Military Technology: HMS Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier To Launch In Britain—Here's What It Can Do

HMS Queen Elizbaeth
Royal Navy Leading Hand Claire Butler poses for photographers in front of the HMS Queen Elizabeth at an earlier construction stage in Scotland October 2, 2012. The ship is set to launch Monday. David Moir/Reuters

Britain's biggest ever warship will set sail from a Scottish dockyard on Monday—and while Britannia may no longer "rule the waves," the U.K. hopes she will serve as a sign of the country's continued naval might.

What are the ship's specs?

The HMS Queen Elizabeth is an aircraft carrier weighing 65,000 tonnes. It is the first of a new class of battleship for the British Royal Navy, known as the Queen Elizabeth class. A second ship in the class, the HMS Prince of Wales, will follow soon afterwards.

Both ships are anticipated to serve for up to 50 years.

The ship's design separates the takeoff and landing areas and air traffic control from the day-to-day controls, and includes a so-called "Highly Mechanized Weapons Handling System," which means a series of moving platforms and lifts can transport munitions around inside the ship.

Its efficient design means a smaller crew of 679 could operate the ship day to day, only increasing to full capacity (up to 1,600) when the ship needs to deploy aircraft.

The ship can hold up to 36 F-35B planes, which are deployed as multipurpose stealth fighters, and four crowsnest AEW helicopters, used as early warning systems to spot and respond to threats in advance.

An onboard operating theatre and other medical facilities means that the ship could run humanitarian missions, such as search and rescue operations for migrants who travel to Europe by sea.

Why is it being built?

Both new ships together will end up costing over £6 billion ($7.6 billion), so they represent a significant investment for a country whose annual defense budget for 2017-18 is just £48 billion ($61 billion).

But a new aircraft carrier is rare, and sends a signal to the international community. According to Wired, only the U.S. (which has the world's ten biggest aircraft carriers) and China, Russia and France (which have one big carrier each) have comparable vessels in their armory.

The U.K. has been without an aircraft carrier since 2014, when the smaller Invincible class were decommissioned.

Commanding officer Captain Jerry Kydd told the BBC the development would boost Britain's standing as a naval power. "I think there are very few capabilities, by any country, that are as symbolic as a carrier strike capability," he said. ""Submarines you can't see, but these are very visible symbols of power and power projection."

What are the criticisms?

Large expenditure on defense can be more politically problematic in the U.K. than in the U.S., especially at a time when the country has slogged through six-and-a-half-years of punishing austerity.

When the contract for the two carriers was signed in 2007, the total price was expected to be around £3 billion, half the current rate, leading to grumbles about the spiralling budget.

And while the carrier is extremely ambitious, some say it might prove too much so. Speaking to the BBC in 2014 Michael Clarke, the then-director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the new class of ships "will require most of the Royal Navy to support it and protect it."

"It means we will in a sense design the navy around one carrier battle-group. That is pretty powerful, but it means putting a lot of eggs in one basket," he said.