On the 29th April HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to conduct Operational Sea Training, this was followed by her first operational exercise. The ship returned to Portsmouth today and we spoke to senior officers about the experience and the future programme.
Apart from a brief logistic stop, the ship was at sea for 67 days, covering 12,000 nautical miles and conducted a total of 1,610 aircraft launch and recoveries. As a result of COVID-19, the programme was amended with her crew self-isolating and being tested before sailing. Despite some scepticism that it would be safe, the ship has remained COVID-free and the new protection measures have proved successful throughout the fleet.
The newly re-named Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) organisation embarked sea riders to ensure the ship is safe to operate and can effectively exercise damage control and fight fire and floods. The ship officially passed this ‘tier-1’ assessment on 17th June. The Carrier Strike Assurance Group (an arm of the FOST organisation) will carry out further certification during the next deployment, testing the carrier and her escorts ability to fight effectively together.
At the same time, four Lightning II Jets and all 8 pilots of 617 Squadron joined the ship at sea for further carrier qualifications after a training package in simulators at RAF Marham. 617 is building up strength and additional pilots will join shortly on completion of training with 207 Squadron. Half the pilots are now night-qualified on the carrier and the rest will qualify during the forthcoming GroupEx in the Autumn.
Commodore Steve Moorehouse, COMUCSG said the exercise, that ran over two and a half weeks in the North Sea, “achieved everything and more we wanted”. The exercise saw the CSG moving on from what has mostly been procedural work until now, to operational missions helping the commanders learn more about the complexity and challenges involved. Primarily focussing on testing the ship and jets flying on operational missions, this included combat air patrols (CAP) and strikes on simulated targets ashore. The CAP were put up against high-quality opposition in the form of Typhoon jets. A full programme also involved Air-Air refuelling F-35s from the ship by a Voyager tanker and the first interaction by the carrier with an RAF Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft. In total, 99 sorties and 130 vertical landings were flown by the fixed-wing aircraft over the exercise period.
Commander of the Air Group, Cdr James Blackmore noted that the F-35 had proved very reliable and no planned sorties were missed. No weapons or ordnance was carried by aircraft on this occasion, although the ship’s Highly Mechanised Weapons Handling System was tested in simulation mode. The forthcoming GroupEx will see live weapons embarked and the ‘kill-chain’ fully tested and analysed from end-to-end.
Three Anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s of 820 Squadron were also embarked at the start of the deployment and further work was done on underwater warfare aspects of carrier strike. HMS Kent spent 5 days in company with the carrier developing interoperability in anti-submarine warfare. Communications and water-space management with a Royal Navy submarine (probably HMS Talent) at distance from the carrier was rehearsed as well as the control of a simulated Tomahawk Land Attack (TLAM) missile launch. A Submarine Advisory Team (SAT) also joined the ship and was attached to the Commodore’s staff for the first time.
The core ship’s company of HMS Queen Elizabeth has now settled at 797 but for Crimson Ocean, embarked air group personnel and various specialists brought the total onboard up to around 1,100 people. In addition to aircrew, around 70 engineers and support staff from 617 Squadron were embarked. 617 is manned approximately 50/50 by RAF and RN personnel. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Captian, Angus Essenigh said that “we don’t carry passengers” and everyone who joins the ship is expected to participate in cleaning and maintaining the ship as if they are part of the ship’s company. The RAF contingent reportedly enjoyed life at sea, morale was high and the ship gave the air group a warm welcome. The deployment experienced very calm a-typical North Sea conditions for almost the entire time.
A first solid stores replenishment at sea (RAS) with RFA Fort Victoria had been planned but was cancelled due to a change in the programme. This important serial will instead, happen in the Autumn.
In the next article, we will look at the plan to ready the ship for its major operational deployment in May 2021. First up will be the Autumn GroupEx which will see a 400% increase in the size of the air wing over Crimson Ocean, participation by the US Marine Corps and a larger group of escort vessels.