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.
The solution, they’ve found, is a sort of mix between the two. F-35Bs serving aboard UK carriers will approach the flight deck with their exhaust nozzles pointed straight down but while still moving forward — almost like a traditional aircraft landing being conducted in slow motion. By not attempting to hover and control a completely vertical descent, the fighters are able to conduct carrier landings while significantly heavier than Marine Corps F-35s can do on America-class amphibious ships.
The ships themselves are also being treated with a thermoresistant coating to help it cope with the intense heat produced by the F-35’s exhaust nozzles. The Queen Elizabeth has spent weeks now sailing along America’s east coast perfecting this landing process. Once the ship and the aircraft are both ready for combat operations, the combination of the two will represent some of the most advanced naval capabilities the Royal Navy has ever put into the field.
“We are enjoying getting back into the big time, and this is one of those big steps forward on that ladder,” Rear Adm. Keith Blount, the Royal Navy’s Assistant Chief of Naval Staff for Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers said of the F-35 operations. “When you see that jet out there today, having landed on the ship, taking off from the ship, we’re taking big steps back into that game again. And it’s hugely exciting, and it should be reassuring to those folks back home and indeed on this side of the Atlantic.”