In May 2021 the UK Carrier Strike Group will set sail on its first operational deployment. Here we look at the programme for the next 10 months to prepare the many participants involved in this landmark for UK defence capability.
After returning from two months at sea in early July, HMS Queen Elizabeth will spend the Summer alongside in Portsmouth preparing for an Autumn Group Exercise (GroupEx) which will be part of the Joint Warrior (JW202) construct. The Joint Warrior exercises are usually run twice each year in March-April and September-October off the West coast of Scotland. (There was no JW in April 2020). The GroupEx will also see a bigger surface escort group join the UKCSG and will include Dutch and US warships.
The September GroupEx will be a big step-up in complexity from the modest scale of the recent exercise Crimson Ocean, consisting of 10 days of work-up, followed by two weeks of ‘free play’ in combat scenarios. The plan is to have an air group consisting of 5 UK and 10 USMC F-35 jets, plus 6 Merlin helicopters. With 15 jets on board, this will be the largest embarkation of F-35s afloat in the world so far.
US Marine Corps F-35B aircraft and personnel from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) will arrive at RAF Marham in the late summer for a period of quarantine and preparation before going to sea. The RN is keen to learn from the USMC who have considerable flying and sea-going experience with the F-35B. Captain Essenhigh said “I was fortunate enough to spend two years serving [on an exchange posting] with the US Navy and I’m keen to return their hospitality”. The Marine personnel who have already served onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth have fitted in very well and although the captain noted wryly they “love lifting lumps of metal, we will need to embark more gym equipment”.
During the summer dedicated USMC C2 and IT systems will be installed in the ship. Operating the same F-35B aircraft means there is commonality with the UK and spares, weapons and support can be shared.
For their part, the US Marines enjoy the high standard of accommodation on board the QNLZ, dedicated recreation areas and the option of a beer at the end of a busy day. HMS Queen Elizabeth is the first ship ever designed from the outset for F-35, in contrast to the assault ships of the US Navy which were designed in the era of the AV-8B Harrier and have more austere arrangements for the crew. Onboard the US assault ships it is the helicopters that have priority over jets whereas the jets are the primary armament of the British carrier.
Exercise Joint Warrior will be followed by exercise Crimson Warrior, a flying exercise based at RAF Marham which will see USMC and UK Lightning jets conduct synthetic live combat training together. RN helicopters will also participate in this land-based exercise as the ‘CV Wing’ works up more complex flying scenarios.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will return to Portsmouth in mid-late October for her last major Capability Insertion Period (CIP). This will include fitting the four 30mm ASCG Cannons (with their 4 EO Directors), the addition last of the three Phalanx CIWS mounts and the addition of further equipment for USMC use.
At the start of 2021 personnel from the CSG staff and ships warfare teams will undergo synthetic training at the Maritime Composite Training Facility (MCTS) at HMS Collingwood. In March the complete CSG will put to sea for a final 3-4 week certification exercise (CertEx) as part of Joint Warrior (JW211). This will include both Type 45 destroyers and both Type 23 frigates which are programmed to join the May deployment.
Under current plans, HMS Queen Elizabeth will deploy in May 2021 with a submarine, HMS Diamond, HMS Defender, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond supported by RFA Fort Victoria and a Tide-class tanker. Planning for the air group continues to evolve and should consist of 8 UK and 6 USMC F-35s and 9 Merlins Mk2s of 820 Squadron. An unspecified number of Wildcats will also be deployed armed with the new Martlet missile.
Crowsnest will not formally achieve Initial Operating Capability until September 2021 but 3 of the 9 Merlins are planned to be fitted with pre-IOC standard kits. At least the CGS will have some kind of Airborne Surveillance and Control capability, even if not properly certified and complete. In a significant change of plan, 849 Naval Air Squadron, which had been the ASaC squadron equipped with Sea Kings and was supposed to transition to Crowsnest, was disbanded in April 2020. The role will now be absorbed into 820 NAS. The squadron will have two streams of observers that specialise in either, anti-submarine warfare or ASaC. The RN has just 30 Merlin Mk2 helicopters, airframes are in short supply.
Merlin Mk4s will also be deployed and maybe ‘FOBed’ (Forward Operating Base) on RFA For Victoria or the tanker. For parts of the deployment, the RFAs and warships may detach and operate independently of the main CSG. USMC V-22 Ospreys will not be permanently embarked on the carrier but, together with CH-53E Stallions, may be used to provide Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift to the carrier group as it moves around the world, supported by the global US military logistic support footprint.
Government has yet to finally decide where the CSG21 will be sent. The Secretary of State, Ben Wallace has been presented with a series of options for consideration and the RN hopes the decision will be made by the Autumn so preparations can be made accordingly. The deployment will probably last around 5-6 months, although the exact length of time will be decided by various factors including USMC availability and balancing with the programme of HMS Prince of Wales.
Ministers have also insisted the RN it must be able to maintain its other key standing commitments – protection of the nuclear deterrent, the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) and operations the Gulf – while the CSG is deployed. To ensure readiness, a carefully balanced schedule of maintenance, training and preparations is in play across the fleet throughout 2020, despite COVID-19 restrictions. The timing is important, with Integrated Defence Review running next year, deploying the Carrier Strike Group operationally will be a valuable demonstration of its potential to the public, politicians and decision-makers.