HMS Queen Elizabeth is a formidable war machine

  • A computer-generated image of HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea. Picture courtesy of Aircraft Carrier Alliance
  • On 4 November 2012, the largest section of HMS Queen Elizabeth, designated LB04, was transported by barge from BAE Systems’ Govan yard to Babcock’s Rosyth facility, where the carrier was assembled.
  • Diesel generator sets are lifted into place.
  • A section known as Lower Block 02 is readied for transport to Rosyth. It took 1 300 BAE Systems workers 28 months to build this component.
  • Lifting the aft island into place.
  • Computer-generated images show the flight deck of the completed carrier, with helicopters landing and a simulated take-off by a Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The ship is capable of carrying up to 40 aircraft, both rotary and fixed-wing, but is expected to routinely operate with 12 Joint Strike Fighters.
  • Computer-generated images show the flight deck of the completed carrier, with helicopters landing and a simulated take-off by a Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The ship is capable of carrying up to 40 aircraft, both rotary and fixed-wing, but is expected to routinely operate with 12 Joint Strike Fighters.
  • A sense of scale. This computer-generated image illustrates the imposing size of Britain’s new carrier. Picture courtesy of Aircraft Carrier Alliance
  • The first HMS Queen Elizabeth was a 33 000-ton battleship.
Date:19 August 2014 Tags:, , ,

For the first time in 15 years, Britain’s monarch has smashed a bottle of the good stuff against the hull of a new warship – and a rather large one, at that. The significance of the event, which took place recently in a shipyard near Edinburgh, is not lost on a world that once regarded the White Ensign with more than a little awe and was beginning to wonder where it had gone…

Bands played, sailors cheered, the crowd applauded, and the red arrows traced a deliciously patriotic red, white and blue trail across the overcast sky. The occasion was the official naming ceremony for the Royal Navy’s versatile and formidably capable aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the message was loud and clear: don’t mess with us.

Britain’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, described the vessel as “a testament to the best of British shipbuilding, engineering and technology” and said it would be at the heart of the UK’s defence capability for the next 50 years. UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was equally upbeat, telling the assembled guests: “This occasion marks a major milestone in regenerating the UK’s aircraft carrier capability, enhancing our ability to project power anywhere in the world.”

Appropriately, considering that the Royal Navy’s new flagship was built at the Rosyth dockyard near Edinburgh, the Queen christened her namesake with a bottle of single-malt Islay whisky rather than the traditional Champagne. The carrier’s sea trials are scheduled for 2017 and flight trials will take place with Lightning II aircraft for the following year. Work is already under way on a sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, which will also be assembled in the Rosyth dockyard.

The two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers – the biggest and most powerful surface warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy, at a cost of about R113 billion – will serve all three sectors of Britain’s armed forces, providing what’s described as “eight acres of sovereign territory” that can be deployed around the world.

According to the UK Ministry of Defence and its partners in the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (Thales, Babcock and BAE Systems), the two carriers – equipped with fifth-generation Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets – will be sufficiently versatile to tackle a full range of military tasks, from enemy engagement to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth delivers what the Royal Navy terms “increased survivability” as a result of the separation and distribution of power generation machinery throughout the ship. It was designed with twin “islands” that separate the running of the ship from the flying operations, resulting in greater visibility of flying operations. The Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System enables it to operate with a streamlined crew of only 679, increasing to the full complement of 1 600 when the air elements are embarked.

The ship employs an electric propulsion system that enables it to operate more efficiently and burn less fuel, saving considerably on running costs. When complete, there will be four galleys and four large dining areas on board, manned by 67 catering staff. The largest dining room will have the capacity to serve 960 crewmembers in an hour. There’s an eight-bed medical suite, featuring an operating theatre and dental surgery, to be managed by 11 medical staff, and crew facilities will include a cinema and fitness suites “in order to provide crewmembers with a range of recreational activities”.

A serious warship

This is a serious fighting ship by anyone’s measure. Flying operations aside, she’s designed to receive the latest generation of the Phalanx close-in weapon system for self-defence, and will be equipped with 30 mm guns and mini-guns located to counter “asymmetric threats” – and that’s only the stuff we know about.

She’s fitted with a long-range 3D radar system that’s capable of tracking more than 1 000 targets at once and is so sensitive that it can spot a tennis ball travelling at over 3 000 km/h.

Although getting lost at work isn’t an issue for most people, experts at BAE Systems have created a system called Platform Navigation that helps new crewmembers and (infrequent) visitors navigate the astoundingly complex indoor maze on board the huge ship (think over 3 000 compartments spread over 12 decks), where even routine journeys can take up to 20 minutes, thereby improving efficiency and safety. For obvious reasons, conventional satellite navigation cannot penetrate the ship’s structure, so a new innovation was clearly needed. In essence, Platform Navigation provides the user with an encrypted application to scan one of 3 600 QR codes located at compartment entrances; the crewmember types in a destination on the carrier, and the app – which can be used on existing mobile devices – displays the best route.

Says Mick Ord, managing director at BAE Systems Naval Ships: “These are the largest and most powerful warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy, so we need to keep finding smarter, safer and more efficient ways of working. Platform Navigation is a truly innovative device as it provides greater visibility within complex environments so that employees can concentrate on the task in hand, which for us means delivering the nation’s flagships.”

According to BAE, the device also has the potential to be used inside other large ships and structures, both during and after construction. Its ability to record inspections and patrols makes it ideally suited for complex environments such as hospitals or underground transport networks.

