- 920-ft long HMS Queen Elizabeth has capacity to accommodate 36 stealth jets
- Spaces in hangers suggest Britain is lacking aircraft, according to naval experts
A £4billion aircraft carrier has deployed on its latest voyage with only eight fighter jets – raising further fears about the UK’s chronic shortages of combat planes.
The 920-ft long HMS Queen Elizabeth has the capacity to accommodate 36 stealth jets and to carry 24 such aircraft on operations.
The wide open spaces in her hangers suggest Britain is lacking frontline aircraft, according to naval experts.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of this country’s two aircraft carriers, deployed on Operation Firedrake on September 8.
Its patrols of the North Atlantic with NATO partners are supposed to provide a demonstration of UK strike power to the Kremlin.
Concerns over the strength of this deployment follow the publication earlier this month of a parliamentary report into the weaknesses of the RAF’s fighter jet fleet.
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MPs on the defence select committee warned the UK’s frontline aircraft would be ‘wiped out’ in a war against Vladimir Putin because of its size.
They said they UK could not withstand the ‘levels of attrition’ that would occur in any conflict against a peer nation.
Britain has just 169 frontline jets to Russia’s 1,500, while France has 231 combat aircraft, Germany 214 and Italy 199.
That figure includes 31 F-35B stealth jets which were bought for the HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship, the aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.
Yet only eight of these fifth generation smart aircraft were aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth as she started Op Firedrake.
The delivery of these US-made planes is behind schedule and, due to funding issues, the UK is expected to purchase fewer F-35Bs than was envisaged.
Previously, Britain was supposed to buy 138 F-35Bs but this has been reduced to 74.
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Last night, former Royal Navy officer Commander Tom Sharpe, told the Mail: ‘We should be concerned, as we have far fewer F-35Bs than we should have.
‘More of the F-35Bs should have been delivered by this time too, so that is another factor.
‘For these reasons I’m not surprised to learn HMS Queen Elizabeth is deploying with so few combat aircraft. This scenario has been many years in the making.’
The Ministry of Defence insists the ‘boutique’ sophistication of its aircraft compensates for having fewer of them.
But while high capability planes are beneficial, the UK’s fleet lacks numerical depth and reserves, according to experts.
Last night the Royal Navy insisted more F-35Bs could have been sent on Op Firedrake if required. Eight jets apparently represented the number required to achieve the tasks involved.
While eight Merlin and Wildcat helicopters are also aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the carrier is operating significantly under strength.
The scale of the Royal Navy’s deployment compares unfavourably with the 40 aircraft aboard the US carrier Gerald R Ford when she visited Norway earlier this year.
On previous deployments of the HMS Queen Elizabeth the Royal Navy has been forced to borrow planes from the US Marine Corps.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will undertake a series of exercises with Western partners before returning to the UK in December.
An MoD spokesperson said: ‘The number of aircraft deployed on the carrier is decided by a variety of operational factors including the anticipated threat, aircraft needed for the deployment task and the requirement to continue to train personnel at RAF Marham to expand the F-35B Lightning force.
‘This year UK F-35s have been exercising with NATO, US and European partners and have deployed once more on our aircraft carriers. We remain committed to growing the F-35 fleet with more to be delivered this year.
‘Our carriers have world-class capabilities and are currently both at sea, with one leading an international carrier strike group to the waters of northern Europe and the other sailing to the US to operate alongside our closest partner with advanced drone technology and 5th generation fighter jets on board.’