When the Queen Elizabeth carriers come into service next decade, they're going to be the biggest, most expensive things the Royal Navy's ever owned. Given that they've got a track record of crashing their shiny new toys, however, the jolly sailor-boys have ditched their stripy uniforms and Mariah Carey covers for a state-of-the-art simulator to learn how to sail and fight the new behemoths.
For the command-and-control members of the crew -- the officers and sailors who command the damn thing -- the training's already started in earnest for setting sail. To practice, they use a giant simulator setup at the Navy's training base in Hampshire, HMS Collingwood.
The simulator works in the same fashion as Ship Simulator Extreme (which is a total waste of £14.99, in case you're wondering), only with a little more class. Built by BAE Systems, the centrepiece is a 'photorealistic' virtual bridge, with a bank of monitors that produce a full 180-degrees of visibility. Powering the affair is a custom-built gaming rig, running the Navy's very own simulation software. Since the focus is on navigation here, the simulator focuses on Britain's biggest ports, with accurate replicas of iconic waterways like Plymouth, Portsmouth and the English Channel
But the virtual bridge is only a small part of the package. The real fighting on modern warships isn't done from the bridge -- the action happens down in the bowels of the ship, in the Operations Room (or Action Information Centre, as it's known in the Royal Navy). On a ship, this consists of dozens of consoles, arrayed in a master control room far down below the waterline (and hopefully out of missile range).
To replicate this, exactly the same consoles and IT systems have been set up at Collingwood, albeit in a far more boring-looking open-plan office. The consoles are all networked together, and running a custom simulation system that allows the sailors to get to grips with 'fighting' the ship while they're still safe on dry land.
Additionally, since the simulator is being run on the exact IT systems that are going to be installed on the carriers, it gives BAE a chance to de-bug mission-critical systems like the internal network, combat management system and the visual-surveillance kit. Given the reliance on computers in modern warships, this sort of testing is vital, or massive cock-ups can ensue -- during the first live-fire test of the Navy's new Type 45 destroyer, the central computer crashed, leaving the crew resorting to spotting incoming missiles with binoculars.
Of course, the QE carriers have one other, even more important component: the planes that fly off them. Specifically, the F-35B fighters, which, just like the Sea Harrier jets they're replacing, are capable of vertical take-off and landing. By the time the planes come into service, however, the Navy won't have operated fixed-wing aircraft for nearly a decade, and they've never operated a plane with the complexity of the F-35. To tackle that problem head-on, Navy pilots are already undergoing training, both on comprehensive flight simulators here in the UK, and through exchange programmes with the Top Gun-happy Yanks in the US Air Force.
Preparing the ship for combat isn't just all about fighting, though. The Queen Elizabeth carriers are 65,000 floating tonnes of good old-fashioned engineering, and it takes work to maintain both the ship, and the Rolls-Royce engines within. Even though the carrier isn't expected to start working until 2018, she already has a crew of Royal Navy engineers working on her. The carrier is being built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, a consortium of private companies including the aforementioned BAE Systems, Thales, and Babcock. With most of the hull completed by now, though, Navy maritime engineers are being integrated into the process, so that when the ship floats out in a year or two, they'll already know every nut and bolt.