A version of this article appears in the June 30 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Britain’s largest ever warships will not serve as a base for fixed-wing aircraft for at least another four years, but their introduction is being felt across the breadth of the country’s armed forces.

At 65,000 tons, HMS Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship—HMS Prince of Wales—will dwarf the Invincible-class carriers they will replace, while a host of  new technologies will transform how carriers are operated and maintained.

When the first ship is formally christened by its namesake on July 4, it will begin the countdown not only toward the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s introduction into service but the return of a capability that the U.K. hopes will help it regain influence in the open sea.

This capability has not come easily. The earliest initiatives were presented in the 1990s, and in the intervening years the carrier’s configurations have changed, as have aircraft choices, resulting in ballooning budgets and causing critics to question whether the carriers are necessary. 

Follow Aviation Week's coverage of the 2014 Farnborough Air Show

From an initial contracted cost of £3.65 billion ($6.2 billion) in 2007, the price rose steadily, to £5.4 billion in 2012 and to £6.2 billion last year, after the contract was renegotiated with BAE Systems, partly due to changes in the risk-sharing arrangement, which is now split 50:50 between the government and the contractor.

When the Queen Elizabeth is fully operational in 2020, Navy commanders see the ships being at the center of a Responsive Force Task Group, capable of handling a wide variety of rotary-wing platforms as well as a squadron of the planned F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters (JSF).

“With these ships, the U.K. will have 4.5 acres of sovereign territory that it can move 500 miles per day,” says Royal Navy Capt. Simon Petitt, commander of the ship’s complement.

“Eighty percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the coast and all of that is in the radius of the [F-35] jet.

“That means the Queen Elizabeth can influence the vast majority of the world’s population, using international waters and without the need . . . for an airfield ashore,” Pettitt says. 

Although one of the aims is to enable the U.K. to project power independently, the ships have been designed to work in coalition operations as well. 

Some of the biggest changes to the ship emerged out of the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010. Although the carriers originally were designed to be able to perform 72 missions a day with 36 aircraft, the SDSR officially limited the standard carrier air wing to just 12 aircraft.

But senior officers are already brainstorming about how to accommodate more aircraft—potentially eyeing a surge force of up to 24 F-35s; joint air maneuver packages of up to 30-40 helicopters also are being examined. A littoral maneuver package is envisioned as well, potentially using Royal Air Force Chinooks, upgraded Merlin Mk.4s, Army Apache attack helicopters and the Wildcat helicopter. The U.K. plans to retain its current helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, in service until at least 2018, but it is likely the new carriers will eventually take on that role.

The Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is studying whether the ship can operate safely with more than the six landing spots currently planned. With an additional four landing spots painted onto the deck, the ship will potentially be able to lift a company-sized unit of troops—250 soldiers—in a single group lift using medium helicopters.

A standard air wing is likely to comprise 12 F-35Bs and 14 AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin Mk.2s. The large number of Merlins is predicated on a need for a mix of aircraft for the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission and for the airborne early warning (AEW) role, when the Merlins are fitted with the selected Crowsnest AEW system slated to enter service in 2018. Commanders are exploring a mix of nine aircraft for ASW duties, and five for the Crowsnest mission, although due to the modular nature of the systems, more aircraft could be configured for certain missions.

The ship’s vast hangar, at 180 meters (590 ft.) long and 9 meters high, is capable of handling a wide range of aircraft, including the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and the CH-47 Chinook.

There is an area nearly in the center of the hangar deck where the ceiling has been heightened to provide engineers the height clearances they need to remove the aft rotor pylon of the Chinook for maintenance. In addition, two deck lifts—28 meters long and 15 meters wide—are each capable of lifting a single Chinook with its blades attached, or two F-35Bs, from the hangar to the flight deck in 1 min.

Other studies underway are weighing the potential need for some sort of carrier-onboard delivery capability. One such program is Maritime Intra-Theater Lift, a concept study looking at how the navy could move passengers, mail and cargo between land and the carrier and to other ships within the task group. A mix of ship’s boats and aviation platforms is being considered.

Like the U.S., the U.K. also needs to find a way of potentially lifting the power-section of the F-35’s F135 engine onto the ship. Currently the only platform that can do this, is a CH-47 carrying the engine as an under-slung load. However, officials have said that the larger size of the ship means more spares can be carried, including engines.

The Royal Navy has planned a generic operating cycle for the ship, with the carrier at sea for 180-210 days per year with 20 weeks for leave and ship maintenance. Every second year, a period of what the ministry calls “high intensity” ship training and a similar level of training with F-35s is envisioned.

