• Toby Irwin

The Significance of the Queen Elizabeth Class

In 2007, it was announced that two new aircraft carriers were to be built for the Royal Navy. The Queen Elizabeth Class, consisting of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, represent a new era in the Royal Navy. The two new carriers replace the Invincible Class, hangovers from the 1970s which have been scrapped in the last few years.


Each new ship is the largest ever built for the Royal Navy, both being 65,000-ton displacements (nearly three times larger than the previous Invincible Class) and able to carry up to 40 aircraft. Both are to be equipped with fifth-generation fighters, the F-35B lightning aircraft. These aircraft are vital in allowing the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to resume airborne operations from an aircraft carrier, something that has been impossible since the retirement of the Harrier aircraft in 2006. Operations against land-based targets, such as those in Operation Shader against the Islamic State, can now be conducted far more rapidly and intensely from flight decks rather than longer flights from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.


Two US jets fly over HMS Queen Elizabeth in August 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to enter service this year and, together with the F-35B aircraft and escort ships, form a new strong maritime task group able to be deployed anywhere in the world at any point. The new carriers act as the Royal Navy’s contribution to the Joint Task Force initiative, wherein the British Armed Forces aim to be able to deploy 50,000 personnel alongside allies in international multilateral operations.


This heightened capability of deployment within the Royal Navy should act as reassurance to the United States at a time where President Trump is highlighting the inadequacies of many NATO member contributions. For example, according to a July 2018 NATO press release only five members are currently spending the 2% target. The United Kingdom is currently committed to maintaining the 2% spending guideline. This commitment should be used to leverage closer ties to the United States at a time of uncertain multilateral relations towards European Union member states following Brexit in early 2019.


Looking further afield, it is necessary to compare the capabilities of other states. France operates one carrier: the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle. Spain and Italy equally operate one each, though both are around a third the displacement size of the Queen Elizabeth Class. Russia currently operates one Soviet-era carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is so prone to mechanical failures it is always accompanied by a tugboat. China also has a single former-Soviet carrier, the Liaoning. India has one carrier in service, also a modified former Soviet-era ship called the INS Vikramaditya.


Both India and China have plans to expand their carrier fleets. This is significant and diverges from the capabilities of the continental European powers because it always allows a Maritime Strike Group to be deployed at any one time while the other ships are in refit. This is one of the main advantages of the UK’s dual ship program. All of this comes at a time when the US Navy continues to both shrink from post-cold war defence cuts, and also finds itself being increasingly committed to the Pacific theatre. It is here that the UK and the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers may find a foothold to greater influence Europe , through regional maritime control particularly in the Mediterranean and the Baltic.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.

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