Why your CVF should not moonlight as your LPH

In part 1 of this article we argued that HMS Ocean (LPH) should be retained and then replaced. If this does not happen the official plan is for the RN to operate the Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) aircraft carriers (CVF) in the LPH role. Here we look at how this might work in practice and why this solution is flawed.

The RN is currently developing its concept of operations for the QEC with a broad definition of their purpose called Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP). CEPP offers four main capabilities – Carrier Strike, Littoral Manoeuvre, Humanitarian Assistance and Defence Diplomacy. The carrier strike role is what the QEC were originally designed for but the requirement to perform the littoral manoeuvre/LPH role has been added and then expanded during their construction. HMS Queen Elizabeth will go to sea without the full modifications for the role and will be occupied working up and operating as a strike carrier with the F-35, at least for most of her first commission. She could be expected to enter major refit around 2025 when she will be modified. HMS Prince of Wales is being constructed with these modifications from the outset, essentially internal changes to accommodation, equipment storage and access for the embarked military force. F-35 trials will be conducted with HMS PoW in 2020/21 but she may then be configured and tested in the LPH role soon after.

Tactical headaches

Assuming that the RN was conducting an amphibious assault with any sort of opposition the primary role of the aircraft carrier (CVF) is to provide local air superiority and air-ground support. Both of these are prerequisites before contemplating a serious amphibious operation. In the next decade at least it is unlikely the RN will be able to have both aircraft carriers operational simultaneously. Even if the necessary manpower can be generated and sustained, there is no guarantee in the time of need that one will not be in refit or under training. Without HMS Ocean (or her replacement) we are either reliant on another nation to provide a CVF or LPH, or our available QEC must attempt both roles at once.

It is unclear if the RN would embark any F-35s when the QEC is in the LPH role. When configured for the carrier strike role, the QEC Tailored Air Group (TAG) is planned to typically consist of 24 F-35Bs and 9 Merlins for ASW and ASaC. The littoral manoeuvre TAG would see most, or all of the F-35Bs replaced by Chinooks, Merlins, Apache and Wildcat helicopters. In all but the most benign environment, air cover must therefore come from somewhere else.

In their designed Carrier Strike role, the QEC would need freedom of movement to operate her fixed wing aircraft with plenty of sea room. Less critical with VSTOL aircraft operations, but at times it is advantageous to turn the ship to head into wind at speed. Most importantly, large high-value ships try to keep as far away as practically possible from the threat of land-based aircraft and missiles and even small boat swarms or mines. It is also far easier to defend a ship against submarines in the deep ocean than in the more acoustically challenging littoral environment where small conventional submarines have a great advantage.

Acting in the LPH role ideally requires the ship to be reasonably close to the beachhead so the helicopters can quickly shuttle back and forward with troops and equipment, at least in the initial phase of the assault. The range of the Merlin would allow the ship to sit considerably offshore but speed and timing are critical in the initial phases and this would slow everything down. There is a fundamental conflict between the carrier’s need to maintain its speed and distance from the land and the requirement to close the shore and reduce to slow speed during amphibious operations.

Using the 65,000 ton fleet flagship, the sole available carrier as an LPH would expose her to increased risk. The loss or even damage to the ship would probably end the operation, be highly symbolic and politically unacceptable. The loss of a smaller LPH like HMS Ocean would still be a disaster but a political risk that could be contemplated. Historically the RN accepted it must sometimes lose ships to win wars.

Although effectively forced on the RN by underfunding, this is a case of too many eggs in one basket, operationally challenging and tactically unsound.

The QE carriers have been designed from the outset with fairly generous accommodation for up to 1,600 people. With her very lean complement of 733 there is a lot of space left for aircrew and an embarked military force (EMF) of least 250 which can live aboard for long periods in relative comfort. It is interesting that as the disposal of HMS Ocean gets closer, government is now saying up to 900 troops could be carried in extremis. We can assume that the modified HMS PoW will have space for about two Marine companies (500 personnel) to live aboard in tolerable comfort for an extended period. The hangar is spacious but, unlike HMS Ocean, there is no separate vehicle deck. Storing and maintaining aircraft and vehicles in close proximity at sea is potentially hazardous. There is also no means to unload vehicles at sea, except perhaps the odd one underslung beneath a Chinook helicopter for very short trips.

There are no plans for the QEC to be fitted with davits for LCVPs like HMS Ocean (small landing craft capable of carrying up to 35 troops). Landing craft have some advantages over helicopters, not least being a quieter way to approach a defended beach. Apart from the cost of adapting the ships, it could be argued the powerful airlift capability of the ship makes LCVPs slightly redundant, especially if the ship is forced to operate a long way from the beachhead. Fundamentally the QEC contribution is about troops on foot with whatever weapons they can carry, delivered by helicopter.

