Will the UK Build a Third Aircraft Carrier?

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Key Takeaways:

  • There is conflicting information on whether the UK will build a third Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier.
  • Leaked documents suggest a third carrier may be ordered, but other sources dismiss this as rumor.
  • The Royal Navy currently has two carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
  • Retrofitting existing carriers is being discussed as part of a Future Maritime Aviation Force vision.
  • Ambitions for more carriers may be limited by lack of assets and the need for a larger fleet.
  • Technical issues with existing carriers like HMS Prince of Wales raise questions about expanding carrier capabilities.


Aircraft carriers represent formidable power projection capabilities and are a symbol of military strength for navies around the world. As an island nation, the UK has a rich history of leveraging aircraft carrier operations. However, will the Royal Navy invest in building a third Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier? This comprehensive article will analyze the current situation and evaluate the factors involved in determining whether a third UK aircraft carrier will become a reality.

The significance of examining this question lies in understanding the future trajectory of British naval power. The ambition for carrier strike capabilities must be weighed against budgetary constraints. Technological limitations and operational requirements also impact decisions on expanding carrier fleets. By reviewing leaked documents, official statements, expert opinions and current naval capabilities, this article provides a holistic perspective. The intended outcome is an evidence-based analysis to assess the plausible need and viability of the UK constructing an additional aircraft carrier.

With two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, already in service, the necessity and affordability of a third carrier is debatable. Examining the geopolitical motivations, economic considerations and technical specifications involved allows an informed evaluation. The article provides clarity on this issue, helping shape realistic expectations regarding the expansion of UK carrier strike groups.

Factors Suggesting a Third UK Aircraft Carrier is Possible

Does the Leaked “Russia Resurgent” Consultation Document Indicate a Third Carrier is Likely?

  • A leaked draft of the 2022 Royal Navy consultation document “Russia Resurgent” suggested that the UK will build a third Queen Elizabeth class carrier in response to the threat posed by Russia.
  • According to the document, the Royal Navy will order the third carrier to match Russian naval expansion and aggression in the North Atlantic.
  • If genuine, this leaked document indicates the UK Ministry of Defence sees a viable need for an additional aircraft carrier capability.
  • However, as the document was still in draft form, the final published consultation may not retain references to a third carrier. The leak itself does not confirm an imminent order.
  • Nonetheless, countering Russian naval power in the Atlantic does provide a strong strategic motivation if the geopolitical situation necessitates further carrier strike capability.

Could Retrofitting Catapults and Arrestor Gear Enable Third Carrier Orders?

  • There are plans underway to retrofit electromagnetic catapults and arrestor gear on the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
  • Converting to CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) operations would enable more flexible aircraft options.
  • According to a Naval News report, this improved launching system may open the door for a future third carrier optimized for CATOBAR from the start.
  • The UK has already reversed course on carriers once, switching from CATOBAR to STOVL configurations between the Queen Elizabeth class and the previous Invincible class.
  • With CATOBAR retrofits demonstrating the UK’s commitment to that mode of operations, it provides a foundation for ordering new carriers designed for catapult launch systems.

Does the Future Maritime Aviation Force Vision Allow for More Carriers?

  • The Royal Navy has outlined an ambitious Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF) vision which could involve more aircraft carriers.
  • Set to publish its full review in early 2023, the FMAF aims to deliver a transformational increase in maritime strike capability.
  • While exact details are still forthcoming, it highlights the importance of carrier operations to future Royal Navy plans.
  • The vision document states the FMAF will “generate mass and manageattrition” leveraging carrier capabilities.
  • If the full FMAF review advocates for significant carrier growth, it could provide impetus for procuring a third Queen Elizabeth class vessel.
  • However, the scale of proposed expansion is still vague, with available defense resources also limiting possibilities.

Factors Suggesting a Third UK Aircraft Carrier is Unlikely

Does the Lack of Official Confirmation Rule Out a Third Carrier for Now?

  • While leaked documents point to a third carrier order, there has been no official confirmation by the UK government or Ministry of Defence.
  • In November 2022, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey stated that there were “no plans for further carriers”, downplaying rumors.
  • Some experts claim the story of a new carrier order actually originated as an April Fools prank in 2018 rather than a serious consideration.
  • Unless concrete plans for an additional vessel are announced, skepticism around a third carrier remains warranted.
  • Given budget constraints and other military priorities, the absence of official authority on expanding carrier fleets is notable.
  • Without explicit endorsement, moving from rumor and speculation to an actual build order seems premature.

Are Existing Carriers Sufficient for Current Naval Requirements?

  • The UK currently operates 2 new Queen Elizabeth class carriers, giving substantial carrier strike capability already.
  • According to Naval Technology, these vessels have 65,000 ton displacement and capacity for 40 aircraft, including F-35B stealth fighters.
  • With significant onboard weapons and aircraft capacity, some analysts feel two modern carriers are adequate for Britain’s needs.
  • Unlike historical periods like the World War 2 era, the UK does not face an existential naval threat demanding more flattops currently.
  • Until the strategic situation shifts considerably, the capabilities of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales may satisfy operational requirements.
  • Building a third carrier is a lengthy endeavor, so sustaining just two advanced vessels could be a prudent choice.

Does the Royal Navy Have Enough Assets to Support Another Carrier?

  • Operating aircraft carriers requires extensive additional naval assets for an effective carrier strike group.
  • According to naval expert Commander Daniel Dolan, at least 6-10 supporting ships are needed per carrier for escort roles and logistics.
  • The Royal Navy currently has only 19 destroyers and frigates available for such roles, limiting its ability to field larger carrier forces.
  • Without investing in more submarines, replenishment ships and surface escorts, UK carrier capabilities cannot expand significantly.
  • As noted by defense policy think tank RUSI, Britain’s surface fleet is already “over-stretched” with existing assets.
  • Until escort ship numbers grow considerably, the UK may lack the flotilla necessary to deploy three carriers simultaneously.

Have Technical Issues with Current Carriers Caused Hesitations?

  • The HMS Prince of Wales, the UK’s second carrier, has experienced multiple technical problems and setbacks.
  • During its maiden voyage in 2022, a leak was discovered in the vessel’s propeller shaft seals, forcing it to return to port.
  • This issue kept the HMS Prince of Wales docked for repairs until late 2022, calling its reliability into question.
  • Additional problems like electrical outages and equipment malfunctions have also plagued the HMS Prince of Wales.
  • Given these complications with a new carrier, the Royal Navy may be reluctant to commit resources to a third until technical deficiencies are resolved.
  • Building additional platforms when existing systems are still proving problematic creates further risk and uncertainty.


In conclusion, the issue of whether the UK will procure a third Queen Elizabeth class carrier remains debated. Leaked documents provide some indications of long-term intent to match rival naval powers. The planned retrofit of existing carriers and the Future Maritime Aviation Force vision may also open the door for more flattops. However, the lack of official confirmation, adequate escort ships and recent technical issues pose barriers. While a third carrier forms part of the UK’s aspirations, it faces real-world constraints on feasibility. Until limitations around resources and platforms are resolved, a definitive build order is unlikely in the immediate future. Realizing Britain’s carrier ambitions will require strategic investment decisions that balance geopolitical goals, budgetary constraints and operational realities.

About The Author

Scroll to Top