A drone refueled HMS Prince of Wales, paving the way for a new evolution of aircraft carriers

Entering service in 2017 and 2019 respectively, the 65-ton British aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth (R000) and HMS Prince of Wales (R08), are today the two largest non-American combat ships in service, in waiting for the arrival of the Chinese aircraft carrier CV-09 Fujian and its estimated 18 tons.

These ships allowed the Royal Navy to recover its skills in embarked aviation and naval air combat, which had been dormant since the withdrawal from service of the last ship of the Invincible class, HMS Ark Royal, in 2014.

283 meters long, they have a flight deck of 73 meters at its widest, for a total surface area of ​​16 m², 000% more imposing than the 33 m² of the French PAN Charles de Gaulle.

The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier can thus implement an onboard air group of 24 to 36 F-35B Lightning 2 fighters and 14 Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, notably providing anti-submarine protection and advanced detection for the fleet.

F 35B Queen Elizabeth Aircraft carrier | Defense Analysis | Military logistics chain
The American and British F-35Bs take off dynamically, but land vertically, like the procedure used by the Harriers.

Advantages and constraints of Ski Jumping on an aircraft carrier

However, and unlike the French and American aircraft carriers, the British ships are neither nuclear powered nor equipped with catapults and arresters, only a Ski Jump (which is a British invention by the way, like the inclined bridge).

This configuration has certain advantages, the catapults being complex to implement, and above all expensive to purchase. Thus, the two electromagnetic catapults which will equip the successor to the French Charles de Gaulle will cost the French Navy more than a billion dollars, or more than 25% of the ship itself and its nuclear propulsion.

In fact, if London had wanted to equip its two aircraft carriers with two catapults each, the price of the program would certainly have increased from 6 to more than 8 billion euros, almost the cost of a third unit.

However, this configuration also imposes certain restrictions. In particular, these ships cannot operate fixed-wing turboprop aircraft, whether early aerial detection aircraft such as the American E2-D Hawkeye or the Chinese KJ-600, liaison such as the C-2 Greyhound, or even maritime patrol aircraft such as the Fairey Gannet, the Breguet Alizé or the Lockheed S-3 Viking.

queen elizabeth Aircraft carrier | Defense Analysis | Military logistics chain
The Ski Jump allows on-board aircraft to transform part of their kinetic energy into vertical momentum, and thus take off with a heavier load. However, it does not offer the same performance as the catapults used on American and French aircraft carriers.

To carry out these missions, the British aircraft carriers of the Hermès and Invincible classes had to rely either on on-board helicopters which, although efficient, lacked reach, autonomy and performance, or on land-based aircraft, like the S-3 Sentry or the Nimrod.

This is also the case for Queen Elizabeths today. This could well change in the months and years to come. Indeed, the Royal Navy announced that it had provided the first logistical link between land and HMS Prince of Wales at sea, using a fixed-wing drone. This is still only a pre-military test.

However, the results were deemed conclusive by the Royal Navy, which could well pave the way for their massive and systematic arrival, and with it, equip the British carrier battle group with new capabilities bringing it closer to their American and French counterparts.

Landing and takeoff of a logistics drone from HMS Prince of Wales

Concretely, a logistical drone was able to join the HMS Prince of Wales sailing off the British coast, land on the flight deck without the need to use a shutdown system. After delivering its cargo of around a hundred kilograms, the drone took to the air again from the ship's flight deck, to reach its departure aerodrome.

drone hms prince of wales Aircraft carrier | Defense Analysis | Military logistics chain
This photo allows us to appreciate the dimensions of the twin-engined, twin-boom drone which made the logistical connection with the HMS Prince of Wales

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