Britain’s Costly Carrier Enters Home Port

 - August 16, 2017, 2:48 PM
A Wildcat helicopter departs HMS Queen Elizabeth as it prepares to enter Portsmouth harbor. Five Merlin helicopters are parked on the deck. (Photo: UK MoD Crown)

The first of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers sailed into its home base at Portsmouth today for the first time, after seven weeks of initial trials at sea. The 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth II is due to be handed over to the Royal Navy by the end of the year, from the Air Carrier Alliance (ACA) consortium that built her. The two warships are costing more than £6.5 billion ($8.4 billion), nearly £3 billion more than expected when the contract was signed in mid-2008.

That sum does not include the cost of acquiring the aircraft and helicopters that will fly from them. The UK is spending more than £3 billion ($3.9 billion) to acquire its first 18 Lockheed Martin F-35B stealth fighters, 14 of which will form the first operational squadron next year. Another near-£300 million ($380 million) is buying 10 Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) radars that can be fitted to the Navy’s existing fleet of Leonardo Merlin Mk2 helicopters. The two carriers will also carry other Merlins equipped primarily for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) or commando troop carrying, depending on whether they are configured for the “carrier strike” or “Littoral Maneuver” role. In the latter role, the carriers will also carry some Apache, Chinook and Wildcat helicopters.

The Queen Elizabeth is also at least 30 months late entering service. It is now scheduled to embark F-35s for the first time next year, and the ASaC Merlins in 2019. The warship is due to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) in the carrier strike role at the end of 2020. Full operating capability (FOC) in that role will follow three years later. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is following 18 months behind. Two years ago, the UK government reversed an earlier decision to keep the second carrier in standby status. It will now enter service to ensure that one of the two is always available for operations. But observers have queried whether the Royal Navy can muster the required manpower: the ships each require 680 crew to operate.

UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said that when the Queen Elizabeth enters service, “she will help keep Britain safe at a time of increased threats, able to fill multiple roles from providing air power anywhere at any time to fight future campaigns, supporting allies or delivering humanitarian aid.”