Training for the carriers – sailors and aviators – is complicated by history, technology, and doctrine. MS&T’s Europe Editor Dim Jones explains the training strategy.

On 4th July 2014, at the Royal Naval Dockyard Rosyth, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II named HMS Queen Elizabeth, only the second RN vessel to bear that title: the first was a WW1 Dreadnought, launched in 1913, first seeing action at the Dardanelles in 1915, and on whose deck Admiral Sir David Beatty took the formal surrender of the German High Seas Fleet on 21 November 1918.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is an aircraft carrier, the first of a class of two and, by a comfortable margin, at 65-70,000 tonnes, the largest ship ever constructed for the Royal Navy. Although somewhat outweighed by the USS Gerald R Ford – at more than 100,000t, and due to commission in 2016 – she is roughly the same size as the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, half as big again as the French Charles de Gaulle and the RN’s last fleet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and three times the size of the Invincible Class which the Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) will replace. The QEC ships are slightly unconventional in being designed for, but not equipped with, catapult and arrestor systems, and having no angled deck but a ‘ski-jump’ bow. The planned main element of the air group will be the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning II, the F-35B.


The raison d’être of QEC is to provide the UK Government with a ‘Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP)’ capability, covering a spectrum of missions from Deterrence and Coercion through Strategic and Tactical Strike to Air Manoeuvre, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief. The ships are designed to be reconfigurable while deployed; the ‘design’ air group of 36 F-35B and four Merlin ‘Crowsnest’ AEW could be expanded, and reconfigured to include Chinook heavy-lift, Merlin anti-submarine (ASW), Wildcat anti-surface (ASuW) or Apache attack helicopters; 24 F-35B and 12-15 Merlin ASW/AEW might provide a commander with more flexibility in some scenarios. Air Group personnel could make way for up to 250 Royal Marine or Army troops, giving a 2-company lift capability. HMS Queen Elizabeth, and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, are designed and equipped to operate as the flagship of a composite task force including, but not restricted to, Type 45 air defence destroyers, Type 26 Global Combat Ships, Astute-Class attack submarines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) support vessels.

The QEC’s two Rolls Royce MT30 turbines and four Wartsila 38 marine diesel engines produce a maximum of 106 megawatts (141,000hp). These power four 20 MW Converteam induction motors, driving two shafts with fixed-pitch propellers, giving the ship a speed in excess of 25 knots, a range of 7,000+ nautical miles and an endurance of 45 days. The nuclear power option was considered early in the design process, and discarded for reasons of training and licensing requirements, and restricted access to foreign ports.

There are many aspects of the QEC’s delivery that are, if not unique, certainly unusual. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) is building the ship; the ACA comprises Babcock Marine, Thales, BAE Systems and the UK MoD, which is, therefore, both partner and customer. The ships are being assembled and fitted out at Rosyth, but their component sections have been manufactured at six UK shipyards – Babcock at Rosyth and Appledore, BAE Systems on the Clyde and at Portsmouth, Cammell Laird on Merseyside and A&P on the Tyne. HMS Queen Elizabeth is now being fitted out, and is expected to be ready for service by 2018. HMS Prince of Wales is still under construction, and is expected to enter service by 2020.

In MS&T issue 2-2015, I covered the saga of the ships’ conception and the effects on their prospects of successive UK Government Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR), and specifically the projected fate of the second vessel – variously cancelled, held at ‘extended readiness’ (mothballed) on completion, sold off and now, according to a 2014 statement by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, definitely ‘brought into service’. These options could have significant effects on both RN personnel requirements and the concomitant training task. The ship’s company (i.e. those whose role is to operate the ship, regardless of the role) currently number some 672. There are bunks available for 1600 personnel, the balance being for the air group, or those involved in some other type of operation. This is a significant percentage of a Navy reduced by the 2010 SDSR, from the 35,000 in place when the QEC contracts were let to a total of around 30,000 trained personnel (and, after a series of redundancy tranches, currently falling short of even that), of which 7000 are Royal Marines. Trained manpower is expensive, and overall numbers can be changed relatively quickly compared to the long lead times and contract amendment costs of hardware projects. It is, therefore, no surprise that manpower is a key target for savings, and the lean manning of QEC reflects this reality, although it is mitigated by the RN’s standard practice of assigning to many crewmembers different roles in action to their normal ‘day jobs’. In the Ford-class CVNs, the US Navy has maintained a manpower intensive crewing policy, and even taking into account the difference in size, the comparisons between a ship’s company of 3200 as opposed to around 700 for QEC (about the same as for the Invincible-class CVS), 2480 against 900 for the air group (albeit with double the number of aircraft), and 250 versus 70 for harbour watch, are stark.