The U.K. has shaped the carriers around the F-35—which the U.K. sees being in service until around 2040. Senior officials say the U.K. has been fortunate be developing the ship and the aircraft at the same time. As a result, U.K. industry has been able to conduct significant work to ensure it can gain the most out of the aircraft and its interactions with the carrier ski jump and the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing method. The latter was developed to increase the aircraft’s ability to return with its weapons payload, rather than jettisoning them into the sea.

U.K. engineers have been closely scrutinizing the F-35B trials onboard the USS Wasp in the U.S., studying data on heat generation and dissipation to ensure that the Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck is not damaged by high-temperature jet efflux. According to the defense ministry, specific operating spots will be established on the deck to allow vertical landings on a routine basis, but in an emergency the whole flight deck can support vertical landings. The deck itself will be prepared with a thermal metal spray coating, as will the catwalks around the deck’s edge to withstand the thermal effects of the aircraft while hovering into a vertical landing.

Industry teams are studying the viability of noise-canceling headsets to cut down on the impact of the high noise levels for crews working on the flight deck.

The move to reverse its decision to buy F-35Bs—in favor of F-35Cs, and finally back to the first choice of F-35Bs—remains one of the most controversial aspects of the ship’s development, wasting tens of millions of pounds and briefly souring relations between the U.K. defense ministry and the U.S. Marine Corps.

When the British government signed on to become a Tier 1 partner of the JSF program, it planned to purchase the short-takeoff-vertical landing (Stovl) variant to equip the country’s new aircraft carriers. But the 2010 SDSR saw the government adopt the F-35C instead, because of that version’s higher weapons capability, payload and range. As a result, the ships would have needed catapults and arrestor gear fitted, a project that engineers reportedly said would be relatively straightforward.

However, the full scope of the potential costs of switching variants had not been fully understood, partly because the ministry had based its plan on “immature data and a number of flawed assumptions,” according to a report on the reversion by the U.K. National Audit Office.

The F-35C would have necessitated a significantly higher training regime to ensure that pilots were able to remain current on carrier operations, while the cost of the still-in-development Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System rose significantly because the system would have had to be purchased via the U.S. Foreign Military Sales system. The number of ship compartments that would have been affected by the changes also was huge.

From an initial estimate of £800 million, the estimate to alter the ships to cope with the F-35C quickly rose to £2 billion, prompting recalculation less than two years later in 2012, which resulted in the decision to revert back to the F-35B.

The flip-flopping between F-35B to F-35C and then back again cost the taxpayer £74 million ($114 million), according the same report. The change slowed work on the ship; it was only this February that the ski-jump to launch the aircraft into the air was installed, while the reversion also prompted the installation of an additional sponson, which houses the SPN-41 Instrument Carrier Landing system, onto the stern.

While the aircraft are seen primarily as a carrier-based asset, the Royal Air Force will supply most of the staffing for the fixed-wing strike capability provided by the F-35B. The RAF will provide 58% of the manning, with the remaining 42% coming from the navy. The U.K. is planning to purchase 48 F-35Bs split between a single Royal Navy unit, 809 Naval Air Sqdn., and the RAF’s 617 Sqdn., better known as the Dambusters. Some U.K. aircraft are likely to remain in the U.S. for training and testing.

The defense ministry says that in the next 10 years the F-35B will be £1.2 billion cheaper than the F‑35C option, although this difference halves to £600 million over 30 years because of the higher operational costs of the Stovl aircraft. But officials say these savings could help bring the HMS Prince of Wales into service in a timely manner, ensuring the U.K. always has an aircraft carrier available if one is in refit or upgrade; a final decision on this is expected in next year’s SDSR.

Nonetheless, work is already underway on the Prince of Wales. The launching and berthing of the Queen Elizabeth in late July means that assembly of the second ship can begin around September. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance says it is already applying lessons learned from the construction of the first ship and foresees a 12-month reduction in the schedule for the second, as well as enhanced quality for the ship blocks produced.

Each carrier has been designed for a complement of 679 sailors, the same as on Invincible-class ships. Provision has been made for another 1,000 personnel when the air wing is embarked.

Reduction of manpower requirements has been possible via automation. The ship’s highly mechanized weapon handling system, developed by Babcock, is one of the first applications of a warehouse system, moving palletized munitions stored below the waterline and lifting them into munition-assembly areas where they can be readied to be loaded onto the aircraft. This task, which would have once required up to 200 personnel, can now be performed with as few as 40. The siting of key facilities such as mission and flight planning are now located close together, unlike on the Invincible-class where pilots had to traipse across different decks and from one end of the ship to the other to complete their flight planning.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for an interactive look at the new technologies on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, or go to AviationWeek.com/QueenElizabeth