^ July 2014 Launch of the HMS Queen Elizabeth II (R08)
Image Courtesy of Photo: HMS Gannet / MOD
Shifting Battlegrounds & the Need for Flexible Military Weapons
Back in 1997, the U.K. government conducted a Strategic Defense Review (SDR) to revaluate the utility of every existing and in-procurement military weapon systems. This did not apply to the Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991, the Cold War had ended in favor of the United States (U.S.). Any direct military threat to U.S.’ close ally – Britain – had therefore ceased to exist. For the time being, that is.
But dealing with the unpredictability and instability of the new world called for more mobile and flexible instruments. For, these had to respond rapidly to threats in far flung areas important to the United Kingdom (U.K.).
SDR’s 1998 report identified numerous merits of aircraft carriers. One, they provided a coercive and deterrent effect in the conflict zone. Then, they lend the capacity to operate aircraft in far-off trouble spots even if some foreign nation were to reject U.K.’s request for an airbase.
Plus, they enabled air strikes in far-away lands in the early stages of a conflict when bases and other infrastructure are not immediately available. The SDR report therefore suggested building two fresh and large aircraft carriers.
Even otherwise, an island nation needs a strong navy and an effective merchant fleet. An astounding 95% of Britain’s economic activity still depends on the oceans, recent developments in technology notwithstanding. Can we overstate U.K.’s need for an aircraft carrier?
HMS Queen Elizabeth & the Strategic Importance of Aircraft Carriers
Aircraft carriers can transport numerous fighter aircrafts at great distances from the shores of its mother country. This allows the country to extend its military hands far and wide. The country can thus influence geopolitics in a manner few other instruments of war can.
Forget about strikes, the mere presence of an aircraft carrier can be enough to deter rival entities in far off lands from resorting to an undesirable course of armed action.
And the mother nation can do so without building air bases in the area of its interest. It costs a fortune to build and maintain such bases. What is more, these are fixed and exposed to strikes. An aircraft carrier is mobile and can move around as and when necessary.
Not for nothing have aircraft carriers, and their less advanced versions named seaplane carriers, played a critical role in almost every major armed conflagration since the early 20th century – the two World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Falkland War – you name it.
For example, Britain was able to put down the challenge of Argentina in the latter’s own backyard in the 1982 Falklands War. This, at a distance of some 8,000 miles from English shores. Why? Because she deployed aircraft carriers in the South Atlantic.
After braving the onslaught of budget escalations on account of the great many delays triggered by the global economic crisis of 2008, the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) is finally scheduled for commissioning in 2017. She will be operational only in 2020 though.
HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) is the largest aircraft carrier ever built for the Royal Navy. This floating giant is capable of carrying up to forty aircrafts at a time while supporting 250 Royal Marines.
Along with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales (R09) she costs a staggering £6.2 billion ($7.99 billion). Please note, the USS Gerald R. Ford will be the most advanced aircraft carrier when complete. It alone costs $13 billion.
R08 will be the lead ship of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. The other ship of this class will be the HMS Prince of Wales. The Royal Navy placed the order for R08 in 2008 and launched her in a ceremony on July 4, 2014.
In a marked departure from the tradition of breaking a champagne bottle, Queen Elizabeth II (person) smashed a bottle of whisky from the Scottish Bowmore distillery on R08’s hull during the carrier’s launching ceremony. Perhaps, implying the unconventionality of the carrier.
Building the R08 is, in the words of Navy News, a national effort for a national asset. For, they are putting together at Rosyth yard a total of 52 segments made at six yards around Britain. Phew! Builders include BAE Systems Surface Ships, Thales Group, and Babcock Marine.
R08 comes with great compatibility with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and short take-off and landing (STOL) aircrafts. This means, she does not require catapults and arrestor wires that conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircrafts just cannot do without.
Another unique feature of the R08 is its highly mechanized weapon handling system (HMWHS). It can launch air weapons six times faster than any earlier carrier of the Royal Navy.
F-35B Lightning II stealth multirole fighters will form the ace of her arsenal with Merlin helicopters lending the carrier the capacity for anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning. Helicopters of Chinook size and above will provide transport.
R08 brings to the table of the Royal Navy a whole spectrum of stealthy strike fighters, cutting edge equipment, and an immense flight deck. And the empire of the yesteryear gets an opportunity to assert its dominance in any corner of the globe.
Slowly but surely, the world is moving towards a knowledge-based economy. Knowledge has always been power, forewarned has always been forearmed. Data is important today and will be so in the time to come. Rather, more important.
Wars are no exception and as such cannot escape the juggernaut of the information age. Precisely why, engineers have designed the R08 with the data capacity of 8 MB per second.
