There is a school of thought that says the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are an ‘over-sized vanity project’ and there are regular complaints that RN should have built smaller ships. In this long-read we analyse the context of their development and the case for and against the procurement of large aircraft carriers.
The QEC are the largest ships ever built for the RN, officially their empty displacement is 65,000 tonnes, although some with a trained eye suggest it may be in excess of this figure. Carrying a full load of fuel, aircraft, weapons and people will add a further 10,000 tonnes to these impressive vessels. From a communications perspective, their size has been a mixed blessing. Official publications have tended to highlight their scale, the engineering achievement and even their contribution to increased overall tonnage of the fleet, ahead of their actual utility. But building big has also attracted an army of critics, many advising us we should have gone for a smaller “Invincible plus” concept or given up on carriers entirely. Even more misguided is the idea that we could have saved £billions by investing in smaller and/or more numerous platforms, when in fact the QEC are arguably the best value for money aircraft carriers in the world.
Meet the critics
Nick Witney, a former MoD Director of International Security Policy says the carriers ended up being so large because “the Royal Navy wanted them to be as big as possible so it would be taken seriously by the US Navy” , They were nicknamed “topsy” within the MoD, after a character in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin who kept on growing in size.
Max Hastings is an experienced journalist but characterises the shallow analysis and amateurish ideas about carriers that is widespread, commenting “How much smarter it would have been to build a couple of cheap ‘n’ cheerful naval platforms from which to launch drones and low-tech aircraft. For that, one could almost have welded steel plates on top of tanker hulls, to create acceptable flight decks.”
Bernard Gray is one of the more credible voices, being employed as a SPAD to George Robertson and Geoff Hoon, helping direct the 1998 defence review and later becoming Chief of Defence Materiel at the MoD (2010-15). He says “the real reason that the size was doubled to 65,000 tonnes was to make room for boilers or EMALS for cat/trap operations, an adaptation that made no sense. We never had the money for the 4-5 squadrons of F-35 that the new carriers could accommodate. We order two 35,000 tonne carriers. Then the navy insanely decides to almost double the size to 65,000 tonnes.”
Shaping the design
To understand whether the navy really did “go insane” it is necessary to look back at the personalities, the design process and the decision making in Whitehall during the early 21st Century. The July 1998 Defence White paper stated that “The centrepiece of the new strategy of force projection is the planned acquisition of two large, 40,000-ton aircraft carriers, with a complement of up to 50 aircraft and helicopters each.” The RAF was supportive and ACM Sir Richard Johns (Chief of the Air Staff 1997-2000) has said: “Admiral Jock Slater and I agreed amongst ourselves we would work together on the Review. The agreement before Jock and I both left the service was they would be 30-40,000 ton ships”.
In October 1998, Slater was succeeded as First Sea Lord by Admiral Michael Boyce who has the task of overseeing the initial design work. Until it was decided in 2001 that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF / F-35) would be the primary aircraft for the carrier, it was unknown exactly what the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft (FCBA) as it was known would look like. Early studies for the carrier design competition included CATOBAR, STOBAR or STOVL variants and for a range of carrier air group (CAG) numbers.
Boyce and the Thales / BAE Systems design teams did not wake up one morning and in a fit of madness conspire to build the biggest carrier they could get away with. Instead, the specification and subsequent design process drew on the RN’s long experience of building and operating carriers going back to WWII. As early as 1954 a 28,000-ton carrier design able to operate 38 aircraft was studied but the Navy Board concluded that the ship was “too small for a big carrier and too big for a small carrier”. Design work done for the CVA-01 carrier project (cancelled in 1966) heavily influenced the QEC specification. Renowned naval architect, David K. Brown, writing about CVA-01 says “A particular problem was the association of displacement with cost, which was proving a fallacy as complex (and expensive) solutions were accepted to save weight to keep the ship within the agreed displacement of 53,000 tons.” CVA-01 designers had already discovered that increasing tonnage from 40,000 to 50,000 tons increased costs 10%, but aviation capability by 50%. Studies for the CVF concluded in 2001 that a 25% cost reduction for both ships, from £4 billion to £3 billion, would result in a 50% cut in sortie rate.
The Invincible class were originally labelled “through-deck cruisers” and were kept small, for political reasons as much as cost, allowing the RN to keep naval aviation alive, despite the 1966 decision that the UK would not have carriers. Although they performed miracles and in the Falklands War vindicated the need for carriers, the Invincible’s small size always limited their operations and potential for mid-life upgrades. There was a determination in the navy not to be trapped again by an arbitrary displacement cap.
Despite various modifications to the Invincible class light carriers to support more aircraft, during operations off Bosnia in the mid-1990s the 8 embarked Harriers were only able to average a single sortie each per day, despite their reliability. The Harriers delivered more than 2,200 sorties in support of operations in Bosnia, and while this was a very useful contribution, operational analysis concluded that around 50 aircraft would be needed to deliver decisive strike capability in medium-intensity scenarios. Carrying greater numbers of aircraft reduces the pressure on individual airframes allowing for planned maintenance and a more sustained and higher number of overall sorties.
