HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed on 8th September to lead the RN’s first major carrier strike group deployment since 2021. Known as operation FIREDRAKE, the group will undertake of a series of exercises in northern European waters working closely with JEF and NATO partner nations.
The group will operate in the North Sea, Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic and return home in time for Christmas. The carrier will make her first visit to Sweden with a mid-deployment break in Gothenburg, while HMS Diamond will enter the Baltic Sea to visit partners in the region. The group will participate in 6 or 7 separate exercises during their time away and in October the CSG will come directly under NATO command. This will be an effective demonstration of UK strike power to Russia as well as the UK’s allies.
Following the August leave period, the carrier has been a hive of activity and there has been round-the-clock preparation in recent weeks to embark stores and equipment. This included the replacement of the aircraft lift chains, completed in just 4 days as they had deteriorated due to lubrication issues. With the core ship’s company of around 800 swelled to 1,500 for the deployment, the logistic challenge of feeding and integrating the influx of personnel is considerable. Since operation FORTIS in 2021, most of the ship’s company has changed and this is something of a new era.
The CSG model is to have a ‘sovereign core’ supplemented by international partners. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be escorted by HMS Diamond and HMS Kent with another unnamed frigate likely to join soon. There is a chance HMS Somerset will join the later part of the deployment but generation of her Naval Strike Missile capability is seen as the priority. The RN escort is admittedly rather thin but a Norwegian frigate will join the group for most of the time and Dutch, French, German and Belgian warships will also participate. Ships of NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 will likely be integrated into the group for part of the deployment.
RFA Tideforce will provide logistic support to the CSG, although the unavailability of RFA Fort Victoria means there is no solid stores ship. This is mitigated to some extent because the carrier is already well-stocked with weapons in her large magazines. Tideforce can carry a modest stock of food and stores in addition to her main load of fuel and this can be transferred by VERTEP. On this deployment, the group will never be far away from friendly ports to provide logistic support as needed.
The air group will comprise 8 jets of 617 Squadron and 5 Merlin helicopters from 820 NAS. It should be noted that in extremis, significantly more jets could be embarked if needed. However, this would disrupt the training and generation pipeline which is being maintained in order to keep building up the Lightning Force for the future. The lessons from FORTIS and the loss of the jet continue to inform development of carrier strike and improvements have been made in the Air Safety Management System and joint embarked safety culture. In particular, there will be a focus on the pacing of people to avoid fatigue as well as stricter procedures for the handling of red gear.
HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed in July for a 2-week work up period which allowed jets and helicopters to conduct basic training and familiarisation so the air group will arrive well prepared. Helicopters embarked soon after sailing with the Jets to join a day or so after. All F-35 pilots will arrive having previous carrier experience, are all daytime carrier qualified and the majority night-qualified. The jets will take part in a number of NATO air exercises starting with 18-day Exercise Cobra Warrior 23-2 which will include UK, US, Canadian, Norwegian and Italian aircraft mainly operating from RAF Waddington over the North Sea.
Two of the five 820 NAS cabs will be Crowsnest aircraft for Airborne Surveillance and Control. Crowsnest finally achieved its much-delayed Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in July this year. The radar picture and tactical data from the aircraft can now be shared with the strike group via Link 16. In July tentative steps were also made using Crowsnest for fighter-control of F-35s during a couple of sorties and this will be developed further during CSG23.
Three Wildcat AH1 helicopters of 847 NAS will embark on the carrier for the first time. They will develop their skills in the Military-Intra Theatre Lift (MITL) and Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) roles usually conducted by the Merlin Mk4s of 845 NAS and 846 NAS. The Commando Merlins are focused on generating for the Littoral Response Group (South) (Comprising RFA Argus and Lyme Bay) which sails for the Middle East this Autumn. HMS Diamond will be carrying the standard single Wildcat HMA2.
FIREDRAKE is really the first of a two-part series of deployments. The UK CSG is due to participate in major NATO exercise STEADFAST DEFENDER (STDE24) due to begin in the first quarter of 2024. STDE24 is an Article 5 exercise that will demonstrate the ability to reinforce Europe via the trans-Atlantic deployment of forces from North America and the enablement and employment of forces throughout Europe.
Later in 2024, the handover process will begin as HMS Queen Elizabeth winds down before her first major refit, passing the flagship role to HMS Prince of Wales. This will be a complex endeavour that is not just a re-flagging exercise. Equipment, people and skills must be transferred between the two ships in order to demonstrate the RN can maintain seamless continuous carrier strike capability. This will be a prerequisite for 2025 when HMS Prince of Wales will lead a deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. Notably on CSG25 she will carry a substantial all-British air group comprising 24 F-35s and around 14 Merlins. The original promise of “24 in 24” (24 jets in 2024) will only narrowly have been missed.