More details of interactions with Russian forces in June were revealed by the Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group this week.
Cdre Steve Moorhouse was speaking from HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Indian Ocean, via a recorded message to the Pacific Future Forum event held on HMS Prince of Wales in Portsmouth. He said that while operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, jets from his flagship had been launched to conduct missions over the Black Sea which involved flying a round trip of “well over 1,000 miles”. These flights were conducted simultaneously with the first carrier-based combat sorties flown against Daesh.
Assuming they passed through Turkish airspace, missions to the Black Sea were almost certainly supported by air-air refuelling as 1,000 miles is the maximum extent of F-35B range. To have significance, the aircraft would need to perform at least a brief patrol in the area. Returning to the carrier flying on ‘fumes’ is a risk that would be usually avoided for a non-combat mission. It is worth noting that, despite critics complaints about the ‘short legs’ of the F-35B, it has more than double the range of the legacy Sea Harrier FA2 (c460 miles).
The appearance of UK (and USMC) combat aircraft over the Black Sea is another tangible sign that NATO is willing to support its partners and uphold international law in the region. This was followed up by HMS Defender’s innocent passage through the territorial waters of occupied Crimea on 23rd June.
On 12th June two F-35 Jets flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth took off to conduct missions against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. This was the first strike mission from a Royal Navy vessel since the operations in Libya during 2011. In a two-week period, there were 30 live intercepts of armed Russian fighter and bomber aircraft. Sukhois and Migs came within visual range of aircraft flying from the ship. Moorhouse added that two jets were held at readiness on deck during this period, ready to respond to any Russian air incursions or overlights. The critical importance for the fleet to have its own organic air cover available for all kinds of naval operations is often overlooked when the main focus is usually on the strike element of carrier capability.
In the underwater domain, the Commodore noted that the carrier-based Merlin Mk2 ASW helicopters worked with his frigates (and probably with supporting SSN, HMS Ambush) to “locate and fix the Russian submarines deployed to welcome us”.
As a former ‘bagger’ himself, COMUKSG said that during this period, the Crowsnest Airborne Surveillance and Control-equipped Merlins were: “cutting their teeth and getting to grips with their new capabilities”. Curiously in the second phase of the CSG21 deployment, there have been no images showing Crowsnest-equipped Merlins in action or even visible on the flight deck of the carrier and no official mention of their contribution to op Fortis. This may be purely coincidental and of no significance or perhaps a sign that the pre-IOC system has encountered problems.
Unintentionally the Russians helped build confidence and test the CSG in a way that no pre-panned exercise ever could. Moorhouse added that: “The high tempo operations in the face of a competing and challenging adversary provided the foundation from which the strike group could prepare for operations the unfamiliar, but equally contested seas of the Indo-Pacific”.