Of the two of us, Fishbreath is by far the naval expert. But even though I’m an old Army hand, I still know a thing or two about navies. Especially the navy of my native America.
The United States Navy is the most formidable in the world, bar none. Full stop. We’re going to talk about carriers today, and they do that better than anyone. The US Navy is also the world’s second most powerful air force. At least, if we’re going by capability and not just “Things That Call Themselves an Air Force”. The US Navy operates the mighty Gerald R. Ford and Nimitz class supercarriers. These are the benchmark for distant power projection. They are unmatched in both capability and cost.
But we know that those are awesome. Let’s take a moment to talk about other people’s carriers. Specifically, the new British flattops, the Queen Elizabeths.
Decatur’s ghost, they’re bloody awful.
The Queen Elizabeths displace 65,000 tons full load and have a maximum air wing of 40 planes. For comparison, this is the same max capacity as the French Charles de Gaulle, and a bit less than half that of Nimitz or Gerald R. Ford (which max out at 90 aircraft). But the Queen Elizabeths are half again as heavy as de Gaulle, and more than half the weight of Nimitz. Tonnage is a decent low-order proxy for ship cost, so we can see that the Royal Navy has bought more ship without getting more capability for their trouble.
It also amuses me that the Royal Navy only plans to equip their new carriers with an air wing of twenty four planes. What is the point of all that ship for 24 planes? Yes, I know 24 planes are cheaper than 40, but then why make a 65,000 ton ship? You could fit 24 planes in a ship of less than half the displacement, which would be a lot cheaper. And no, you can’t just add planes. All of your strike planning and aviation handling skills are going to be based around the nominal air wing, since that’s what they usually have to work with. Siiiigh.
But it gets worse. Far, far worse. The Queen Elizabeths straight-deck ships, with neither catapults nor arresting gear. Both angled decks and arresting cables were British innovations. Nelson is weeping right now. And probably spinning in his grave. At least you can power London that way.
Of course, in addition to spitting in the face of tradition1, this means the Royal Navy has lost quite a bit of capability. The angled flight deck allows for simultaneous takeoff and landing operations. Previous straight-deck carriers had a wire net to catch planes that missed the arrestor wires, and if a plane missed the net on a botched landing, they’d hit their comrades’ aircraft in the deck park forward. Yay fire. There wasn’t enough room to do takeoffs in front of the net. During takeoff operations, the deck park would be aft, containing planes waiting to take off. No landings here for obvious reasons.
Not putting in any kind of catapult or arresting gear causes other problems. Charles de Gaulle is equipped with arrestor gear, catapults, and an angled flight deck, like the bigger Nimitzes and Fords. So the French can cross train with the US Navy. You can borrow notes from the people who have been practicing naval aviation since the 1920s without a break. If the Marine Nationale and the US Navy are doing exercises together, they can take off and land on each other’s ships and share best practices. For the French, this is a great way to build their skills without having to reinvent the wheel. Unlike China or Russia, the French are America’s oldest friends. Do what les Americains do. At least to start. It’s also nice to have an ally’s ships as an optional ship to divert to.
All of that requires that you have the toys to play. The Royal Navy isn’t in the CATOBAR club. So they can’t play well with those who are. They’re also stuck with reduced payload and range, since they’re going to be using STOVL aircraft. Those takeoffs are hard on fuel and put limits on how much you can haul. It was true for the Harrier, it will be true for the F-35B. Shorter range and lower payload than a CATOBAR equivalent. And the F-35C is really nice, with a bigger wing and more fuel stowage capacity than even the basic F-35A. The F-35B loses some tank space to accommodate the lift fan, so it has the shortest legs of the bunch, and that’s before you try to do zippy short takeoffs or leave fuel for a vertical landing.
The more you look, the more isn’t good. The Queen Elizabeths lack any kind of missile armament. I don’t like the notion of turning aircraft carriers into cruisers, but short range missiles like the RIM-162 Enhanced Sea Sparrow (ESSM) or the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile are both a lot more effective than the venerable Phalanx. That’s going to put more pressure on all of those Daring-class destroyers that the Royal Navy didn’t buy. The US Navy has a much more formidable surface escort fleet, and it still put both Phalanx and ESSM on the Nimitzes and put ESSM, RIM-116, and Phalanx on the Gerald Fords.
I don’t like the conventional power plant either. You’re not really going to save all that much for a couple sizeable ships. And you gain quite a bit of range and staying power. Which is super helpful, because politicians love to commit carriers to wave the flag and blow stuff up.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine worse ships. They make excellent white elephants. Something more like Charles de Gaulle or Cavour if a smaller air wing was desired would be a far better buy. But instead the Royal Navy built something bloated and af
1.) Spitting in the face of tradition is punishable by hanging from the yardarm.