The HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s biggest warship ever, set sail for the first time today, three years after the U.K. decommissioned its last carrier, the HMS Illustrious, in 2014. The Royal Navy calls it “four acres of sovereign territory, deployable across the globe to serve the United Kingdom.”
At 65,000 tons and 920 feet, the Queen Elizabeth is a giant compared to the Illustrious, which weighed barely one-third as much and was only 690 feet long. She’s also bigger than the 45,000-ton HMS Vanguard, Britain’s biggest battleship launched toward the end of World War II.
The Illustrious and her sister ships carried Sea Harrier aircraft, most notably during the 1982 Falklands conflict. But Queen Elizabeth will deploy a more advanced, more familiar aircraft-the F-35B Lightning. With the U.K.’s own F-35B squadron not launching until 2023, the Queen Elizabeth will deploy U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs under an agreement signed in 2016. This is a reciprocal arrangement, meaning Royal Navy F-35Bs will one day fly off the decks of American carriers.
Jerry Kyd, Queen Elizabeth‘s Captain, says that the maximum number of aircraft it will carry will be in the “upper fifties,” though it’ll begin operations with only 24 F-35Bs onboard. The air complement also have helicopters, which might include nine Merlin anti-submarine helicopters and another four for airborne early warning. For a littoral role – in support of land operations – the Queen Elizabeth could carry a mix of Chinook heavy transports, Apache gunships, and Lynx Wildcat multirole helicopters.
Much like its international equivalents, the Queen Elizabeth is a huge feat of engineering. Construction work was distributed among six shipyards since no single yard could take on the entire job, and some 11,000 workers were involved in the project. This is also a warship for the modern age, the Queen Elizabeth has a high-speed data network with five thousand miles of…