In a 1998 Strategic Defence Review, UK Navy officials decided that the time had come to replace the current Invincible Class of aircraft carrier with two larger, more capable vessels to cope with the demands of modern warfare.
This decision to the float two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, now hangs in the balance despite years of planning, the awarding of contracts and the formation of an Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) to build the ships.
The final decision will be made at the 2009 Strategic Defence Review – the first since 1998 – where defence officials will have to decide whether the cost of the ships, estimated to be between £3bn and £5bn each, is still justified in today's battle space.
A hefty deterrent
Since the first defence review, Britain has been involved in two hugely demanding modern conflicts, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. The nature of these conflicts has been immensely frustrating, and in recent months has resulted in an outcry for better resources to protect ground troops at the mercy of a shifting insurgency well skilled in the use of roadside bombs.
The UK's decision to proceed with the Elizabeth Class therefore rests on whether or not officials can still justify the role, and considerable cost, of these immense warships, given Britain's present military commitments.
Speaking in September 2009, First Sea Lord Admiral of the UK Sir Mark Stanhope said that in today's climate naval capabilities are still both 'flexible and relevant', capable of tackling drug runners in the Caribbean and piracy off Somalia, as well as serving with Nato and protecting UK fisheries.
In his speech Admiral Stanhope also highlighted as a high priority the need to maintain the navy's ability to act strategically in support of the national interest and the defence of the realm.
This ability to act strategically was well demonstrated during successive operations in the Gulf and Bosnia; where carriers served as flexible and rapidly deployable air bases when airfields were unavailable or when land bases were yet to be established.
The overall mission of aircraft carriers in modern war zones, however, may be changing. The role of air support is still paramount, but as aircraft evolve to fly longer and further with fewer or even no crew, the dominant role for aircraft carriers may well be as a deterrent for conflict prevention.
From this perspective the introduction of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales may be viewed as a irreplaceable deterrent at a time when countries such as North Korea are testing ever more successful long-range missiles and nuclear non-proliferation is still just a spoken byword.
The principal weapon of the new carriers will be offensive air power provided by the UK's joint force air group (JFAG), which is a combination of the joint combat aircraft (JCA) and the maritime airborne surveillance and control (MASC) system.
Together, the JCA / MASC will, at full capacity, operate 36 joint strike fighters and four airborne early warning aircraft as strike fighters to provide carrier air defence and offensive support for ground forces ashore.
The key aircraft selected to fulfil the JCA role is the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter (JSF) a supersonic, multirole, fifth generation stealth fighter.
The carriers will also be capable of deploying the Royal Air Force's Harrier GR9 aircraft, a heavily updated development of the GR7, equipped with new advanced precision weaponry, communications and systems and airframe upgrades.
The JFAG will also operate helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in a variety of roles including anti-submarine / anti-surface warfare, attack and support.
When complete the 65,000t carrier will operate a flight deck of nearly 13,000m², a 29,000m³ hangar, carry over 8,600t of fuel, l1,000t of food and have a range of between 8,000nm and 10,000nm.
Building the leviathans
In July 2009, the construction on the first of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers began at BVT Surface Fleet's shipyard in Govan, Glasgow. BVT is just one of several industry partners, which together form the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA), a partnership set up between a BAES / VT planned joint venture, Thales, Babcock and BAES and the MoD, in which the MoD will act as both client and participant.
Needless to say the carrier design is exceptionally complex and involves building a flight deck and hangar deck, both of which are kept stable and of course sea-going.
Initial studies for the carrier encompassed six different candidate ships across a range of capabilities and aircraft types, which led to the final choice based on a 'delta design', centred on the MoD's choice of STOVL aircraft as its design premise.
The result is a carrier capable of operating more than twice as many larger and heavier aircraft compared to the Invincible Class, but with a similar sized crew and a far greater strategic capability.
This delta design, while initially configured for the purpose of operating STOVL aircraft, is also the first aircraft carrier design that can also be altered later in its life to accommodate catapults and arrestor equipment needed to fly more conventional aircraft.
Other innovations include the use of an island superstructure, locating the main engines high in the ship to reduce penetration of large downtakes and exhausts deep in the hull as well as the first environmentally friendly integrated waste management system.
When built the aircraft carriers will displace about three times as much as an Invincible, occupy four times the internal hull volume, carry 70% more ship and aircraft fuel and be able have around 75% more unrefuelled range.
The design and construction of both ships is expected to sustain and create around 10,000 jobs across the UK, with at least a thousand personnel expected to be engaged on all three dockyards at the peak of assembly.
Progress to date
To date the Ministry of Defence has announced contracts and subcontracts totalling billions. So far £1.3bn has been set aside for the construction by BVT Surface Fleet, £300m for work at the BAE Systems yard at Barrow-in-Furness, £675m for the bow section and final assembly, as well as £425m for design and engineering and £275m for design and supply of mission systems.
Other smaller contracts include £16m for 12,000 valves to Score Marine, £15m for the integrated waste management system, £57m for insulation systems and £25m for communication systems.
One of the most ambitious contracts signed to date is for the construction of a giant replica of the ship's island section on the Isle of Wight to test the ship-borne communication systems, which, when complete, will be the most powerful ship-borne communication systems ever.
The contract, worth £275m, is designed to test the system on board a replica to make sure that problems don't arise later in the program when they are most costly to fix.
Speaking in September 2009, Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope also admitted that the decision to build the next generation of aircraft carriers could be overturned. "Will the navy have to make sacrifices? There is not as much money in the defence budget as they would wish there to be. Alongside the other two services we will have to make some difficult decisions," he said. "The carrier contracts are in force; however, we are building the carriers. One can never say too late."
At present, the immense deterrent factor of having two warships unlike anything the world has seen is certainly not an out-to-sea proposition, and the scale of the contracts awarded and work already started seems to suggest that the admiral will get his way.
The fact is, however, that the two ships will scrape the bottom of an already shallow war chest and if officials do call into question the relevance of two massive warships at time when resolution in Afghanistan is nowhere in sight, then it seems just as likely that the Queen Elizabeth Class may well be headed for a very watery grave.