The first of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers has gone to sea for the first time. HMS Queen Elizabeth left Rosyth dockyard near Edinburgh on June 26 for trials off the coast of Scotland, some months later than planned. The 65,000-tonne QE II-class carriers remain controversial in the UK, because of their large acquisition cost and manpower requirements. They are being constructed by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA), a partnership among BAE Systems, Thales UK, Babcock and the UK Ministry of Defence.
“This floating fortress is by far the most powerful ship ever built in Britain that will enable us to tackle multiple and changing threats across the globe,” said British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon. “HMS Queen Elizabeth will be the largest aircraft carrier in the world outside the United States, and the first designed from the outset to operate a fifth-generation aircraft,” said Admiral Sir Philip Jones, chief of the UK naval staff.
The initial six weeks of trials will test the carrier's engines and propulsion systems, plus her ability to produce fresh water, cope with sewage, feed the 700 crewmembers and 200 contractors onboard, and supply them with electricity. The carrier will then return to Rosyth to prepare for a second set of sea trials to test the mission systems, before heading for Portsmouth, her permanent base. The full crew complement when aircraft and helicopters are embarked is 1,600.
In a briefing at the Paris Air Show last week, Rear Admiral Keith Blount, assistant chief of the naval staff for aviation, said that although the new British carriers can embark up to 36 F-35Bs, in the planned Carrier Strike Group (CSG) configuration, they would carry 24 F-35B stealth fighters, plus 16-17 Merlin helicopters variously equipped for AEW, ISR, trooplift and SAR. In an alternative Littoral Maneuver configuration, they would embark up to 43 Apache, Chinook, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters.
Blount said that the UK is aiming for “the greatest possible inter-operability” with the U.S. Marine Corps’ fleet of F-35Bs, and that a formal initial agreement had been signed. HMS Queen Elizabeth will go to the U.S. later next year for more trials that will likely embark USMC as well as British F-35Bs.
Regarding the delay in setting sail, Blount told AIN, “We have been doing some de-risking in port to avoid doing this at sea. I still fully expect to get this ship off-contract [from the ACA] at the end of this year.”