Size apart, the R08 boasts of diverse aircrafts and armaments. Two lifts (elevators) connect the below-the-deck hangar with the deck above. Each can transport two F-35s from hangar to deck in 60 seconds.
R08 can play base for forty aircrafts at a time. These include:
- F-35B Lightning II stealth multirole, all-weather fighters made by Lockheed Martin form the core of her air-strike power
- Merlin medium lift helicopter by Augusta Westland will replace the Sea King
It can carry 450 troops with its crew of 3 for 450 nautical miles. Capable of anti-submarine warfare, it is slated to use the Crowsnest radar for airborne early warning duties
- Wildcat military helicopter by Augusta Westland is useful for search and rescue, battlefield utility, and anti-surface warfare
- Chinook transport helicopter by Boeing
- Apache attack helicopter by Augusta Westland
- Phalanx Close In Weapon System (CIWS) can fire three thousand 20 mm shells in a minute
- mini guns and 30 mm guns to address asymmetrical threats such as fast-attack crafts
Asymmetrical Warfare is a hostile engagement between two entities whose military prowess differs substantially. Typically, this is a war between a standing, professional military on one side and a resistance movement or an insurgency on the other.
In simple words, an asymmetrical threat is a tactic to engage a superior opponent into an unfair fight. This can include the use of surprise such as in guerrilla warfare or devising a strategy that forces the mightier rival on a terrain that favors the inferior force.
History is replete with examples of asymmetrical warfare. These include:
- Proxy Terrorism employed by many Islamic states against U.S. and European interests
- Exploitation of nuclear-armed allies such as the former Soviet Union (USSR) and China by minor powers such as North Korea and North Vietnam to deter the U.S. from escalating hostilities respectively during the Korean and Vietnam War
- The First Use of Nuclear Weapons doctrine of the NATO during the Cold War to counter the non-nuclear superiority of the Soviet Red Army
- Operation Anadyr of 1962 when the erstwhile USSR deployed nuclear and ballistic missiles in Cuba. This had brought the world on the brink of a nuclear war, and catastrophe that would have surely followed the war
- Kidnapping of United Nations (UN) personnel by Serbs during the Yugoslavia conflict to dissuade the U.S. from intensifying operations
Bombing of the USS Cole is a striking recent example of asymmetrical attack. On October 12, 2000, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers used two small, explosive-laden fiberglass boats and rammed into this U.S. naval destroyer while she was refueling at Aden port in Yemen.
R08’s highly mechanized weapon handling system (HMWHS) can launch air weapons six times faster than any earlier Royal Navy carriers. Only 50 people can operate the HMWHS. In emergencies, a mere 16 suffice. Conventional systems of similar capacity would require 160 operators.
Sensors and processing systems aboard the R08 include:
- S1850M long range radar can automatically detect and track up to 1,000 air targets in a range of 250 nautical miles around the R08
- Type 997 Artisan 3D medium range radar
- Ultra Electronics Series 2500 Electro Optical system (EOS)
Now, the R08 will garner a sizable chunk of media attention. Designers have therefore allotted a room for a media center. This one’s soundproof. And so are the soundproof acoustic shelter rooms to shield important conversations from the din of the noisy F-35s.
Concern for ergonomics and comfort extends beyond the media center and acoustic shelter rooms. Designers have made the R08 as the workplace, home, and leisure hub for all the three armed forces.
Because of its super size, each of the 679 crew members will be responsible for 96 tons of the carrier. This is four times as that of the British Type 23 Frigate and twice as much as their Type 45 destroyer.
Handling a carrier of such epic dimensions will require a sea change in approach and tons of automation. Changing mindsets is a protracted, cumbersome process that takes its own time. Unless you are in the armed forces.
Automation, the R08 has in abundant measure. Operators in the control room will be able to select their weapon of choice for an F-35 mission. Rails and lifts will then automatically load the chosen armament on the fighter.
Seems, no discussion on aircraft carriers is complete without taking a step back in time and glancing through the pages of interesting history. Interesting in the sense as hinted in the (supposedly ancient and Chinese) curse may you live in interesting times.
To be based at HMNB Portsmouth, the R08 is the second Royal Navy vessel to be named Queen Elizabeth, the first being HMS Queen Elizabeth (1913) – a dreadnought battleship of the world war era. It was aboard this ship that Admiral Beatty accepted the German surrender in 1918.
Dreadnought battleships were the primary instrument of naval supremacy and the symbol of the Anglo-German naval race in the early years of the 20th century, a race that culminated in the First World War.
HMS Dreadnought of the Royal Navy was the world’s first dreadnought battleship. Launched in 1906, these warships were steam-powered and had more big guns than any other battleships before them.
Commodore Jerry Kyd, the former captain of the HMS Ark Royal (R07) and the HMS Illustrious (R06), will be the first commanding officer of the R08. Both, R06 and R07, were a part of the Invincible Class of aircraft carriers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By the way, the HMS Ark Royal (R07) was the fifth ship to bear the Ark Royal name, the original being the flagship of the 1587-88 Gravelines campaign when the English Navy a surprised the Spanish Armada into a shock defeat.
And the September 1914 launched HMS Ark Royal was the first modern aircraft carrier. Modern, because planes could land on and take off from her deck directly. Earlier carriers were seaplane carriers that transported seaplanes that landed on and took off from the sea near the carrier.
Vertical / Short Take-Off & Landing (V/STOL) Aircrafts
Closely related as they are to aircraft carriers, a discussion of V/STOL aircrafts is in order. In contrast to conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircrafts that require a runway to take off and land:
- VTOL aircrafts can take-off and land vertically. They do not need a runway at all
- STOL, on the other hand, requires a runaway shorter than conventional aircrafts
Engineers developed V/STOL (VTOL and STOL) aircrafts to enable fast jets to operate from short runways, small forest clearings, and small aircraft carriers that, hitherto, could support helicopters only.
Please note, the V/STOL designation only applies to fixed wing aircrafts. It does not apply for rotary wing aircrafts (helicopters for example) that can, in any case, land on and take off without runways.
All aircrafts fall into two broad categories:
- Fixed Wing Aircrafts have immovable wings
- Rotary Wing Aircrafts with rotating wings
Both rely on the Bernoulli Principle for takeoff as also for other maneuvers. According to this principle, the total energy of a fluid moving along a streamline is constant.
This total energy consists of the kinetic energy (due to velocity), potential energy (due to elevation), and static pressure energy. If the change in elevation is negligible or zero, any increase in velocity causes a drop in pressure and vice versa.
When a fixed wing aircraft starts running along the ground for takeoff, its peculiarly shaped wings direct the air in such a manner that the velocity or air on the lower surface of wings is lower than that on the upper.
Pressure on the lower side is therefore more than that of the upper surface. This produces lift i.e. upward thrust. The airplane however has to reach a certain minimum speed before this lift is large enough to launch it in air.
With their main rotors (in the horizontal plane) shaped like an airfoil, rotary wing aircrafts can take-off and land vertically without a runway. The main rotor directs the air to create higher velocity on its lower side to generate lift.
Combining the main rotor with the small rotor (in the vertical plane) at its rear end, rotary wing aircrafts can move sideways in any direction and even move backwards. And, they can better maneuver around tall structures at lower altitudes.
Their ability to hover over an area makes rotary wing aircrafts an invaluable support companion for ground forces. They can pick up and drop personnel and equipment on tough terrain and even on sea where fixed wing aircrafts cannot land.
Without doubt, helicopters play force multiplier. But then, there is the other side as usual. Rotary wing aircrafts have higher engine power density requirements vis-à-vis fixed wing aircrafts. That is to say, they require fuels that need to produce more power per unit consumed fuel.
One reason why operating helicopters is more expensive. Fuel, maintenance, lease, and finance costs of rotary wing aircrafts are about three times that of fixed wing aircrafts.
And although they can hover and maneuver skillfully at lower altitudes, rotary wing aircrafts make a lot of noise. Not a desirable trait if you are planning stealth mode operations.
Fixed wing aircrafts can carry greater payloads while flying faster and for longer ranges / durations. Their only limitation is, or was, that they needed a runway for take-off and landing. It is precisely this limitation that the V/STOL surmounts.
Sometimes however VTOL airplanes use a mini ramp called ski jump for generating lift. This ensures that the airplane:
- needs less thrust for takeoff as compared to pure vertical takeoff, something that boosts its payload capacity
- consumes less fuel during take-off, thereby hiking its range
By the way, the takeoff and landing of all aircrafts looks easy on paper but is not so in practice. Even in today’s age of technology. What then to say of the bygone era, many an inventor has died trying to fly his plane.
Naval force has always been the tool for global domination since a heavily outnumbered but lion hearted Greek fleet forced a superior Persian fleet to bite dust at the legendary Battle of Salamis in 488 B.C.
Britain may no longer be paramount power of the world. But as the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers demonstrate, she still has not lost her iron will to maintain relevance in the rapidly shifting quicksand of global geopolitics.
Talking as we are of empires and their resolute ways, it would be worthwhile to finish on a poetic note:
We are not now the strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and faith, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Alfred Tennyson, Ulysses
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