In September 2002 it was decided the UK would buy the STVOL F-35B variant of the JSF but the CVF would be built to allow reconfiguration for CATOBAR operations later in its life if required. While this may have increased the ship’s size by around 10,000 tonnes, the adaptable carrier may yet prove to be of great benefit in the future. The replacement for F-35 will almost certainly be long-range Unmanned Air Systems. It may prove cheaper and technically less challenging to fit ‘son of EMALS’ to the QEC and purchase a conventionally-launched carrier UAS than develop a very niche large STOVL UAS.
The original specification in 2001 called for a carrier that could launch up to 150 fixed-wing sorties every 24-hours although by late 2002 it was accepted that this would have to be reduced to 110. The design did not “double in size” but instead when through competition and then an iterative process of refinement which included several displacement options. The original ‘gold standard’ (Alpha) concept resulted in a 73,000 tone vessel but was rejected as unaffordable, partly due to the inclusion of armour, Aster missiles and very high levels of automation. The subsequent 55,000-tonne ‘Minimum Viable Technical Design’ (Bravo) did not meet damage control and stability standards. The Charlie variant was then developed with greater subdivision but this reduced internal volume. The compromises of the Charlie were seen to be adding technical risk and complications to construction and the RN successfully argued for a small increase in budget for a slightly larger ship. The result was the 65,000 tonne Delta which was subsequently adopted as the basis for the QEC we know today. (A full design history of the QEC is covered in our previous article.)
As the QEC was designed around the JSF it should be noted that the F-35B is significantly larger than the Harrier it replaced, driving the need for more deck space, larger hangars and more powerful lifts. The wingspan is more than a metre and a half greater than the Harrier GR9, the aircraft is a metre taller and has almost twice the maximum take-off weight. The 50 aircraft on a 40,000-tonne ship that was dreamed of in 1998 would have been cramped with Harriers but entirely unachievable with JSF.
Gray’s complaint that we could never have afforded enough aircraft is a case of being wise after the event. In the early 2000s, the vast international JSF collaboration, and the economies of scale it was expected to produce, suggested it would deliver a much more affordable jet than ultimately proved to be the case. The final price tag is a failure that can be laid at the door of Lockheed Martin and the over-ambitious goals of JSF, rather than the RN having unrealistic expectations about air group size.
“Air is free and steel is cheap”
Admiral Boyce was well known to use the above maxim to explain the choice of the larger carrier. In broad terms he is correct but the calculations around size and cost are very much more complex. A bigger ship will obviously require more materials and internal fittings. Counter-intuitively a larger ship may actually be easier to build and require proportionally-fewer man-hours having better access for installation of internal systems and equipment. The trade-off between the cost of materials against access and space for upgrades is is also a consideration in the much more important total lifetime cost of ownership which we will consider below.
The main costs drivers of modern combatants are the weapons, sensors and electronics, the steelwork typically comprises just 5% of the cost. For an aircraft carrier, this is proportionally only slightly higher as the density of equipment is slightly lower in relation to hull size. Gray points out the extra costs of internal equipment: “…to say nothing about the hundreds of miles of additional fibre optic cable, additional fire safety bulkheads and fire control crew, HVAC, etc etc. The 35,000-tonne ship was costed at £2.7bn and the 65,000-tonne ship (before delays) £3.7bn. £1bn is not nothing… but it bought no advantage”. In other words, a 27% increase in cost delivered a 46% bigger ship, a ship with a huge advantage – approximately 250% increase in potential capability.
Barren West of Spithead?
Admiral Nigel Essenhigh (father of the current captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth) succeeded Boyce as 1SL in January 2001, with Boyce promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff. Essenhigh was in post for a relatively short time before being relieved by Admiral Alan West who served from September 2002 – February 2006. With Boyce, Essenhigh and West at the helm, the JSF purchase was approved, the QEC design finalised and the project successfully steered through the political and inter-service minefield. Various industrial and financial issues created delays but the order for the two ships was finally placed in July 2007.
West appeared before the Commons Defence Select committee in November 2004 and explained the decisions around the size of the QEC. “..to do the initial deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and we have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters, and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future”. He also emphasised the benefits that larger carriers would have for the trans-Atlantic alliance; “The US CNO (Chief of Naval Operations really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have the same sort of clout as one of their carriers, which is this figure at 36. He would find that very useful, and really we would mix and match with that.”
The complaints that we built large ships “to impress the Americans” is plainly absurd. The US Navy certainly appreciates the availability of another big deck and interoperability with our most important international ally is clearly of immense value. The US has effectively underwritten the defence of Europe since WII and other NATO nations should be sharing the burden, even if many Europeans don’t want to face up to it. The USN has helped enable the carrier project in all kinds of ways and the first operational deployment will see USMC jets flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth. Even if there are a maximum of 24 British jets on the carrier by 2024, US jets could bring the number up to 36.
