The U.K. is broadening the scope of how it might use its future fleet of Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
The first of the two ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is 80% complete internally according to Rear Admiral Russell Harding, the head of the U.K. Fleet Air Arm, speaking at the Defence Services Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition in London Sept. 10. The vessel is due to be launched “some time in 2014” while work on the sister ship, the HMS Prince of Wales, is proceeding apace.
The carriers will form the centerpiece of the Responsive Force Task Group (RFTG), capable of embarking a wide variety of rotary-wing platforms as well as a squadron of the U.K.’s plannedLightning II Joint Strike Fighters. Although the last Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) called for an embarked complement of 12 JSFs on the ship, Harding suggested that a new Joint Air Maneuver Package could be developed in support of amphibious operations.
A surge force of up to 24 JSFs could deploy on the ship along with what he described as a Maritime Force Protection package of nine Merlin Mk. 2 helicopters equipped for the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission, while a further four or five would be available to provide an airborne early warning capability. A littoral maneuver package also is envisaged, potentially using the’s Chinooks, the upgraded Merlin Mk. 4, Army Apache attack helicopters and the Wildcat helicopter.
Studies are being carried out by the U.K. Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to see if the ship can operate safely with more landing spots than the six currently planned. Harding suggests that by adding a further four landing spots, the ship will be able to lift a company-sized unit of troops (up to 250 soldiers) in a single group lift using medium helicopters. “This is possible,” Harding said. “We just need to decide how we paint the lines on the flight deck.”
Significant work has gone into reducing the manpower levels of the ship. Current crew complement for the vessel alone is 679 sailors, compared to 3,200 for a Nimitz-class carrier of the U.S. Navy. Harding said such savings were possible through the use of greater automation. He described the weapon-handling system as similar to that found in an “Amazon.com warehouse.”
As the entry into service of the carriers nears, the U.K. is planning to send more than 300 personnel from officers to sailors to gain experience in carrier operations with the U.S. Navy on its CVNs and with the U.S.on its LHDs. And while more pilots will be involved in exchanges with Navy Hornet squadrons and Marine Harrier units, one officer will exchange on the French navy’s Super Etendard carrier-borne fighter bomber in a bid to gain experience flying operations from small deck carriers.
The future of the HMS Prince of Wales is currently unclear. In the 2010 SDSR, it was decided that the ship would go into “extended reserve.” Harding told delegates that the final decision would be made during SDSR 2015 but said that with the money spent on the ship, retaining it as a backup to the Queen Elizabeth on an extended readiness might be a cost-effective solution.