British taxpayers fund billions for non-functional aircraft carriers

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The two flagships of the British fleet, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, did not participate in any NATO exercises this year. This wasn’t due to poor planning or flaws in the UK’s naval strategy, but rather mechanical and maintenance issues. 

Photo credit: Royal Navy

British taxpayers contributed approximately $3.7 billion to construct these two aircraft carriers. Despite this investment, both “naval giants” remained docked for a year, missing two key alliance exercises.  

So, what went wrong? HMS Queen Elizabeth experienced a breakdown during exercises off Norway, compounded by a fire incident. Similarly, HMS Prince of Wales faced its own mechanical setbacks. These issues underscore the persistent challenges the Royal Navy’s fleet faces, affecting their capacity to fulfill crucial roles in international operations.

Photo by Dane Wiedmann / US Navy

Top priority lost

The UK’s focus on countering Houthi attacks and protecting undersea data makes it crucial to keep their aircraft carriers operational. In August 2022, HMS Prince of Wales broke down while heading to exercises with the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Royal Canadian Navy. 

Instead of joining the drills, the carrier returned to Portsmouth Harbor for inspections. About six months later, a similar problem was found with another shaft on the Prince of Wales, requiring more maintenance.

HMS Queen Elizabeth has had its share of problems. The expensive warship caught fire during repairs at Glen Mallan on Loch Long in Scotland this March. Luckily, the fire was quickly put out with no injuries, but it did force the ship to pull out of the Steadfast Defender exercise. 

The Royal Navy noted that the propeller issue on Queen Elizabeth is “the second setback for the Royal Navy in less than three weeks,” after a collision between two warships in a Bahraini port. While the collision caused some damage to the ships, no one was hurt.

British aircraft carriers 

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy. The dimensions of these carriers are impressive. Each ship measures about 280 meters [919 feet] in length and has a beam of 39 meters [128 feet]. Their displacement is approximately 65,000 tons, making them some of the largest vessels in the world. 

Technically, these carriers are equipped with advanced systems. They feature a twin-island design, which separates the navigation and flight control centers for better operational efficiency. The ships are powered by two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines and four Wärtsilä diesel generators, providing a combined power output of around 110 megawatts. 

The Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are equipped with a range of systems for defense and operations. These include the S1850M long-range radar, the Artisan 3D radar, and Phalanx CIWS [Close-In Weapon System] for missile defense. They also have advanced communications and electronic warfare systems. 

Photo credit: Royal Navy

Cargo capacity

In terms of cargo capacity, these carriers can carry up to 36 F-35B Lightning II stealth multirole fighters and four Merlin helicopters. The flight deck is expansive, covering an area of about 4.5 acres, and features two large aircraft lifts capable of moving two aircraft at a time from the hangar to the flight deck. 

The types of aircraft they carry are primarily the F-35B Lightning II, which is a short takeoff and vertical landing [STOVL] variant. Additionally, they can operate various helicopters, including the Merlin HM2 for anti-submarine warfare and the Merlin HC4 for troop transport. 

The crew complement on these carriers is substantial. Each ship typically operates with a crew of around 700 personnel, but this number can increase to about 1,600 when including the air wing and additional support staff during full operational deployment.

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