In October 2003 the Labour government published its defence whitepaper “Delivering Security in a Changing World”. It was essentially a money-saving exercise, cutting defence to fund the war in Iraq that began in March 2003. Three Type 23 frigates were to be sold to Chile, the Type 45 destroyer programme was reduced from 12 to 8 (then 6), plus 2 SSNs, 3 Type 42s and 6 Minehunters were retired early. The myth that Alan West allowed the fleet to be gutted to fund ‘his over-sized aircraft carriers’ still persists today. In fact, all three services suffered deep cuts, mainly to fund operation Telic, a trick Labour repeated but with more subtlety a few years later to fund the conflict in Afghanistan.
Although the initial price of construction is important, it typically only comprises 20% of the total lifetime cost of a warship, probably less for the QEC with a very long planned service life of 50 years. No one can predict how technology and aircraft will change over such a length of time and the QEC has plenty of spare space for upgrades and modifications over time. Even if there is margin available, the work to modify a smaller ship can also be more demanding and expensive as working spaces are more cramped, creating access pathways for new equipment may involve complex surgery. Building large vessels with a long design life may involve a slightly bigger initial outlay but saves the much greater capital expense of completely replacing them in 25-30 years time.
Putting aside the cost of aircraft which we would have bought in some form anyway, the largest through-life expense for the carriers is personnel. Sailor recruitment, training, salaries, benefits and pensions form the biggest overhead. The QEC design has already achieved a major success by keeping crew numbers for such a large vessel startlingly low. The core ships company numbers 800 and the QEC have one of the lowest personnel densities of any warship afloat – around 1 sailor for every 81 tonnes. The Invincible class ship’s company was only slightly smaller at 685 – about 38 tonnes per sailor. The vast US Nimitz class CVNs are colossally more manpower intensive, they require 3,500 sailors – about 28 tonnes per person. The scale of the QEC has not significantly driven up demand for many more people than would have been the case with the ‘utopian’ 40,000-tonne design. With so much automation, most of the same jobs that have to be done on a large carrier have to be done on a small carrier anyway. It is only the embarked air group that will scale up or down in relation to aircraft numbers.
A larger ship will obviously consume more fuel than a smaller vessel but the increase is not proportional to size. The resistance the engines must overcome is a function of the surface area in the water but a ship with double the internal volume does not have double the wetted surface area. The QEC also benefit from advances in marine propulsion technology which further mitigates fuel expense in relation to size. The diesels and modern MT30 gas turbines are far more efficient than the thirsty Olympus GTs of the Invincible class. (Nuclear power was sensibly never considered as a propulsion option.)
If there is one unavoidable headache created by going for big carriers it is the provision of suitable dock infrastructure. The QEC are too large to get into Devonport and there are limited places where they can dock in the UK. New and enlarged jetties and support buildings have been constructed in Portsmouth as well as a new ammunition jetty in Loch Long. These are relatively modest investments will last for the life of the carriers but the problem of dry docking the carriers has not been properly addressed. A purpose-built dock in Portsmouth has been costed at about £500M and for now, the far from ideal dock at Rosyth where they were built, is to be used.
When the carriers are deployed on operations the benefits of the big deck will be demonstrated more clearly. Their size will allow them to operate unsupported over longer ranges and for a longer time than a smaller ship. Although not a consideration when designed, this may partially help mitigate the current lack of solid support ships in the fleet. The QEC has magazine capacity to support around 400 sorties, assuming a ‘maximum effort ‘110 strike sorties on day one, followed by a further 5-6 days sustaining about 50 sorties per day. Operations may not work out like this paper exercise but the big carrier has inherent flexibility. The large deck also allows space for critical helicopter operations to comfortably run simultaneously. Round-the-clock ASW and early warning coverage can be maintained to protect the carrier, side-by-side with the fixed-wing flying programme. The smaller the deck, the more complex the rotation of aircraft between the hangar flight deck and launch spots becomes.
There are also plenty of unallocated spaces and spare accommodation, this will allow the ship to comfortably absorb many extra people, including an embarked military forces, specialist, medical staff and others to flexibly respond to demanding missions. Having briefing rooms, office space and recreation areas available is not just a matter of comfort but will contribute to more efficient operation. In older carriers, when deployed in overload condition, people were sometimes accommodated on camp beds in passageways and improvising offices in bathrooms or other awkward spaces.
There is a perception that a big ship is an easy target. There is some truth in this but conversely, a bigger ship is harder to sink. The QEC are not stealth ships but have measures to reduce their radar and infrared signatures and are harder to detect than many imagine. Their size also permits a greater degree of underwater protection including a double hull. They also have multiple redundant systems and the propulsion is especially resilient, the engine rooms being widely separated.
Big is not inherently better but there is very good reasoning behind the heavy displacement of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers.