The Royal Navy has confirmed to the BBC that the only aircraft that will be flying off their newly commissioned aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, will likely be F-35 lightning II aircraft flown by United States Marines through 2019. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that due to financial constraints in the United Kingdom, Britain will be unable to purchase enough F-35’s to equip her carriers anytime in the next few years. As the carriers are almost ready to operate, the United Kingdom is now looking to allow U.S. Marine Corps’ aircraft operate off their flight decks as a way of gaining training for the crew’s while they await aircraft. While this is a temporary fix, the Royal Navy is afraid that under current budget constraints, they may never be able to equip their two fleet carriers with a full inventory of aircraft.
HMS Queen Elizabeth soon after launching and being moved to a dock in Portsmouth, England for fitting out. The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built and operated by the Royal Navy. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense
The Royal Navy has an extensive history of operating catapult assisted take off – barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) fleet carriers. During World War II, the Royal Navy operated more than 20 fleet carriers, and dozens of smaller escort carriers, making it the second largest operator of aircraft carriers behind the United States. This capability allowed the United Kingdom to project force anywhere on the globe and they maintained fleet carriers in service up to the 1970’s. After a number of austerity measures cut funding to the Royal Navy, the last of her fleet carriers were to be culled in the early 1980’s. This would leave only the smaller and cheaper to operate “Baby Carriers” of the Invincible class to operate vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft like the Sea Harrier. In a changing world, the need for large fleet carriers was seen as diminishing and Great Britain was even arranging to sell her new baby carriers of the Invincible class.
In a tremendous show of firepower, HMS Victorious, HMS Ark Royal, and HMS Hermes sail together in 1960. By the 1981 Falkland Island war, only HMS Hermes would still be in commission. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense
That all changed in 1981 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The Royal Navy was unprepared for a major fleet action and only had two fleet carriers left, both of which were slated to be scrapped in the coming months. Of these, HMS Hermes had been converted to a helicopter carrier and had her CATOBAR gear removed, while HMS Bulwark had been seriously damaged by a fire that rendered her unfit for service during the Falkland Island conflict. The Royal Navy had a brand new aircraft carrier in the HMS Invincible but she was very small and the United Kingdom had already agreed to sell her to Australia. That deal was quickly rescinded. The Royal Navy equipped HMS Hermes with 16 Sea Harriers and 10 Royal Air Force Harriers while HMS Invincible carried an additional 8. Together, they set sail for the South Atlantic to face a numerically superior foe.
The video below shows the Invasion fleet sailing from England. Despite the patriotic fanfare, the fleet was hastily assembled and HMS Hermes was a rusting hulk.
Both HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes gave admirable service at the Falkland Islands and the Sea Harrier performed better than expected, downing a number of high performance Argentinian aircraft that outclassed them. While the performance of the Sea Harrier has become the stuff of legends, the truth of the matter is more stark. The Sea Harriers never secured the air space around the invasion fleet and almost daily attacks by Argentinian aircraft sank a number of Royal Navy warships. This was a glaring deficiency in the capability of the Royal Navy but after the Falkland Island conflict, HMS Hermes was decommissioned and sold to India and the Royal Navy would be forced to get by with the three baby carriers of the Invincible class while a new fleet carrier was developed and built.
HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth harbor after a refit. For the past three decades, the three baby carriers of the Invincible-class have born the brunt of the United Kingdoms force projection. The ships, originally designed for anti-submarine operations, have given valiant service in a role they were never meant for. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense
A replacement fleet carrier would be long in coming though and the three baby carriers of the Invincible class, which were designed for anti-submarine operations, remained the royal Navy’s only carriers until the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean was commissioned in 1996. By the early 2000’s, the United Kingdom was forced to admit that the Royal Navy, once the most powerful navy on earth, now lacked the ability to defend her territories in the event of an attack overseas. This resulted in the United Kingdom ordering two brand new fleet carriers in 2007 that would be larger than any aircraft carrier ever operated by the Royal Navy. The two new ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, would be CATOBAR ships that would give the Royal Navy back its force projection capability for the next half century and could operate the newest and most capable aircraft.
A comparison between the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers vs. the older British fleet carrier HMS Eagle. The reduced aircraft load on the new Queen Elizabeth-class is the result of the increased size of combat aircraft. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense
There was almost immediate trouble with the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers as austerity measures again led to questions as to whether the ships would be CATOBAR carriers or large VSTOL carriers. Further economic downturns led to the suggestion that the second ship would be sold or immediately placed into inactive reserve status while only one ship was operated. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the Royal Navy officially announced that both ships would be accepted into service. In anticipation of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, the long serving Invincible-class carriers and their air groups of Sea Harriers were retired with the Harriers being sold to the United States Marine Corps. This left the United Kingdom without a functioning aircraft carrier for the first time in almost a century (the Invincible-class have been operating as helicopter carriers as a stop gap due to delays in commissioning the Queen Elizabeth-class).
In a sign of things to come, HMS Illustrious embarked 10 U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harriers in 2007 as part of a joint exercise. With the retirement of the Sea Harrier, the Royal Navy is left without a functioning combat aircraft to fly off of its carriers and is now reliant upon the U.S. Marine Corps to keep their air handlers trained. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense
Now the United Kingdom has two modern fleet carriers but no aircraft to operate on them. The Queen Elizabeth-class is designed to carry 36 F-35 Lightning II fighters but the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has announced that only 14 aircraft will be ordered over the next 5 years at the cost of 2.5 billion pounds. That amount includes some of the support costs for the joint strike fighter program but is a massive undertaking for a country as small as the United Kingdom. Critics of the Joint Strike Fighter have been quick to point out that the United Kingdom could purchase 50 brand new Boeing F-18 Super Hornets that have been upgraded to have F-35 like capabilities and reduced radar cross section for the same amount. That would be enough to completely equip one carrier and almost half the air wing of the second carrier with an aircraft that costs less to maintain, is almost as capable and would be ready for service within a year.
A Navy F-18 Hornet and an F-35 Lightning II fly together over Maryland. The Lightning is supposed to replace the F-18 in Navy service but Boeing has now offered an upgraded F-18 that has F-35 like capabilities at less than half the cost of the F-35. U.S. Navy Photo
One reason the United Kingdom is not worried with its rate of aircraft acquisition is that the United States will give them priority for aircraft delivery in the event of a crisis. There is precedent for this as the United States offered to give Israel priority for delivery of the VF-22 Osprey’s over the United States Marine Corps during Israel’s 50-Day Summer War in Gaza. That order was eventually cancelled as it was not needed but it was an option. In recent history though, the United States demonstrated its willingness to help the Royal Navy when the U.S. Navy prepared to transfer the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy as a backup carrier should either of theirs be damaged or sunk during the Falkland Islands war. This transfer would have included all of the USS Iwo Jima’s aircraft and hardware but was ultimately not needed.
In the event of a crisis, the United Kingdom would likely be able to rapidly acquire F-35’s from the United States by taking delivery of aircraft that were meant for the U.S. Marine Corps. U.S. Marine Corps Photo
For the moment, the Royal Navy is pushing forward with fielding the F-35, even as it is uncertain when enough of those aircraft will be available for service. Allowing the United States Marine Corps to operate off the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, while a novel training tool that also promotes international cooperation between military forces, is just a temporary measure that leaves the United Kingdom with two toothless tigers sitting in their harbors.