time for those people keen to see the QE deploy on her first mission, but it is far better to delay an operational deployment by a month or two, rather than rush this process or cut corners as the potential risks this could have caused to British sailors would be incalculable.
The final point to remember is that this is the start of a very long life for both vessels – on current plans they will serve for at least 40-50 years in the Royal Navy. It is far better to get things sorted properly at the start, than make a mistake which could have serious long-term consequences.
The idea then that the UK has ‘aircraft carriers without aircraft’ is an utterly misleading myth, which bears no resemblance to the actual truth.
In reality, today in early 2019 the UK is on the cusp of completing a major re-equipment programme that will see the introduction to service of both world beating advanced jets, and the largest and most capable warships ever operated by the Royal Navy.
The future for British maritime power is extremely bright – contrary to what the naysayers may believe, the Royal Navy is very much an active force. In bringing these two ships into service it reinforces its position as one of the world’s most globally capable, professional and experienced navy’s out there, able to deploy across the globe ready to fight and win.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.