Automating future aircraft carriers

Britain and France will jointly build three new huge aircraft carriers to be delivered between 2012 and 2014. With their 60,000 tonnes, these 275-meter-long carriers will cost about $4 billion each, but with their reduced crews due to automation, they'll save more than $6 billion to taxpayers during their 50 years of use.

Britain and France will jointly build three new huge aircraft carriers which will be delivered between 2012 and 2014. With their 60,000 tonnes, these 275-meter-long carriers will be the largest warships outside of the U.S. Navy. They're going to cost about $4 billion each, but with their reduced crews due to automation, they'll save lots of money to taxpayers during their 50 years of use. In this article, StrategyPage writes that these ships will need at most a crew of 800 sailors instead of 2,000 for ships of that size today. At a cost of $100K per sailor and per year, this represents savings of more than $6 billion. Impressive -- if this works.

Here is the introduction of the article from StrategyPage.

What's surprising about all this is not the large size of the carriers (about 58,000 tons, the largest ships ever for both navies), or the unique cooperation (two of the carriers are British, one is French, and both nations will cooperate on design and construction, with the Brits taking the lead.) No, what is amazing about all this is the aggressive plans for automation. These "Queen Elizabeth" class carriers are planning on having a ships crew of 800 (or less).
These carriers are going to cost about $4 billion each, and are to be in use for half a century (including several refits and refurbs). But the biggest cost will be personnel. Currently, it costs the U.S. Navy a bit over $100,000 per sailor per year. Do the math ($7 billion in crew costs over the life of each carrier.) So the smaller the crew, the greater the savings.

Before going further, below is an illustration showing the concept of the British CVF future carrier. (Credit: Defense Industry Daily). You'll find other details by reading "France Steaming Ahead on PA2/CVF Carrier Project" (December 14, 2005).

The British CVF future carrier

But how will this degree of automation be reached? By reducing maintenance tasks, eliminating administrative jobs, adding conveyers or using remote communications.

StrategyPage adds that these carriers will be able to handle about 110 flight operations every 24 hours while Wikipedia gives additional details about the planes that will equip aircraft carrier.

The UK has chosen to continue to use STOVL aircraft from its new carrier, however the fact that they chose an "adaptable" design which could be reconfigured for future CTOL operation means that the design is suitable for the French Navy. They are designed to operate the Lockheed Martin F-35 (JSF) and the Dassault Rafale for standard version and the F-35B STOVL variant the initial UK version of the carrier. The vessels are expected to be capable of carrying 48 F-35s or a similar quantity of Rafales, four airborne-early-warning (AEW) aircraft and six support/anti-submarine helicopters.

Besides their unprecedented degree of automation, these ships, which will share about 80% of all components, will use conventional turbines instead of nuclear propulsion.

The idea of renouncing nuclear propulsion in this way is seen as a backward step for French technology. The carrier's propulsion system will be Integrated Full Electric Propulsion (IFEP) based on four Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines. The optimum location for the position of the main propulsion system is being examined, with maximising the hangar space below decks a major consideration. The range of the carrier will be 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km).

Finally, while I was searching for alternative sources for this post, I found Richard Beedall's excellent site, Navy Matters. If you're interested in future aircraft carriers, please visit the Carrier Strike Section. And for tons of details and pictures about the future French 'porte-avions,' be sure to follow these two links, here (part 1) and there (part 2).

Sources: James Dunnigan, StrategyPage, March 25, 2006; and various web sites

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