The replacement of manpower with automated systems is key to QEC’s viability, and permeates all levels of training and operational planning. It is perhaps unlikely that both carriers would ever operate at the same time, if for no better reason than that the chances of having enough F-35s available are a lot closer to ‘nil’ than ‘slim’, although a second carrier might be operating in a different role. In any event, successive reductions in the numbers of escort vessels to six Type 45 destroyers and a planned 13 Type 26s (there were originally 14 Type 23s and 16 Type 42s) render it unlikely that two task forces could be supported simultaneously – yes, the new types are more capable, but you still can’t have half a ship, and there are other large vessels, such as the current RN flagship, HMS Ocean, a helicopter assault ship, and the two amphibious LPDs, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark – to be protected and supported.

Assuming the availability of sufficient suitable personnel, bringing QEC into service has presented some new challenges. The first of these was to determine how to train the initial cadre of personnel (the interim requirement); the second was to identify what would be required to establish a steady-state replacement capability, in support of which the RN’s Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) and the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) conducted a Training Needs Analysis. Both solutions would need to be evaluated in the context of the three tiers of training necessary to bring the ships to, and maintain them at, full operational capability: Individual (the training required to ensure that each crew member has the requisite knowledge and skill to perform his or her role on board); Team (the training needed for the ship’s teams to operate effectively together to ‘fight the ship’; and Collective (making the ship an effective part of a task group or coalition naval force at sea).

Interim training for QEC has followed a new path, in that a large part of the ship’s company (220 at the time of writing) are already at Rosyth and working alongside the contractors to complete and fit out the ship. This is very much OJT, the ultimate aim being to write the ship’s operating manuals from scratch; if additional specialist courses are required for these personnel, they can be provided by the equipment manufacturers. An important part of the interim training task is identifying exactly what crewmembers need to know and be able to do to fulfil their future roles, ensuring that it is all covered during the work-up, and feeding the information back to those who are working towards delivering steady state training. The aim is to leave the initial crew in place until 2018, although inevitably a proportion will migrate from Queen Elizabeth to Prince of Wales during that time. Throughout the process, it is understood that QEC, in terms of systems and manpower, is a new concept for the RN, and simply cannot be operated in the same way as its predecessors.

Steady State

Turning to steady state training, the current individual training pipeline has been evaluated and found fit for purpose in the context of QEC. Phase 1 training – basic military and naval skills - takes place at HMS Raleigh in Plymouth for ratings and the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth for officers. Phase 2 is general trade training, not specific to equipment or platform type, and is conducted both ashore and at sea. Phase 3 training is carried out in a preparation for a complement job, going to sea to fulfil a specific role. The Future Training Unit (FTU) at HMS Collingwood in Portsmouth focuses on Phase 3, and is charged with delivering courses for Marine Engineering and Weapons Engineering personnel, the former concerned with the ship’s propulsion, electrical and hydraulic systems, and the latter with weapons systems, communications and sensors. These courses will then be taught at HMS Sultan and HMS Collingwood respectively. In the case of QEC, the duties of the weapons engineers in the ship’s company include supervising the transfer of air-delivered weapons from shore into the automated and unmanned magazines. The courses must be ready to go for Q1 of 2018, and FTU staff maintains a constant dialogue with the embedded ship’s company, and visit Rosyth regularly. Clearly, training for a modern ship requires the most up-to-date training techniques, and the FTU are always looking to embed the latest technology in their courses, while taking maximum advantage of existing material; there is a degree commonality between Type 45 and QEC systems, for instance. The QEC courses will continue the shift from a didactic approach to instructor-led Computer Aided Instruction (CAI), using synthetic animations and interactive technical publications. A tablet-based application will be a vital tool for ‘new joiners’ to find their way around the ship; it didn’t take me long to get lost.

Turning to the air group, the last RN vessels specifically designed for fixed-wing air operations were the Invincible Class, the first of which entered service in 1980 and the last of which (HMS Illustrious) was laid up in 2014. Meanwhile, the original fixed-wing aircraft (Sea Harrier) was retired in 2006, and its successor (the Harrier GR9) scrapped as a result of the 2010 SDSR. There will, therefore, have been an extended period during which the RN will not have operated fixed-wing aircraft from a flight deck, entailing the exit of qualified personnel, loss of currency and skill fade.

