In an article entitled, “Yes, the new carriers will have aircraft,” the UK Defence Journal reports that:
When the carrier first deploys operationally, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.[..]
According to a source we spoke to at the heart of planning for the carriers, the vessels will usually deploy with around 20 F-35Bs as a minimum and a number of various helicopters.
In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2. We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.
The number of aircraft that the HMS Elizabeth-class carriers would carry, and indeed whether there would be any at all, has been in question for some time.
The ever-evolving plans for the carriers under several governments have become an almost perfect metaphor for Britain’s search for a world role. At various times, plans have been mooted to scrap them, arm them to the teeth, deploy them nude of any aircraft, or even try to get American planes to do the flying. This is apparently not wholly off the table:
Recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon had earlier suggested that the US will deploy F-35B aircraft on board the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth when it comes into service, with British jets expected to do the same on US vessels when required “in the fullness of time”.
Michael Fallon has now signed an agreement to allow Marine Corps F-35Bs to fly from HMS Queen Elizabeth, the announcement came at a meeting about action against the Islamic State.
US aircraft will augment British jets on coalition operations, not replace them and they will not fly from the vessel first.
The return of aircraft carriers to the British fleet in a few years will restore Britain’s ability to project sea power around the world in a way that only a few nations can—if it wants to. As the plane story indicates, though, the carriers alone are not sufficient to do so; they must be matched with sustained investment in defense capacities, a commitment which has been somewhat variable in recent years.
Brexit has sharpened all the strategic questions facing the UK, including whether the nation will turn inward or pivot to the world. Defense in this regard is not only important in its own right, but as a tool of diplomacy and of trade, keeping sea lanes open and signaling commitment to allies. As the carriers approach launch, this will be a story worth keeping an eye on.