The Royal Navy’s New Aircraft Carriers Are Eating the Fleet

David Axe

The Royal Navy in late 2019 announced the composition of its first-ever aircraft carrier battle group. And it’s both good and bad news for the storied fleet.

Good news because the Royal Navy just barely should be able to generate all the ships and planes it need to deploy an entirely British battle group.

Bad news because frequent deployments with the same mix of ships clearly is unsustainable as the Royal Navy shrinks, the inevitable result of decades of declining budgets.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead vessel in a two-ship class of conventionally-fueled carriers, is slated to deploy for the first time in 2021. Fleet officials told reporters the flattop will sail with two Type 45 destroyers including HMS Dragon, two Type 23 frigates including HMS Northumberland, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, the tanker RFA Tideforce and fleet stores ship RFA Fort Victoria.

Queen Elizabeth’s air wing for the deployment, which could take the carrier group through the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf en route to the Pacific Ocean, will include 24 F-35B stealth jump jets, including U.S. Marine Corps aircraft, in addition to helicopters.

That’s a lot of combat power. But it stretches the U.K. armed forces’ capacity. The Royal Navy possesses just six destroyers, 13 frigates and six attack submarines. But usually more than half of those vessels at any given time are in shipyards for repairs or refits.

In deploying with four destroyers and frigates plus a submarine, Queen Elizabeth will leave the United Kingdom with just a handful of surface warships and potentially one attack submarine for other taskings.

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