Air Group

Training for the air group has indeed presented some challenges, but these have been mitigated by considerable forethought. Taking the easiest one first, operating rotary wing aircraft in all maritime roles - Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) - from various platforms has continued uninterrupted and, although the deck of QEC may be a slightly more complex and busy environment, the transition presents no major problems for RW aircrew training. By SDSR 2010, the Harrier GR9 force had, like its forebear F4/Buccaneer air group in HMS Ark Royal IV, become a joint RN/RAF force, following the earlier withdrawal from service of Sea Harrier. The demise of the GR9 temporarily ended fixed-wing flying from RN carriers but, in anticipation of something to follow, the cadre of RN fast-jet pilots was not allowed to dissipate, and various measures were put in place to prevent this and to maintain and update core skills.

Since 2010, RN pilots have operated with other air forces engaged in maritime operations, notably the US Navy and the US Marine Corps; one of my hosts at RN HQ had completed a tour of duty flying the Super Etendard from the deck of Charles de Gaulle. Many of these ‘exchange’ posts are non-reciprocal, for which we owe a debt of gratitude to the US, although they have had the benefit of some experienced RN aviators during extended periods of operation. USMC carriers, although operating the same variant of the F35 as the UK, will not have a ski-jump and will only use vertical landing recoveries as opposed to the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). Equally, the F/A18E/F Super Hornet embarked in a ‘Cat-and-Trap’-equipped CVN has conferred on a lucky few a unique experience. Regardless of type, the mission sets to which these exchange pilots are being exposed, and the organisation of flying from a busy carrier, are exactly the right preparation for F-35B and QEC.

The UK’s F-35 force will also be an integrated RN/RAF organisation, capable of the full spectrum of land and sea operations. The precise force structure is as yet unknown, pending decisions on aircraft numbers, but at least one large squadron and an OCU is anticipated. The pilot training pipeline under the UK’s Military Flying Training System (MFTS) is identical for RN and RAF; there is no shortage of suitable candidates, and the future planned progression from the Grob 120TP through the Beechcraft T-6C to the in-service Hawk T2 is seen as an ideal grounding for conversion to F-35. The first F-35B Squadron, No 617, will start working up at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina next year, and is planned to move to RAF Marham in 2018, to become operational in the land-based role first before embarking for the first time in 2020. By that date, the aircraft must be ready for the ship, and the ship must be ready for the aircraft.

Aircrew are not, of course, the only component of the air group. Each unit of aircraft embarked in QEC will bring with it an element of support personnel to supplement those members of the ship’s company – deck handlers, Flying Control (FlyCo) and Air Traffic Control (ATC) – whose raison d’être is flying operations. Many of these personnel have also been detached to maintain their skills through relevant training with other forces. RW maintenance training is already in place, and F-35 maintainers will be trained in a purpose-built facility at Marham.

Team Training

So much for interim and individual training. The next step is team training – the development of suitably qualified individuals into cohesive teams that are capable of discharging their operational roles as parts of the larger team that ‘fights the ship’. Some of this training can be carried out during the normal routine of the ship, and through self-generated exercises. Post-commissioning or refit, all ships are required to undergo a formal work-up, run by Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), and known as Basic Operational Sea Training (BOST). This is a graduated programme, culminating in the award of operational status. The vehicle is a weekly exercise called ‘Thursday Wars’ in which various vessels, operating from Devonport, are put through their paces as part of a task group in a transition-to-war scenario. Each ship will have a role commensurate with its individual state of training, and it is likely that, as part of Queen Elizabeth’s BOST, she will be required to exercise the command function as Commander Task Group (CTG). Preparatory Operations Room sub-team and team training will already have been carried out using the simulation facilities of the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS), elements of which are at Portsmouth and Devonport. The precise training requirements of QEC, and the level of integration into MCTS are currently the subject of study and discussion with the training provider, but MCTS can certainly handle the requirements of the full QEC operations staff.

It is likely that the operational demands on the QEC vessels will be significant, and they may be required to be away from their home port of Portsmouth for extended periods. It is important, therefore, that all embarked personnel are able to maintain their skills in normal and emergency operations while at sea. To this end, many of the ship’s departments embody internal simulation whereby a part of the system can be divorced from the ‘real world’, and a simulated scenario used for training while the normal routine of the ship carries on. A case in point is Fire and Damage Control and Operations. The ship has over 3000 compartments and 470 cabins; these are covered by hundreds of monitoring devices and 32 types of fixed fire- fighting systems. Incident management will be done electronically rather than manually but, with a small crew spread around a big ship, getting an appropriate response crew safely to the scene of the incident may present the greatest challenge.

