Better Late Then Never (Original Posting 29th July 2007)
On 25th July 2007 the UK government announced they are providing funding for the purchase of 2 new aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are expected to launch in 2012 and 2015 respectively, with in service dates of 2014 and 2016.
The new design, refered to as CVF (or Aircraft Carrier Future) will displace approx 65,000T and have an overall length of 284m. It will be conventionally powered, though the power plant has yet to be decided. This will make them the largest vessels ever operated by the Royal Navy and the largest aircraft carriers in Europe. The French Charles de Gaulle nuclear powered carrier currenty holding that title. On a global scale, the USA CVN's and Russia's own Admiral Kuznetsov being larger.
The vessel will be built with a ski-jump forward and should carry up to 36 of the new F-35B JSF. The “B” version being the Short Take Off & Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the design which is being purchased by the US Marine's, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to replace the Harrier. The vessels are being designed in such a way that in the future the ski-jump can be removed and catapults installed (probably the upcoming magnetic type in the next US Navy's CV(X) design) giving the vessel the ability to operate conventinal take off and landing aircraft (CTOL). The size of the flight deck (some four acres) will allow for a standard landing strip to be incorporated. The size also allows for larger aircraft to be operated, since the vessels will have a 40-50 year life, this is an obvious requirement.
The design differ's from standard carriers since it has a “split-island”. An Island forward for navigation and an Island aft for air traffic control. The aircraft on board will be capable of up to 110 sortie's per 24 hour period, including night operations. With a maximim launch rate of 24 aircraft in 15mins and the ability to recover 24 aircraft in 24mins. There is a requirement for an Airborne Early Waring (AEW) aircraft but no design has been picked yet.
The contract signed is for a value of £3.8 billion and up to 10,000 jobs are to be created. Also of note is that there are no ship yards in the UK capable of dry-docking these vessels, with the exception of Harland & Wolfe in Belfast, the largest dry dock in the world. This issue is yet to be addressed. A naval vessel spends only about 40% of it's life at sea it would seem prudent to come to a decision sooner rather then later.
With the UK's armed forces being woefully under funded and over stretched one must question has the RN the ability to support these vessels? With a fighting navy of less then 27 ships (with only 9 available for service at any one time) this new announcement, though very welcome, seems to lack any sort of overall long-term vision. With the rest of the world developing naval forces to punch well above their weight, or strategic requirements, particularly in Asia, Europe's navies are lacking.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, it took a naval force of 29 warships (of which several were damaged/destroyed) to retake a few small islands. There is no doubt the UK's armed forces would try if a similar conflict arose, but at what cost?