By James Rogers
This week, HMS Queen Elizabeth – the pride of the Royal Navy – rocked up in Maryport, Florida, in the United States (US). “Big Lizzie” – as the tabloid press likes to call her – is visiting the US to receive her first Lightning II Joint Combat Aircraft and begin her first round of flight trials.
This move should finally put paid to those, especially among the anti-British fraternity, who like to state that – despite being on sea trials – the carrier is a white elephant because it has no aircraft. Even seasoned defence commentators have got in on the act: The Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor recently rehashed these tropes, under the pretext that HMS Queen Elizabeth is a costly asset that a country like the United Kingdom (UK) should not have. Such commentators overlook the fact that many countries – including our near-peer competitors – have active aircraft carrier programmes underway, suggesting that the utility of such vessels remains significant. Even terrestrial Russia, which keeps its rusty smoke-belching monster – Admiral Kuznetsov – afloat seems to consider them important assets.
While not the largest aircraft carrier in the world – the US Navy’s Nimitz and Ford class are 20% larger – Big Lizzie is arguably the world’s most advanced. It is more automated than any other carrier, with a significantly smaller crew than a ship of its size would normally require. It has a revolutionary design with its two “islands”: in one, the vessel is commanded, and in the other, flight operations are directed. With its complement of up to 50 Lightning II Joint Combat Aircraft and helicopters, it will have more firepower on board than the majority of the world’s national airforces. It can be moved into almost any region of the world, and can install a theatre of operations approximately 1800 kilometres in diameter across land and sea. It is a wonderful national asset, and a testament to British industrial design.
In this sense, Global Britain – if it is to mean anything at all – must surely continue to maintain a navy of sufficient power to uphold the order that we as a nation have done more than any other to install and normalise. While the US has superseded the UK as the ultimate custodian of this rules-based order, it is itself in relative decline as countries like China rise. As such, the Americans will need more help than ever in maintaining the global peace. Consequently, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s cruise across the Atlantic also serves another objective: reminding the US that the UK is still a serious ally.
As she becomes fully operational over the coming years, Big Lizzie – along with her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales – will help instil fear into potentially revisionist autocrats: every time she passes their coasts and visits their ports she will serve to dissuade them from seeking to revise the rules-based order. And given that revisionists are rising in strength and chutzpah, Big Lizzie’s arrival and progressive incorporation into the British fleet could not come at a more propitious time.
James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.