Qioptiq logo Raytheon

HMS Queen Elizabeth Commissioning By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


Britain’s future flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed into her home port of Portsmouth for the first time today. Greeted by thousands of people lining the Portsmouth seafront, the 65,000-tonne carrier was met with the warmest of welcomes as she arrived in her home port just after 7am.
Royal Navy sailors lined up in ceremonial procedure on the flight deck of the mammoth ship, standing alongside civilian colleagues from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, as she passed the Round Tower. The ship will berth at the newly-opened Princess Royal Jetty at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth, which will be home to both of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. The second, HMS Prince of Wales, will be officially named in a ceremony at Rosyth next month.

Described as being four acres of sovereign capability capable of being deployed almost anywhere across the globe, the newest ship to join the Royal Navy, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be formally commissioned by Her Majesty the Queen at Portsmouth tomorrow morning.

Much has already been written and said about the capability that this fine ship will provide for the Royal Navy and also of what it brings to UK defence and the nation as a whole. I share the positive views and having lived through two previous generations of Carrier Strike capability I do not share views of sceptics.

Although the building of the two aircraft carriers together with the initial sailing from Rosyth, sea trials and the ‘homecoming’ into Portsmouth has received significant publicity, industries role in the successful building and delivery of this vast ship on time together with that of her still in build sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales is less well talked about.

I will be fortunate enough to be in Portsmouth for the commissioning ceremony tomorrow along with senior military, politicians and many of those from industry who have carried the enormous responsibility of designing, engineering and building these two great ships. When I last visited HMS Queen Elizabeth little more than a year ago at Rosyth Naval Dockyard I was struck not only by what the 10,000 people involved in building the ships and that included over 800 apprentices had achieved but also by the quality of engineering design and build.

These are 21st century ships and they are living proof of why it is vital that we not only retain strong sovereign capability to build vessels such as these here in the UK but also that we ‘build’ on what we have. Tomorrow is a day that we should all be proud of what has been achieved. We are fortunate that because of how industry has organised itself over the past 25 years that we still have the design and build skills that were needed to build the two carriers, that we still have a large number of engineers and the capacity required to build ships, submarines, military aircraft and that there exists a still strong supply chain in defence equipment. None of this can be taken for granted and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that we retain all that we may need for the future. That requires not only constant investment in technology research, development and manufacturing but also government strategy that is firmly behind maintaining and growing the defence industrial base.

Trust is also important just as is the ability to believe in ourselves. For industry to play its part requires that the government ‘says what it means and means what it says’. It requires a renewal of commitment and an understanding that industry requires to make a profit in order to be able to invest. It also requires Government to decide what it wants and not change the commitment it has made further down the line. It also requires a constant stream of order and for the Government to play its part in helping industry to export not just ships and planes but expertise as well.

With the exception of HMS Ark Royal IV, a ship that was decommissioned in 1978, I am hard pressed to remember any Royal Navy ship in the post war years that the public has taken to heart as it has HMS Queen Elizabeth. Wherever she deploys that attention will remain and although we have to wait a while longer before we see UK F-35 jets departing from her deck the wait will I am sure be worth it.

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance which has carried the full responsibility for building both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales has a fascinating history. It is an alliance that really has worked well and I take my hat off to all those involved in making it such a success. Thales UK, BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence created the Carrier Alliance back in 2003 and two years later, in 2005, Babcock International and VT Group both joined. In 2008 the Portsmouth based activities of VT Shipbuilding were merged with BAE Systems Glasgow based Surface Ship Solutions to form BVT Surface Fleet in which BAE Systems held a 55% share. A year later in October 2009, BAE Systems acquired VT Groups 45% share of the BVT venture and in March 2010 Babcock International acquired the remainder of VT Group support and training.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal had ‘cut the first steel’ for HMS Queen Elizabeth in July 2009 and the ship was officially named by Her Majesty the Queen in July 2014.

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance has from the outset been a national endeavour and at its peak the programme employed 8,000 highly skilled personnel across the six build yards involved. A further 3,000 personnel were employed across the supply chain. While the ships were built in sections at the various yards final assembly, fitting out and commissioning was achieved at Babcock International’s Rosyth facility. To achieve completion the Aircraft Carrier Alliance was able to call upon and use skilled and diverse workforce resources from right across the UK including many that came from BAE Systems in Frimley and Thales UK in Bristol.

