On the morning of Sunday 20th 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 against Colonel Gadaffi in Libya during 2011.
Aircraft from the carrier will mount the ‘lion’s share’ of missions as part of Operation SHADER, providing relief for the RAF Typhoon force based in Cyprus that has been involved in this long-running campaign since December 2015. By 2017 the RAF had mounted a thousand airstrikes over Iraq and Syria, delivering 4,300 weapons launched from Tornado, Typhoon and Reaper aircraft. F-35Bs were deployed briefly to Cyprus in June 2019 and took part in a few operational sorties.
Extreme caution is practised to avoid civilian casualties and aircraft frequently return having not released weapons. The RAF rather optimistically claims that there has been just one confirmed civilian fatality as a result of UK airstrikes. Operation ELLAMY the action in Libya can be seen as a military success but a strategic blunder. Although drawn-out and financially costly, SHADER has largely achieved its aims with the almost complete defeat of Desesh and the recovery of the territory it took. The ongoing missions are now a mopping-up operation and the prevention of insurgent actions.
Russian aircraft and warships are taking a keen interest in the CSG, the level of surveillance is beyond even what was expected. When the aircraft took off on the first combat mission from the ship, a further two jets had to be scrambled at short notice to ward off Russian aircraft overhead. During the first three days when the ship was operating off Cyprus, Russian aircraft were encountered every day, including Sukhois and Migs coming within visual range of aircraft flying from the ship. So far, interactions have been described as “professional”. A Grigorovich-class frigate and Russian submarines are also known to be actively tracking the movements of the group.
The US Navy’s over-worked aircraft carriers are now focused on providing support for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the presence of HMS Queen Elizabeth is a good example of how the UK is now better equipped to share the burden with coalition partners. UK and USMC jets are now on call to fly from the ship around the clock to support live military operations on the ground as required. As a relatively low-risk and short-term task, this provides an opportunity for the CSG and its air group to prove its abilities, build confidence and gain experience that will provide a good foundation for when it will undoubtedly face more demanding tests in the future. It is unclear exactly how long the carrier will sustain its involvement in SHADER, but the carrier strike group will pass through the Suez Canal and head into the Indo-Pacific in the coming weeks.