On the upside…

HMS Ocean can launch up to 6 Merlin helicopters almost simultaneously. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is currently evaluating how many helicopter spots the QEC could safely support. It seems likely that up to 10 Merlins could be launched together, allowing a full company of around 250 Marines to be transported in a single lift. This raw capacity would be the biggest single advantage the QEC has over a more normal-sized LPH. Operating in the humanitarian (HADR) role the QEC also has the clear advantage over HMS Ocean. The sheer amount of space, additional manpower, cavernous store rooms, good medical and command facilities would all be beneficial.

  • Deck comparison. Apart from QE's obviously more spacious deck, the deck-edge lifts can cope with larger aircraft including the Chinook and V-22 Osprey.

    Deck comparison. Apart from QE’s obviously more spacious deck, the deck-edge lifts can cope with larger aircraft including the Chinook and V-22 Osprey.

  • chinooks

    CGI showing Chinook helicopters aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Chinook can lift a lot more than a Merlin but is slower, has shorter range and less protected. They are not properly marinized and don’t have folding rotors like the Merlin. Embarking a lot of Chinooks for an extended deployment would be possible but problematic.

  • Companionways down to a waterline boarding platform at the stern of the QE class offer the possibility of troops boarding landing craft or mexflote directly in very benign weather. However this is a very unlikely scenario and more for use when accessing the ship at anchor in peacetime.

  • It will be instructive for the RN to observe how the US Marine Corps develops its concept of operations for the F-35B and the LAH.

    The aviation assault ship USS America. It will be instructive for the RN to observe how the US Marine Corps develops its concept of operations for this ship and the F-35B.

American cousins

In the US there has been controversy surrounding the recently commissioned USS America (In US parlance designated as LHA – Landing Helicopter Assault). Designed as an assault ship but without the traditional well-dock they are something of a parallel to the QEC when configured for the LPH role. Smaller than the QEC but very large for an assault ship, at 44,000 tons they can carry 1,700 marines, have an enlarged hangar and expanded aviation support facilities. The V-22 Osprey and the F-35 aircraft have been the drivers of the America design. The Osprey can transport troops further and faster than any helicopter allowing the ships to stay a greater distance offshore or deliver greater numbers of troops to the beachhead in a given amount of time. US Ospreys may well occasionally embark on the QEC but there is no funding available for the UK to obtain these versatile but expensive aircraft. (For the cost of around 6 Ospreys the UK could probably build a replacement for HMS Ocean.)

It is planned that the LHA will typically operate six F35-Bs (together with its Ospreys and helicopters) that would provide close-support for the troops. They also have the capacity to operate as emergency aircraft carriers embarking up to 20 F-35Bs. It may lack the ski-ramp to help launch F-35Bs but the LHA may well moonlight as CVF better than QEC can moonlight as an LPH.

Equipped with the Osprey and operating under air cover from their main aircraft carriers, the America class perhaps makes more sense for the USN than the QEC LPH does for the threadbare RN. However is interesting to note that only two LHAs will be built, it has been decided that over-reliance on aircraft by the US Marines is undesirable, the remaining ships of the class will be LHDs with well docks.

Are historical precedents still relevant?

Since the 1950s the RN has operated ships originally designed as aircraft carriers as helicopter assault ships, formerly referred to as commando carriers. The main difference was that these ships were all originally light carriers, much smaller (approx 20-25,000 tons) than the QEC and were part of a larger fleet that included at least one other fleet carrier or strike carrier (CVF) to provide air cover. Even in the 1980s and 90s when there were just 3 small Invincible class carriers, this allowed for one in refit, one CVF and one LPH. The limitations of the Invincible class in the assault role were recognised even then, but the RN was always a master of improvisation with inadequate equipment. During the Falklands War the RN had no LPH in service at all, the main amphibious landing was conducted from 2 LPDs and a converted cruise liner, aided by good luck and Argentine incompetence.

In contrast to the fleets of the past we have just two large carriers/fat targets, with only one fully operational. There will probably be no second deck available to provide air cover for the LPH and to compound the problem we lack mass in the fleet, too few escorts to protect the QEC at a time when threats to surface ships are on the increase. Risk upon risk.

In summary, the QEC assault ship will either have to be placed at extreme risk or operate along way from the beachhead reducing its effectiveness. Without its own air cover, the RN is therefore reliant on foreign support to mount a significant amphibious operation against even moderate opposition. The case for procuring a new LPH is overwhelming, this would complement the QEC, allowing them to operate primarily in their intended carrier strike role.