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The Queen Elizabeth Class: How Innovative is the Design?

Peter Roberts
RUSI Defence Systems, 9 September 2014
Military Sciences, Maritime Forces, Technology
With the design of the new Queen Elizabeth carriers, evolution rather than revolution appears the order of the day

During the naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth on 4 July, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Royal Navy and the commercial consortium building the two carriers were at pains to emphasise the innovative nature of their chosen design. Much has been made of the weapons-handling system, significant automation, the two separated bridges and also the F-35B fifth-generation fighter component of the planned embarked air group. Whilst the platforms certainly retain a modernist edge, evolution rather than revolution appears the order.

Traditionally, aircraft carriers have had a single ‘island’ structure on the deck. This not only maximises the space for aircraft on the flight deck, but also helps integrate ship handling and aircraft launch/recovery requirements into one decision-making space. The new British design breaks this model and separates the specialist areas into two separate physical structures. This may be innovative, but the advantages –reduced disruptive airflow over the flight deck (which saves fuel by minimising drag) and separation for sensors and communications aerials – must be judged against the resultant loss of face-to-face engagement between flight control and ship manoeuvring personnel. This arrangement contradicts some mainstream principles of behavioural science about how people interact effectively; notably, it has not been replicated by any other carrier-operating nation.

The weapons-handling system is also new to the UK, although not to the naval world. The US Navy continues to spearhead automated munitions-handling systems – the Zumwalt-class destroyer design uses a palletised system for ammunition supply direct to the gun without any human involvement. The much-lauded ordnance handling system for the UK carriers is not quite as impressive, though it has reduced the number of people required for the process from 150 to around fifty.

The most important change in the Queen Elizabeth class is the open acknowledgement of the primacy of running costs at the heart of the project – manifest in crew numbers, unmanned monitoring and power generation. The UK carriers are platforms designed by economists, not warriors.

The largest costs for running maritime platforms are manpower and fuel. In terms of manpower, the Queen Elizabeth will have a crew of 650 with an additional thousand berths available for the air group. By comparison, the American Nimitz class and new Gerald Ford class, which displace around 40,000 tonnes more, are crewed by 6,000 and 4,500 personnel respectively. The French Charles de Gaulle, which in terms of tonnage is about a third smaller its British counterpart, carries a crew of around 2,500. The UK figures were driven by the necessity to avoid increasing the manpower bill of the Royal Navy. As such, the 650 figure is exactly the same as the preceding Invincible class. Allowing the same complement to effectively operate a vessel three times the size of her predecessor has forced some innovative thinking.

The use of automation and remote monitoring has been essential to meet the manpower restrictions. Cameras and monitoring equipment have been built into almost every system in the new ships. From machinery spaces to bilge areas, remote performance monitoring has allowed a marked reduction in the manpower requirements of the ships. Whilst this makes good sense in financial terms, it does not in terms of pure war-fighting capability. Naval vessels differ significantly from their commercial counterparts in terms of damage control and fire-fighting. These roles are remarkably manpower intensive. The experiences of major damage in the Falklands conflict have been reinforced at intervals by peacetime incidents on HMS Nottingham (2002) and Endurance (2008), which required the efforts of the full ship’s complement to remain afloat. The damage-control capabilities of the UK carrier platforms should, therefore, be a primary concern.

The Queen Elizabeth class has also been designed to minimise fuel operating costs. Whilst the US and France value the efficacy of nuclear reactors to maintain platform endurance at sea, these are expensive systems. The new British carriers operate a fully integrated electric system which supplies both life support services and main propulsion at around 114 MW. By comparison, the Nimitz class produce 1,100 MW for propulsion alone and the new reactors for the Gerald Ford class produce three times that amount, whilst French reactors are rated to around 300 MW. The UK has sacrificed speed and endurance – seemingly unimportant, until one takes into account an operating environment which requires a strong headwind to be produced in order to get fully armed strike aircraft off the deck. Here the UK could be found wanting in future interventions due to cost-driven compromises in the propulsion design.

The power plant for the UK carriers was designed to support an electromagnetic catapult launch system (EMALS) for fixed-wing aircraft. This would have been the greatest leap for the UK, but the project was deemed too high-risk in 2012. In consequence the carriers will initially operate with a ski-ramp. This reversal of the 2010 SDSR’s decision necessitated a switch back to the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant for the air-component. This has a smaller payload, shorter range and more complex engine arrangement than the F-35C carrier variant. Whilst the MoD maintains that this was the right decision, EMALS is working well on Gerald Ford in trials and might be retrofitted to Queen Elizabeth during a future refit. The decision, however, removed all flexibility in the types of strike aircraft that could operate from the Queen Elizabeth, and removed valuable potential interoperability with aircraft from the French Aéronavale and US Navy.

The final shift made in the Queen Elizabeth design has been a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie rates that can be generated from the deck. This follows the US Navy’s latest thinking at a smaller scale. The Gerald Ford has a requirement to generate around 230 sorties per day at peak. The Royal Navy has specified around seventy per day at ‘surge’:  a relatively unambitious target given the size of the new platforms.

The Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship will look very different towards the end of their lives. Come 2060, both ships could be sailing the world’s oceans with an embarked group of micro drones, or perhaps some of the new BAE Systems concept aircraft described at the 2014 Farnborough Air Show. They might well have a much smaller manpower requirement due to breakthroughs in robotics, biotechnology or nanotechnology. Swarming drones, centrally managed and with a degree of artificial intelligence are also a possible weapon system during the next forty years. Assuming they are still in service by then, the Queen Elizabeth carriers will have the requisite space, infrastructure and freedoms to experiment and operate with these future technologies.

There is one further element that has not been well considered in the Carrier-Enabled Power Projection doctrine of the Royal Navy and the MoD. Protection of these assets from threats has effectively been taken ‘on-risk’, and against all operational analysis. The self defence capabilities of these ships are extremely limited. The provision of close-in weapon systems and automatic small-calibre guns does not guarantee adequate protection against a small scale naval threat, let alone a shore-based one. Naval doctrine instead requires protection of the carriers by destroyers and frigates. This is a cost-effective solution provided that the task group has the necessary units to provide such protection. But there is no evidence that the projected Royal Navy combined frigate/destroyer force could do so.

The Queen Elizabeth class is therefore an interesting example of innovation: rather than in the sense of equipment and capability, it might be more relevant to think about how risk to the platforms is being dealt with in an ‘innovative’ manner.

Peter Roberts
Senior Research Fellow in Sea Power and Maritime Studies, RUSI


Professor Peter Roberts
Director Military Sciences, RUSI

Peter is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and... read more

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