After more than a decade without fixed-wing maritime aviation on the front line, the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF) are close to completing the first operational outing for the UK’s new “fifth-generation” carrier strike capability.
Led by the 65,000t aircraft carrier and fleet flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the six-and-a-half month CSG21 deployment to the Indo-Pacific region has taken a multinational force halfway round the world, by way of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Suez and the Indian Ocean.
It has also provided an important test for the two squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II combat aircraft embarked, including live combat missions against Daesh, intercepting Russian jets over the eastern Mediterranean, and major multi-carrier exercises in the Pacific, Philippine Sea, and Bay of Bengal.
“Carrier strike gives the UK a brand new capability for which the Royal Navy unashamedly has the lead on,” says Rear Admiral Martin Connell, director force generation in Navy Command Headquarters. “While from the outside that might appear to be relatively straightforward, it is a significant change for us.
“It marks the end of a challenging decade, at the beginning of which we retired the old Invincible-class carriers and the [BAE Systems] Harriers that served us so well. At the same time, we were doubling down on a new carrier capability, and we as the navy had to learn and understand what that meant. That forced us to look really closely at what it was we would want to develop from a sovereign UK perspective.”
Rebuilding and regenerating carrier capability has demanded that the RN and RAF put old enmities to one side. It has also hinged on the assistance provided by key allies, acknowledges Connell.
“The French have been a part of that, yes, but particularly the US Navy and the US Marine Corps [USMC]. The extent to which our partners across the Atlantic have helped us on this journey has been incredible,” he says.
Reflecting the strength of this relationship, Queen Elizabeth’s air group for CSG21 has included 10 F-35Bs from the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) alongside eight jets from the RAF’s 617 Sqn.
While the initial move to bring a USMC squadron on board stemmed primarily from the slow ramp-up of the UK’s own Lightning Force, it has at the same time given the RN and the RAF a golden opportunity to demonstrate what levels of interoperability and interchangeability can be achieved with their US partners.
“VMFA-211 has not just embarked as an element of tokenism,” Connell emphasises. “It’s a front line, combat-ready US Marine Corps F-35 squadron fully integrated with the strike group. And we’ve been testing the bounds of that day in, day out. Their energy and focus, and the fact that they’re a couple of years ahead of us with the aircraft, has undoubtedly helped us.”
While interoperability – typically sharing a common tactical picture with allies and partners – is standard practice for the RN, interchangeability goes a step further.
“Having one nation’s aircraft, munitions and people being carried on another nation’s warship reflects the level of trust that exists between the US and the UK,” Connell says. “It’s not easy, and in the last few years we’ve worked really hard on this.”
Embedding VMFA-211 in Queen Elizabeth’s air wing demanded detailed understanding of operating procedures, the provision of special access compartments on board, and clearances for embarked munitions and specialised equipment – such as the Raytheon Joint Precision Approach and Landing System. A USMC colonel is integrated into the strike group staff as US senior national representative.
“In going down that route we’ve realised that you are no longer bound by your own force structure,” Connell says. “We now know that, with very little effort, a Marine Corps F-35 squadron can embark in either of our carriers at relatively short notice.”
Commander UK Carrier Strike Group Commodore Steve Moorhouse and his staff have led the CSG21 deployment from Queen Elizabeth. Speaking in early November as the strike group was heading for a short logistics stop in Duqm, Oman, he told FlightGlobal that high-tempo operations in the Eastern Mediterranean had tested the mettle of the air wing early on in the deployment.
“Back in late June, we were supporting, with F-35, ships from the task group that had pushed up into the Black Sea and were working with RAF [Eurofighter] Typhoons already based in Romania. So that was already a complex air and maritime space where we haven’t previously put fifth-gen jets.
“Concurrently, other elements of the air wing were flying east into Iraq to support Operation Shader. That was a busy time, and as the carrier moved further east, it was increasingly apparent we were attracting the attention of the Russian forces that are based in Syria.
“So we were also having to maintain a ready alert on the deck to counter daily probing from the Russian air force coming out to the carrier. Over 30 live intercepts of armed Russian fighter and bomber aircraft were conducted in just over two weeks.
“Responding to quick alert like that is something the Royal Navy hasn’t done with aircraft carriers for a generation. So that’s meant understanding the readiness state that you have to maintain so you can get the jets off at sufficient time to ensure you can intercept an incoming aircraft at appropriate range.”
This intensive period of flying operations served to build confidence and accelerate proficiency ahead of the transit through Suez, and subsequent eastward passage into the Indo-Pacific.
By late July, as units from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy were shadowing CSG21 through the South China Sea, the force was demonstrating its ‘blue water’ credentials. Units and air wings undertook both day and night flying; a number of anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare activities were completed; and flight operations were conducted from Queen Elizabeth concurrent with replenishment at sea operations.
“We were flying fixed-wing almost continuously through the 24-hour period, which is something the US doesn’t do – they surge for 15-hour, maybe 18-hour periods, whereas we were able to keep flying over 24 hours, fixed and rotary-wing,” says Moorhouse. “It really allowed us to show the unique flexibility and agility of Queen Elizabeth-class aviation.
“For example, flying fixed-wing while replenishing is really quite straightforward for us once you’ve got everyone trained and good to go. And we don’t need much wind [over the deck] to launch the jets, even at full weights in hot conditions.
“We are clearly different to an American CVN [nuclear-powered carrier],” he adds. “We don’t have catapults and arrestor gear, we’re not in the same scale in terms of air wing size, and the F-35B does not have the same legs.