It’s all in the design

The design process for the QE Class of carrier spanned many years, partly because several shipbuilding facilities across the UK had to get involved (no single shipyard could deliver an entire ship on its own). Modules were manufactured at yards in Devon, Rosyth, Portsmouth and on the Clyde and Tyne before being assembled in Rosyth.

As the Aircraft Carrier Alliance points out, engineers need to acknowledge that it can take several years for a ship to make the transition from a computer-generated image in the drawing office to a highly capable vessel in service with the Royal Navy – and much can change in that time.

In the case of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, that design process began in 1999 with concept designs that were subsequently adapted to ensure that the final product met the requirements of Britain’s armed forces. The QE Class aircraft carrier was designed in a similar way to the Type 45 Destroyers, using a modular approach rather than the traditional method of building from the keel up.

Because of this, the measurements had to be 100 per cent correct if one module was to align correctly with another: there was no room for error. There are two “island” structures on the flight deck: one will be responsible for air operations and air traffic control while the other houses the ship’s bridge and controls the vessel navigation.

Because of this, the measurements had to be 100 per cent correct if one module was to align correctly with another: there was no room for error. There are two “island” structures on the flight deck: one will be responsible for air operations and air traffic control while the other houses the ship’s bridge and controls the vessel navigation.

Why does Britain need two new and very expensive carriers, and how does the Royal Navy react to the critics? Here’s how the senior service sees it, in the person of the new carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Simon Petitt: “Much has been said about the HMS Queen Elizabeth. But some key facts get lost in the noise. Like the reality that the UK is an island nation – something that affects the livelihood of every single person living in Britain. And that, despite all the advances in technology and air travel, 95 per cent of Britain’s economic activity depends on the oceans.

“To question why the UK needs an aircraft carrier is to ignore the realities of being a significant player on the global stage with peacetime, wartime and humanitarian responsibilities. It’s to disregard the power that a statement of intent makes, the engineering achievements of modern day British shipbuilders – and the long-term benefit that comes with protecting the waters that Britain depends on for its prosperity, resources and raw materials.

“When all is said and done, how does a country show it is serious about its plans and ambitions? This is the driving question behind any aircraft carrier. Because an aircraft carrier backs up the words of its leaders with an indisputable presence – and, when necessary, action.”

Appropriately, Her Majesty has the last word (in fact, it’s probably her constitutional right): “In sponsoring this new aircraft carrier, I believe that Queen Elizabeth, as flagship for the Royal Navy, will be a source of inspiration and pride for us all.”

So it’s Rule, Britannia? That sounds about right.

HMS Queen Elizabeth: KEY FACTS

  • The QE Class aircraft carrier is the largest surface warship ever constructed for the UK, representing a step change in joint capability
  • When complete, the ship will displace 65 000 tons, three times the size of the Invincible Class aircraft carriers
  • Length: 280 metres
  • Width: 70 metres
  • The ship measures 56 metres from keel to masthead, which is 4 m taller than Niagara Falls
  • Four jumbo jets could fit alongside each other on the deck
  • Range: 10 000 nautical miles, and she carries enough fuel to transport a family car to the Moon and back 12 times
  • HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to enter service in 2020
  • The ship has two propellers, each weighing 33 tons and together delivering some 80 MW of power – enough to run 1 000 family cars or 50 high-speed trains
  • The distribution network on board will manage enough energy to power 300 000 kettles or 5 500 family homes
  • The ship requires 1,5 million m² of paintwork
  • Each of the two huge aircraft lifts can move two Joint Strike Fighters from the hangar to the flight deck in 60 seconds
  • The carrier can accommodate up to 40 aircraft, both rotary and fixed-wing. It is expected to routinely operate with 12 Joint Strike Fighters
  • The flight deck will be home to 24 F35 Lightning II fighters, but could also accommodate 96 000 people (more than any stadium in the UK)
  • Power: provided by two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines and four diesel generator sets, providing a total installed power of 109 MWe
  • A 110 MW power station is on board
  • The anchors will be 3,1 m high and weigh 13 tons (almost as much as a doubledecker bus)
  • The ship’s on-board water treatment plant will produce over 500 tons of fresh water daily

What’s in a name?

There have been more than 20 ships named Elizabeth, for which the list of Battle Honours extends from the Armada in 1588 to Guadeloupe in 1810. However, only one ship by the name HMS Queen Elizabeth has served with the Royal Navy – as the lead ship of an important and innovative class of battleships which served with great distinction in both World Wars.

With 15-inch guns as her principal armament, the first HMS Queen Elizabeth was a 33 000-ton battleship. Built in Portsmouth, she was launched in 1913 and completed the following year. Her service history during the two World Wars included the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet during World War I. Despite damage from torpedoes during World War II, she went on to take part in operations in the Indian Ocean before returning home.

The ship spent much of the period between the wars in the Mediterranean before undergoing a massive rebuilding programme in Portsmouth on the eve of WW2. The work was finished in Rosyth to escape German bombing of the Hampshire naval base.

Once the overhaul was completed, the battleship was dispatched to the Mediterranean, where she supported convoys to Malta and the evacuation of Crete. She was damaged by an Italian human torpedo in Alexandria harbour. The damage put out of action for 18 months. After returning to service, she was sent to the Far East to support operations off Burma and the Malay peninsula before returning to home waters just before the war’s end.

Sources: UK Ministry of Defence, Aircraft Carrier Alliance, BAE Systems