An aircraft carrier is the most critical sea-based asset a blue water navy can boast of. These capital ships have the capacity to project air power over greater distances. While expensive to buy and operate, they may be ultimately less expensive and far more flexible than deploying and sustaining land-based air assets to an available friendly host nation.
Today, we will compare the United States Gerald R. Ford Class, specifically Gerald R. Ford, with the British HMS Queen Elizabeth and determine the best aircraft carrier.
Gerald R. Ford Class
Named after the 38th President of the United States, the Gerald R. Ford Class supercarrier is set to spearhead the United States Navy. The new carrier features a host of cutting-edge technologies. The construction of the Ford Class carrier began in early 2007, and the carrier was commissioned in 2017.
The Gerald R. Ford Class is the U.S. Navy’s most expensive aircraft carrier of all time. Today, the ship’s inflation-adjusted cost is around 15 billion dollars. This supercarrier is 1,106 feet long and 134 feet wide at the waterline but has a 256-foot-wide flight deck.
When at its heaviest, it displaces almost 100,000 tons of water. The carrier’s internal layout is designed to be flexible enough that it can be quickly modified for a particular mission.
HMS Queen Elizabeth
On the other hand, HMS Queen Elizabeth is the fleet flagship of the Royal Navy. The British carrier is deployed as the central part of a U.K. carrier strike group, comprising escorts and support ships, with the aim to project power at greater distances. The aircraft carrier was commissioned in 2017.
As of today, the inflation-adjusted cost of HMS Queen Elizabeth is around 4.7 billion dollars. The British carrier is 919 feet long and 128 feet wide at the waterline, but its overall width is 240 feet. The displacement of the ship is around 65,000 tons.
Power and Performance
The Ford Class carrier is powered by two A1B nuclear reactors, enabling the carrier to gain speeds in excess of 30 knots, or 35 miles per hour. Aircraft carriers’ nuclear reactors provide the electrical and motor energy of the ship by splitting enriched uranium to produce heat and convert water to steam to power the turbines. Technically, the ship has an unlimited range, though maintenance must be performed regularly.
On the contrary, the U.K. Ministry of Defense decided not to use nuclear propulsion due to its high cost and chose Rolls-Royce’s integrated electric propulsion system.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is powered by two Rolls-Royce marine gas turbine engines and four diesel engines, providing a combined power of 112 megawatts. As per the manufacturer, the carrier has a maximum speed of 25 knots or 29 miles per hour.
However, the ship reached a maximum speed of 32 knots during trials. The operational range of the vessel is around 10,000 nautical miles. The aircraft carrier can store food and fuel for seven days between replenishments.
The Ford Class carrier can accommodate 2,600 sailors and 2,000 naval aviators. Ford Class carriers include quality-of-life enhancements, including improved berthing compartments, better gyms, and more ergonomic workspaces. The American aircraft carrier has the capacity to carry up to 75 aircraft.
A typical carrier air wing can include F-35s, F/A-18 Super Hornets, Hawkeye, Growler helicopters, and unmanned air combat vehicles. Extensive design modifications were made to accommodate 270 sorties in a day.
The traditional steam catapults are replaced with electromagnetic aircraft launch systems. The system is 25 percent more efficient than the Nimitz-class carriers and requires 25 percent fewer crew members. This innovation eliminates the traditional requirement to generate and store steam, freeing up a considerable area below the deck.
Similarly, the British carrier has been extensively automated in order to limit the crew size to 1,600 sailors, troops, and other staff. The ship can carry over 40 aircraft, with a load of 36 F-35s and four helicopters.
However, the carrier can carry 72 aircraft during wartime deployments. Depending on the mission, the vessel can also carry anti-submarine helicopters, Merlin HC4 Wildcats, Chinooks, and Army Air Corps Apaches.
Unlike the Ford Class carrier equipped with catapults and arrest wires, the British carrier is fitted with a 13-degree ski jump to operate short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft. The hull designs are planned for 50-year service life and are configured with a ski range. Implementing this strategy will increase the carrier’s service life by at least 20 years.
Radar & Avionics
The Ford Class carrier has improved sensors, including an integrated active electronically scanned array search and tracking radar system. The dual-band radar has no moving parts, therefore minimizing maintenance requirements. Unlike previous-generation radars, the DBR does not need an operator.
The system uses information about the current environment and doctrine from the combat system to make automated decisions. The specification and range of the radar are classified.
On the other hand, the Queen Elizabeth class is equipped with cutting-edge sonar radar, electro-optical systems, and electronic warfare technology. The ship is mounted with long-range wide-area search radar; Artisan 3D marine time medium-range active electronically scanned array radar, and navigation radar.
The main radar can detect and track up to 1,000 air targets at a range of around 250 miles, while the Artisan radar can track a target the size of a snooker ball over 12 miles away, with a maximum range of 124 miles.
The Ford Class carrier is armed with two Sea Sparrow missile launchers and two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers. The Sea Sparrow is a medium-range surface-to-air missile designed to engage anti-ship supersonic missiles and low-flying aircraft.
It has a top speed of Mach 4 and a range of 31 miles. The Rolling Airframe Missile is a small, lightweight infrared homing surface-to-air missile designed to counter anti-ship cruise missiles. It has a top speed of Mach 2 and a range of 6 miles.
The aircraft carrier is also mounted with a computer-operated Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS). The gun can fire 4,500 rounds per minute and can cover a range of 3.4 miles. The carrier is also armed with four M2 12.7-millimeter machine guns to defend against fast-approaching small vessels.
The Ford Class carrier comes with the most powerful nuclear reactor ever deployed on a ship. This reactor produces more than three times the electrical power compared to previous-generation reactors. This allows the U.S. Navy to deploy energy-intensive future weapons like free-electron laser-directed energy weapons, dynamic armor, and tracking systems.
On the contrary, the British aircraft carrier is equipped with three Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems for anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense. For defense against fast attack crafts, the ship is armed with four 30-millimeter automated small-caliber guns and mini-guns. Type 45 destroyers escort the aircraft carrier in high-risk areas, while brigades or even patrol vessels are used instead for lower-risk situations.
So, what do you think? Which aircraft carrier is better, the US Gerald R. Ford or the British HMS Queen Elizabeth?