The United States isn’t the only nation that’s looking to develop ways to extend the range and combat capabilities of carrier-based fighters. The UK’s Royal Navy may not boast a carrier fleet as massive or widespread as America’s, but its new flagship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is already working on ways to increase the capabilities of the F-35s that recently began operating on its flight deck.
The Queen Elizabeth, as well as its sister carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, are slated to serve as the UK’s most formidable form of force projection in conflicts the world over. With plans to field between 12 and 35 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters aboard each, these carriers could deliver a great deal of firepower almost anywhere in the world, thanks to the Royal Navy’s global refueling infrastructure.
There’s just one problem, however: these carriers don’t possess aircraft catapults or arresting gear. The Royal Navy’s carriers utilize a ramp to elevate departing aircraft upon takeoff, and as for landings… well, that’s where F-35 pilots aboard these carriers have had to get a bit creative.
U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs are capable of taking off on very short runways and conducting vertical landings — two capabilities that allow them to be launched from Marine Corps amphibious assault ships despite their crowded decks. This capability, while valuable as a means to deploy F-35s from more platforms, also comes with limitations. F-35s can only land vertically if they’re carrying under a certain amount of weight — often meaning they can’t be carrying additional fuel tanks or a full payload of ordnance. The Royal Navy, not content to field F-35s with any less than their full carry-capacity, had to find an alternative to vertical landings that was still possible aboard their vessels that lacked the arresting gear needed for traditional carrier landings.