I cannot over emphasise enough the enormous engineering skills involved in building these two great aircraft carriers. Commissioning of the first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth on time and on budget is a credit to what the Aircraft Carrier Alliance partners have achieved. It has not always been easy and delays caused in particular by a decision announced in SDSR 2010 that changed design strategy from the originally planned STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) capability to one that required retrofitting of a CATOBAR based configuration using Electromagnetic Catapults (EMALS) before a reversion decision was taken eighteen months later in 2012 seriously added to the cost.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest and most powerful warship ever built in Britain and I am delighted that I have been able to closely observe the build process through several visits I have made over the past few years to Portsmouth, Glasgow Govern and Scotstoun and to Rosyth. Watching these ships being built has been an absolute delight to behold and all the partners involved within the Aircraft Carrier Alliance are due enormous credit for what they have achieved.

I am reliably informed that some 28 million man hours have involved in the design, development and build of the ship and that the engineering and manufacturing of 17 million different parts was involved. Weighing in at 65,000 tonnes and measuring 919 feet, HMS Queen Elizabeth is, as I have already mentioned, the largest and most powerful warship that has ever constructed for the Royal Navy.

Capable of carrying up to 40 aircraft and with a capacity for 1,600 personnel, both HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales can boast having a flight deck measuring 230 feet x 920 feet and which is apparently equivalent to the size of three football pitches.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is planned to be in service by 2020 and to sail on her maiden deployment to the Pacific region in 2021. Flight trials with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are due to begin off the eastern coast of the USA in the autumn of 2018. Talking of the first planned deployment Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, was reported recently to have said that “We are constrained by the [UK Government] F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter aircraft] buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed” adding that “We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC [US Marine Corp] F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021”. However, he said that by 2023, we are committed to [having] 24 UK [F-35] jets on board, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

For the record, HMS Prince of Wales, the second of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers and which is in the final phases of construction at the Rosyth Dockyard is expected to be ‘floated out’ of its dock in the spring of 2018.

I choose to ignore the very many rather cynical comments made against the decision to go ahead with rebuilding ‘Carrier Strike’ capability partly on the basis that the original decision and agreement from a strategy point of view was taken a very long time ago in 1997 and also that in my view many fail to understand the argument about ‘presence’ and deterrence’. We are where we are though and I do not imagine for a moment that the future in respect of required capability to support the ship will not be without issue.

It is perhaps worth recalling the history and that the original agreement that the then Secretary of State for Defence, George (now Lord) Robertson had rightly demanded should occur between the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force if Carrier Strike was to be reformed. That agreement when it came in 1997 was based on a 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier as opposed to the 65,000 ton carrier that we see in front of us today. As to why the two carriers increased in size look no further than evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the 24th November 2004 by the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West (the now Lord West of Spithead) who is reported to have said:

The reason that we have arrived at what we have arrived at is because to do the initial strike package, the deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters [being required] and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future”.

He went on to add “That is the thing that has made us arrive at that size of deck and that size of ship, to enable that to happen. I think it is something like 75 sorties per day over the five-day period or something like that as well”.

Furthermore, the now Lord West is reported to have told the Committee “I have talked with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) in America. He is very keen for us to get these because he sees us slotting in with his carrier groups. For example, in Afghanistan last year they had to call on the French to bail them out with their carrier. He really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have same sort of clout as one of their carriers, which is this figure at 36. He would find that very useful, and really we would mix and match with that”.  

Whatever, it is not for me to argue the strategy that was later determined and that markedly increased the size of the two ships. For the record, in January 1999 six companies were invited to tender for the assessment phase of the carrier project and later that year detailed assessment studies were awarded to both BAE Systems and what is now Thales Group. While the design award was won by Thales Group, BAE Systems was awarded the position of prime contractor on the project. Build contracts were officially signed in July 2008 although, due to funding availability at the MOD in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the build process was slowed down and timetable pushed further out. This is reported to have added £1.6 billion to the original planned £3.9 billion costing for the two carriers.

That together with later decisions relating to a proposed CATOBAR retrofit and later reversion back to the F-35 B STOVL variant plan probably added well in excess of another £1 billion to the planned cost. The final cost of the two aircraft carriers was budgeted at £6.2 billion and this was combined with agreements that any further cost overruns would be 50% covered by contractors. In the event this has not proved necessary with HMS Queen Elizabeth being delivered within the planned time frame and the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, estimated to be well in advance of targets.

CHW (London – 6th December 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




Back to article list