Deployable FMS

QEC ships will carry two Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainers (DMRTs) - essentially Full Mission Simulators (FMS), each containing two cockpits but with some limitations on the visual systems - in which F-35 pilots can practice the full spectrum of capabilities. There may also be scope to link these to a FlyCo simulator, such that the aircraft can recover to the deck under the control of the FlyCo crew. There will be a full-scale replica F-35 for deck-handling practice, and maintenance and weapons-handling PTTs. Lastly, QEC will include an ATC simulator through which controllers can maintain all their control currencies while at sea.

Collective training - where the ship is operating as part of a Task Group - can present various problems, not least of which are the availability of ships and the cost. Two additional issues with advanced systems like those carried by QEC and F-35 are the availability of suitable exercise areas and security. Live exercises, such as Joint Warrior, will continue to play a major role but, again, part of the solution is simulation, and specifically distributed training. MCTS has already linked with other facilities in the UK, such as the Air Battlespace Training Centre, through the Joint Multi National Interoperability Assurance Network (JMNIAN), and with US Forces and others. US ships have the capability to ‘plug into’ the system while alongside, which the RN does not yet have, and the technology exists whereby ships at sea can connect. Therefore, the future holds the possibility that the QEC’s DMRTs at sea could represent four F-35Bs under the direction of a CTG in MCTS employing ordnance under the control of a Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) in the ABTC.

The immediate future for HMS Queen Elizabeth will be addressing the myriad requirements to complete the crew, get the ship to sea, and start the sea trials and work-up. Specific challenges will be manoeuvring a 60,000+ ton ship through the dock gate with a clearance of some 30cm (which requires a high tide) and then under the Forth bridges (which requires the lowering of the pole mast and a low tide). In the interim period between 2018 and 2020, there will be F-35 trials flying, but the ship will have no fully embarked fixed-wing air. Instead, she will be practising her role as a floating four-acre airfield for whoever may need it; the possibility also exists of preparing for full operations with the help of a ‘guest act’ from the USMC.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales herald a new era in the RN’s long history of naval aviation and the UK’s capability for CEPP. These ships, representing a massive investment, will be with us for a long time; in fact, their last captains have almost certainly not yet been born.


It is now some five years since the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS) started operating at HMS Collingwood in Portsmouth, and four years since it was officially opened. MCTS, with sites at Portsmouth and Devonport, comprises CBT, Classroom-Based Skills Trainers (CBST) and Warfare Team Trainers, providing both individual and team training.

The basic element of the WTT is a workstation known as a ‘Martian’ (Multiple Application Reconfigurable Training Infrastructure Across Networks), comprising a keyboard and five touchscreens, which can be configured to represent an operator’s position in a ship’s Ops Room. Each training space, containing a maximum of 42 Martians, can be divided into up to four ‘quadrants’ and the quadrant configured to represent the environment of a single operator, a sub-team or the whole Ops Room team. The MoD’s partner and service provider is BAE Systems. MCTS is jointly staffed by RN Instructors and civilian role-players.

After five years of operation, the MCTS concept has been proven, and the system now delivers around 85 courses a year; MCTS has become a vital and integral part of the RN’s individual and team training programme, with the system meeting its design intent and, in some cases, exceeding it. A case in point is Type 23 frigate full team training. At the outset, the view was that certain training could only be undertaken at sea; however, such is the ability of MCTS to represent accurately the environment of a Type 23 Ops Room that these exercises are now routinely practised ashore. The inherent flexibility of the system allows training to be conducted in a ‘classroom’ atmosphere, such as I saw being used for gunnery training on a Principal Warfare Officers’ (PWO) course: students in pairs, with two role-players, under the watchful eyes of an instructor and observed by the other course members, briefed, carried out and debriefed set exercises. At the other end of the scale, a quadrant or quadrants can be configured to represent the full T23 Ops Room and the relative positions of the operators.

The most significant advance in the use of MCTS is in connectivity and distributed training. Through the Joint Multi National Interoperability Assurance Network (JMNIAN) , MCTS is operable with facilities in UK, including the Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC), and with players abroad, such as US Navy vessels in port and at sea, through the US Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE). RN vessels do not yet have the capability to ‘plug in’ to MCTS, but the concept of doing so, while alongside and at sea, has been proven during recent demonstration work. MCTS has been, and continues to be, subject to major upgrades in order to maintain currency with front line platforms; these include improvements to command systems, weapon systems and situational awareness systems. A major upcoming development is likely to be the integration of the QEC carriers, in respect of which studies and commercial discussions are currently taking place; the Type 26 Global Combat Ship is also a future consideration.

MCTS has achieved much in the past five years. The potential exists to achieve much more; as with all UK defence capability, it is ultimately dependent on funding and prioritisation. However, given the benefits and efficiencies offered by synthetic training, MCTS remains a compelling option for further use and development. – Dim Jones