The Royal Navy (RN), Royal Air Force (RAF) and UK industry are approaching a crucial demonstration of the country's formative carrier strike capability, with the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at the heart of the activity.
Having departed the RN’s Portsmouth base in Hampshire on 30 August, the 65,000t vessel will be among a host of ships and aircraft to participate in exercise Westlant 19, to be staged off the US East Coast.
In addition to operating as part of a group of surface ships, Queen Elizabeth will also be involved in further trials using embarked Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning combat aircraft. The carrier left the UK with Leonardo AW101 Merlin HM2 and Wildcat helicopters aboard, drawn from Culdrose, Cornwall, and Yeovilton, Somerset-based units, along with personnel from the Commando Helicopter Force and the Royal Marines' 42 Commando.
"Westlant 19 is a hugely exciting deployment, and as we increase the scale and complexity of our training and testing, so the potency of this extraordinary ship continues to grow," says Queen Elizabeth commanding officer Captain Steve Moorhouse.
"Ahead of full operations in 2021, the carrier, F-35s and supporting units will be rigorously tested under realistic warfighting scenarios," the RN says. "This deployment marks another significant milestone for the aircraft carrier, with up to seven RN and RAF jets embarked during five weeks of testing, as well as hosting F-35s from the US Marine Corps [USMC]," it adds.
Trials involving the short take-off and vertical landing type conducted off the USA in 2018 used a pair of test F-35Bs owned by the USMC. This activity included operating with various aircraft configurations and under a range of sea conditions, and saw 15 uses of a shipborne rolling vertical landing recovery technique developed by the UK for its new carrier strike aircraft. This year's activity will be used to expand the operating envelope already demonstrated.
The maritime strike group to assemble with Queen Elizabeth will include the Type 45 anti-air warfare destroyer HMS Dragon, Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary replenishment tanker RFA Tideforce.
"This potent group of British ships will also be joined by units from the US Navy, US Air Force and US Marine Corps,” the RN says. Visits to the USA and Canada will also be made during the three-month deployment, with Queen Elizabeth due to return to the UK "just before Christmas".
Commodore Mike Utley, commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, notes: "The success of last year's deployment put us ahead of the curve in terms of developmental testing between the jets and ship. We have a significant switch in focus this year, towards operationalising this national defence capability; turning this ship, the jets for which it has been built and all supporting units into a cohesive, agile, efficient force."
A first operational deployment with Queen Elizabeth is due to take place during 2021. The UK has lacked a fast-jet carrier strike capability since the retirement of its final BAE Systems Harrier GR9/9As in late 2010, and the last of its previous-generation aircraft carriers having left use in 2014 after a brief spell operating in support of embarked helicopters.
Cirium fleets data shows that the UK has so far taken delivery of 18 F-35Bs. The aircraft have been assigned to the RAF's 617 Sqn, 207 Sqn operational conversion unit and US-based 17 Sqn operational evaluation unit.
Building on the success of 2018's first-of-class trials aboard Queen Elizabeth will come just months after RAF Marham, Norfolk-based 617 Sqn performed the UK's first armed missions with the Lightning over Iraq and Syria. Conducted in June 2019 as an adjunct to an exercise Lightning Dawn deployment to Akrotiri, Cyprus, this involved operating the type alongside the service's Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s.
Meanwhile, the RN's second new aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is on track to make its first visit to Portsmouth later this year, following pending sea trials. The vessel's crew is completing preparations at Rosyth in Scotland before conducting the work. Each of the RN's vessels will be capable of accommodating an air wing with up to 36 F-35Bs at maximum strength.