Defence review considers UK aircraft carrier launch systems

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Strategic Defence and Security Review - .PDF file.

One of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers could be fitted with an electromagnetic launching system as part of defence changes announced today.

Following the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government has confirmed it will build both Queen Elizabeth class carriers but the first will carry no planes and be removed from active service after three years once the second is completed.

The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will be redesigned to enable it to take the conventional Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) planes currently being built by the US, rather than the more advanced and more expensive variant the previous government had planned to buy.

The first carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be completed in 2016 but will only carry helicopters before being put into ’extended readiness’, effectively replaced by the Prince of Wales.

With the immediate retiring of existing carrier HMS Ark Royal, the UK will lose the ability to launch fighter jets at sea until 2019. But the government plans to fit a system of catapults and arrestor wires (known as ’cats and traps’) to the Prince of Wales.

‘This will allow our allies to operate from our operational carrier and allow us to buy the carrier version of the JSF, which is more capable, less expensive, has a longer range and carries more weapons,’ said prime minister David Cameron today in parliament.

The carriers were originally designed to launch the F-35 Lightning variant of the JSF, capable of short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) without catapult launch or arrested recovery. But the possibility was left open of adapting the ships.

An electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) is smaller and less complex than traditional steam-powered catapults, can cope with heavier naval aircraft and offers a more exact degree of control over the launch, which would suit lighter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Following Cameron’s announcement, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said they could not yet confirm which kind of launch system would be used, although conversations with industry had begun.

However, last year The Engineer reported that UK-based naval power and propulsion specialist Converteam was investigating the EMALS for the MoD. Recent reports in The Times and The Financial Times also said the electromagnetic system would be used.

By agreeing to continue with both carriers, the government has saved tens of thousands of jobs among major defence firms and subcontractors across the country, although Cameron noted that proceeding with the two ships would cost less than the cancellation fees to scrap the second.

In particular, the move will protect workers on the Clyde and in Rosyth in Scotland, where an alliance of Babcock, BAE Systems and Thales UK has begun construction of the Queen Elizabeth.

The steam-powered catapults that propel planes along aircraft-carrier flight decks may soon be replaced by electromagnetic launch systems. Click here to read more (subscription required).