Whither Britain's Queen Elizabeth Supercarrier?

Whither Britain's Queen Elizabeth Supercarrier?
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Britannia will rule the waves once again (together with Uncle Sam) when her new Queen Elizabeth-class flat-tops put to sea. That is what some in the defense community have contended, adding that the two 70,600-ton behemoths will propel the United Kingdom back into the big league of traditional strike-carrier nations. However, as I argue in an earlier RealClearDefense article, things are not so clear-cut. Just because the British will deploy large-deck carriers for the first time in decades and with a new, advanced naval jet in the F-35B Lightning II to boot does not automatically mean that the Royal Navy (RN) will acquire the capability to project power in considerable measure.  

Central to this is the fact that the Queen Elizabeth carrier’s Sunday Punch – its F-35B complement – is likely to be significantly understrength in the initial years of the platform’s service. Having only a dozen or slightly more of the attack fighter renders the mother ship relatively prostrate to carry out force-projection missions in the face of credible anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats. Things are not helped by the F-35B’s shortfalls in performance, the lack of a carrier-based fixed-wing Airborne Early Warning aircraft, and the relatively shallow missile magazine capacities of the escorts that will screen the RN’s crown jewels. Bearing these in mind, is the Queen Elizabeth flat-top that potent as made out to be?  

Limitations of the F-35B 

The F-35B’s underwhelming capabilities only exacerbate its numerical shortfall. While it represents a considerable improvement over its predecessor, the Harrier, there is no escaping the fact that the Lightning is still a Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. Even if the number of F-35Bs deployed on each Queen Elizabeth carrier increases after 2023 (after the initial procurement of 42 planes), the fact remains that the F-35B, because of its STOVL nature, is one with relatively limited performance in areas crucial to traditional carrier operations such as range. This not only reduces the potency of its mother ship, but also accentuates its vulnerability.  

For one, the F-35B has an inferior payload compared to its Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) brethren, the F-35C. To illustrate, the B variant has a smaller weapons bay that can accommodate only munitions weighing up to 1,000 pounds; on the other hand, the F-35C can tote internally 2,000-pound ordnance needed for hardened targets such as bridges and bunkers protected by reinforced concrete. While deploying weapons on the F-35B’s external hardpoints could alleviate this capability shortfall, this will be at the expense of the plane’s much-touted stealth capabilities.  

In addition, the F-35B has relatively “short legs”, and this means that its mother ship would have to operate closer to targets, rendering the carrier more vulnerable to enemy threats. According to F-35 producer Lockheed-Martin, the B variant has a combat radius of some 450 nautical miles (nm); in contrast, the C variant can hit targets 600nm away. The shorter range of the F-35B invariably places its mother ship closer in within an adversary’s A2/AD envelope.  

This state of affairs is exacerbated by the lack of a mid-air refueling platform in the Queen Elizabeth carrier’s air wing. Currently, the Lightning is unable to function as a “buddy” tanker. Even if it were to acquire such a capability in the future, it must be noted that this will reduce the number of the already limited fighter available for combat, and as such is a luxury that the British carrier task force would be unable to afford during high-intensity combat operations. To be sure, the British Lightnings could depend on land-based tankers but the availability of the latter is not assured; furthermore, these aircraft are highly vulnerable in contested settings. All in all, the aforementioned performance shortfalls of the F-35B would, as an article on The RUSI Journal asserts, contribute towards the RN having “a sub-optimal carrier-strike capability”. 

The lack of a fixed-wing Airborne Early Warning asset 

Unless operating together with the United States Navy (USN) with its supercarriers and Aegis-equipped platforms – something that is not a given as well – the deficiencies of the Queen Elizabeth carrier task force’s air-defense capabilities would come to the fore. As I argue in my previous article, the flat-top would have an uphill task straddling between Combat Air Patrol and other missions on a small F-35B inventory. Just as critical is the fact the British carrier air wing does not have a fixed-wing Airborne Early Warning (AEW) asset. Indeed, some defense analysts argue that for naval operations, organic AEW aircraft is the “most indispensable air wing element” simply because it enables threats to be detected farther and earlier. 