“But [Queen Elizabeth] offers something completely different in its agility to get aircraft up and off. A CVN is incredibly impressive, but it is operated very differently and simply does not have the same flexibility.”
Another first, completed in August during exercises in the Pacific, saw Queen Elizabeth demonstrate F-35 cross-deck interoperability with the amphibious carrier USS America. “We had VMFA-211 F-35s launch, fly several hundred miles, land on America, take on fuel, and load weapons,” says Moorhouse. “Having launched to drop weapons on a range, they recovered to America for another suck of gas before returning to Queen Elizabeth.
“We do that routinely with helicopters, but to do that with a jet is a real first,” he says. “And it really excited the [US] because they could start to see for themselves how they would use F-35B in that region as part of their wider campaign plans for distributed maritime operations.”
CSG21 has also given the UK an opportunity to engage with the wider F-35 community, says Moorhouse. “Early on we exercised with both Italian and Israeli F-35s. Then during our time in the Pacific, we supported the Japanese in operationalising their F-35A capability, and also introducing their B variant.
“We also undertook exercises with F-35Cs from the USS Carl Vinson air wing. It was a really good work-out for the team, proving that both UK and US F-35Bs could tank off the back of [Boeing] F/A-18s.
“Carl Vinson was really keen to work with us because we are so much further down the line of integrating and employing F-35, and all of its data and digital systems. It’s still early days for them, so it was another feather in our cap that they wanted to come to us to learn from our experience.”
Given the range at which the CSG21 was deploying, F-35B sustainment was identified as a critical challenge. “We were nervous at the outset about the [Lockheed] global support solution and how it would work,” admits Moorhouse. “We were really setting a high demand by going as far as we did.
“When we got into the [Pacific], you had the biggest laydown of F-35s to date between us, Carl Vinson, and the air wing on America. And then you put Covid over the top of that. So the challenge for Lockheed Martin was considerable.”
However, the evidence of the last six months has banished that initial nervousness. “The model has worked,” says Moorhouse. “We’re just now working through that balance of how much you need on board – in terms of low-level components and spares – and then how often do you top up those critical key parts. So that’s the drumbeat at which you need to send your auxiliary into a fleet logistics hub to maintain readiness.
“With the numbers that we have, and if you can tailor your flying rates sensibly, you can broadly speaking have 75% of the aircraft available in any one day, and the rest going through routine maintenance. So that mass gives you the flexibility, and then it’s just ensuring you have that regular pattern of stores delivery.”
Notwithstanding the challenges and constraints imposed by Covid-19, and the loss of a UK F-35B during operations in the Mediterranean on 17 November, CSG21 has largely hit or exceeded its marks.
Away from the carrier itself, there have been some other notable aviation milestones, including the first operational firing of a Thales Martlet lightweight anti-surface guided weapon from a Leonardo Helicopters Wildcat HMA2.
That said, there is still work to be done. In particular, the Leonardo AW101 Merlin-based Crowsnest airborne surveillance and control capability, delivered to the strike group at a baseline level, is not fully mature.
Connell acknowledges that CSG21 is just a first step. “Right now, we are only at initial operating capability. We set an ambitious headmark for this first deployment, and we’ve achieved an enormous amount already. But there is much more still to come.”
Looking ahead, a key part of capability development is understanding how and where unmanned air systems (UAS) can be integrated into the air wing.
Concept development work for what the RN is calling the Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF) has identified a number of roles and missions where uncrewed aviation could augment or potentially replace crewed aircraft, notably airborne early warning (AEW), persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), threat simulation and training, and maritime intra-theatre lift.
Connell cautions against mischaracterising the FMAF vision. “The Future Maritime Aviation Force is not about stopping everything we’re doing today and operating drones,” he says. “But looking to the future, we want to have a greater degree of persistence, additional mass, and increased flexibility.
“Technologies are at different levels of maturity here. We’re trying to draw out the best of crewed, remotely piloted and autonomous systems, and look at how we can blend these together. Of course, there’s a judgement in terms of when you commit – we don’t want to invest too early in the wrong capability.
“We’ve also got to be in lock-step with the Future Combat Air System,” Connell adds. “We’ve got to make sure that elements of that can operate in and around the maritime.”
Various capability-based FMAF elements have been scoped. For example, Proteus has conceived a rotary-wing UAS that can operate from the smaller decks of frigates and destroyers; Vixen is looking at fixed-wing UAS solutions that could provide AEW/ISR, and potentially augment strike; and Vampire is exploring lightweight, fixed-wing carrier-borne UAS systems.
An early FMAF demonstration, involving the operation of Qinetiq Jet Banshee 80+ target drones from Queen Elizabeth’s sister carrier HMS Prince of Wales, was completed earlier this year. This experiment was set up to demonstrate how a target system organic to the carrier could be employed to provide realistic air threat presentations to support ship self-defence training.
Another line of development is exploring the introduction of a heavy-lift UAS as an intra-theatre shuttle for stores and equipment. “Maritime intra-theatre lift is not a new requirement, and the Merlin HC4 is today doing a sterling job moving people, kit and stores around the carrier strike group,” says Connell. “But it’s quite an expensive way of moving things around. So there are some stores that could, with the technology that exists today, be moved around a task group relatively easily [by a UAS]. And there is undoubtedly overlap with the Royal Marines commando force.
“We need industry’s help with all this,” he adds. “I’m hopeful that Prince of Wales will do further experimentation in 2022, both around the UK and off the US eastern seaboard.”