- Nov 4, 2011
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Britain’s jet-less aircraft carriers are a national embarrassmentHMS Queen Elizabeth is intended to carry 36 fighter jets. She has just eight aboard – and that isn't the end of the problems
22 September 2023 • 6:00am
A fortnight ago, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth left harbour, as flagship of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group. It’s the first time the group has deployed seriously since 2021: but rather than a show of strength, the cruise it is currently undertaking around Norway and the North Atlantic is becoming a national embarrassment.
The Queen Elizabeth displaces 65,000 tonnes, and has ample space to carry her intended air group of 36 fighter jets and four radar aircraft. The radar aircraft are critically important, to detect incoming threats far enough away to send fighters to deal with them. This was the bloody lesson of the Falklands.
But the “Big Lizzie” has a lot of problems. She has no catapults, meaning that she can’t have normal carrier jets. The only plane she can use is the F-35B, the sole vertical-thrust jet being made today. The fighter’s “jump jet” equipment means that it has limited range and weapons load.
The F-35B is also very expensive and we will never have many. Right now the Queen Elizabeth has just eight aboard: she only had eight back in 2021, too, when we sent her into China’s back yard. Usually our carriers don’t have any at all; in 2022, there were jets aboard ships less than 5 per cent of the time.
Worse, the Lizzie only has two “Crowsnest” radar helicopters aboard, meaning that she can’t maintain an airborne watch. And there’s more: a carrier strike group needs a solid stores ship if it is operating away from friendly harbours. Britain only has one, the Fort Victoria, currently laid up awaiting maintenance.
Without a stores ship and with a paltry handful of aircraft, it’s clear that the Carrier Strike Group is not actually operational. This “deployment” is no more than a show-the-flag cruise in safe waters.
Apparently this will all be sorted out in 2025 when our other carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will deploy to the Far East with 24 F-35Bs. The Fort Vic will be serviceable by then. But the Prince will still be one-third empty. We’ll never see a British carrier with a full air group – let alone two.
The reason everything has turned out so badly is the 2012 decision not to equip the ships with catapults. Catapult carriers would have permitted us to buy cheap, powerful F-18 Hornet jets, as favoured by Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick.
The decision against catapults meant that we wasted £1.6 billion delaying the carriers’ build to wait for the F-35B. It forced us to waste more billions buying F-35Bs that lack range and punch and cannot do air-to-air refuelling. The Hornet has all these things, is much cheaper and would have been in service, in numbers, years ago.
At the time of the no-catapult decision, a ridiculous claim was made that catapults for one ship would have cost £2 billion: as much as an entire new ship, and anyway barely more than was then wasted slowing the carriers’ build. Even if that claim had been true, we’d still have saved money and achieved greater naval power with catapults.
Despite desperate attempts by the Whitehall mandarins concerned to claim that they got everything right, the Navy has now openly stated that it needs to put catapults on the carriers. Of course it does.
Fortunately, the ships were designed so that they can have them added at any point. When HMS Queen Elizabeth gets back from her unarmed jaunt, she goes into refit: a perfect time to add this critical capability. After all, the F-18 production line is still open, and there are excellent deals to be had. It’s not too late to sort out this mess.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is intended to carry 36 fighter jets. She has just eight aboard – and that isn't the end of the problems