To be sure, the Queen Elizabeths will have an AEW component in the form of Merlin helicopters equipped with the Crowsnest radar.  

However, it must be recognized that while the Crowsnest is a system that offers cutting-edge sensor capacity, its mother platform is a rotary-wing asset that is less capable than its fixed-wing equivalent in attributes critical to AEW, such as service ceiling and endurance. As a post on the highly acclaimed naval blog Information Dissemination puts it:  

“AEW radars on rotary-wing aircraft simply cannot provide the on-station endurance, combat radius, radar height-of-eye… necessary to detect (and guide engagements against) inbound threats long before the latter can confidently target the supported battleforce ships.” 

To illustrate, the E-2 Hawkeye that is a staple AEW platform in the American and French navies has a service ceiling of some 34,700 feet and an endurance of over six hours. In stark contrast, the corresponding figures for the Merlin are 15,000 feet and just under five hours. Ultimately, the rotary-wing AEW element of the Queen Elizabeth carrier task force means that the latter just cannot “see” as well as it would if it had a fixed-wing AEW asset instead. 

Limited missile magazine capacity of carrier escorts 

That the Queen Elizabeth carrier’s destroyer/frigate consorts do not have deep missile magazine capacities is another factor accentuating the task force’s weakness in air defense. While the RN’s most modern surface combatant – the Type 45 Daring-class destroyer – has a suite of sophisticated sensors, it does not have a large surface-to-air missile (SAM) capacity given that it carries only 48 Aster-15/30s in its vertical-launch system (VLS). As there are only a total of six Type 45s in service, each carrier task force is likely to constitute a couple of the destroyers at the most. The other likely candidate to escort the Queen Elizabeth flat-top, the Type 23 Duke-class frigate, also has a shallow SAM capacity as its VLS magazine holds only 32 weapons. Ditto the upcoming Global Combat Ship that is slated to replace the Type 23 in the early 2020s – the former has a 48-cell VLS.  

Though it can be maintained that Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels conducting underway replenishment could alleviate this problem, such an argument totally misses the mark as the capability to refill the VLS at sea is currently not available, not even in the United States Navy. Ultimately, during a high-end missile exchange that is likely in an A2/AD environment, the combat endurance of the Queen Elizabeth task force would therefore last only as long as the missile capacities of its destroyers and frigates. 

Whither the British supercarrier? 

All these then raise the question of whether the Queen Elizabeth flat-top would be capable of sustained, viable operations in an A2/AD environment; indeed, the same issue has been much-debated vis-à-vis the USN’s Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs). There are doubts about the latter’s viability in such a high-threat milieu, and it is hardly surprising that the same can be said about the British carrier task force with its decidedly inferior capabilities.  

Bearing the aforementioned shortcomings in mind, the Queen Elizabeth flat-top is perhaps best suited for a warfighting role akin to what the “jeep” carriers of the Second World War took up: providing limited air cover and close air support for ground operations in a relatively sanitized combat milieu. Deep strike? Not so much perhaps. Of course, owing to its symbolic value and large size, the vessel would also be appropriate for various peacetime, benign missions. Toeing this line, one analyst posits that the Queen Elizabeths can also “improve conventional deterrence and soft power capability, and serve as highly effective tools of diplomacy and deterrence.” All in all, the platform is a good one to handle demands on the lower end of the operational spectrum. 

Summing up, it is worth comparing the Queen Elizabeths to carriers of a similar size. America’s Forrestal-class vessels were the first true supercarriers to be put in service, and they deployed 70-80 tactical aircraft on a displacement of some 75,000 tons. In stark contrast, the slightly smaller Queen Elizabeths can only carry up to 36 tactical jets, with a much lower figure likely to be the norm during the initial years of the ships’ service lives. Had the Queen Elizabeth flat-top been configured to handle CATOBAR rather than VSTOL aircraft as originally planned, it would perhaps be more worthy of the term “supercarrier”.  It would be more a potent ship if it could launch the more capable F-35C, and possibly a fixed-wing AEW aircraft. In the final analysis, Britain’s much-touted Queen Elizabeth supercarriers are arguably “super” only in terms of size and designation, not so much in terms of actual combat power.

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