HMS Queen Elizabeth sails from Portsmouth today for the Westlant19 deployment, taking another step towards achieving full operational capability. Here we look in some detail at the plans for her trip to the US and her future programme.
Last week we went on board QE for a briefing with senior officers. Later Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the new Minister for Defence Procurement, made a statement on how the QEC carriers contribute to UK defence and the economy as a whole.
QE will be joined on the deployment by the destroyer HMS Dragon, the frigate HMS Northumberland and will be supported by tanker RFA Tideforce. 7 UK F-35B jets flown by RN and RAF pilots will fly on to the ship when she is on the eastern seaboard of the US. The jets and personnel will be drawn from the UK squadrons; the operational squadron (617 Sqn), the operational conversion unit (207 Sqn) and the test and evaluation squadron (17 Sqn based in California).
The UK-owned aircraft based at RAF Marham will not embark while the ship is in UK waters, instead, they will cross the Atlantic (using Air-Air Refuelling) for temporary basing on a US east coast airfield before joining QE, probably in the second week of October. The reason is that the landings will be these pilots’ first deck landings and ideal weather conditions are needed, with a diversionary airfield close by. Additionally, the jets only need to be embarked for the 5-week flight trials period, rather than the whole deployment. The British jets will be supplemented by up to 4 additional USMC F-35B aircraft. 9 rotary-wing aircraft, Merlin Mk2, Mk4, and Wildcat will be embarked on the carrier or her escorts. All UK military helicopters, except the ageing Puma, have now been certified for QEC carrier operations.
During this deployment, the QE group expects to work with a range of US assets, including ships and an SSN with USN, USMC and USAF aircraft helping train the ship’s fighter and aircraft controllers. As well as qualifying RN and RAF pilots for carrier operations, they will then begin developing new tactics and conduct sorties with bomb and missile loads. 617 Squadron will also start working up combat air patrol procedures (CAP), coordinating with fighter controllers onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Dragon. This is a particularly important moment as the RN has been dangerously bereft of its own fleet air-defence capability since its last fighter, the Sea Harrier FA2 was axed prematurely in 2006.
In addition to the core ship’s company of almost 800, there will also be another 650 personnel embarked, including the UKCSG staff, the aviation wing and Royal Marines of Lima Company, 42 Commando. The ship will also be conducting various follow-on trials, including warm weather trials off Florida.
Flying the flag in Canada and the US
In addition to working visits to Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Station Mayport, the deployment will include a formal visit to the Canadian port of Halifax. Utley described how the Royal Canadian Navy is a key partner and how their recent decision to adopt the Type 26 frigate design for their Surface Combatant Programme would bring the two navies closer together. HMS Northumberland will participate in Canadian-led NATO ASW exercise Cutlass Fury 2019 before joining the UKCSG. In November QE will visit Annapolis, not far from the US Capital to host another meeting of the Atlantic Future Forum. Much like that held last year when the ship visited New York, the agenda will include discussions on trade and cybersecurity.
Going large – CSG21
Commodore Utley described Westlant19 as another element of the ‘Crawl-Walk-Run’ approach to re-establishing full carrier strike capability, expanding on the work done during Westlant18. The landing of the first UK jets onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth would be another landmark in the programme. Next year QE will join another group exercise on the way towards declaring an IOC (Initial Operating Capability) in December 2020. The first operational deployment, in 2021 (CSG21), is anticipated to include the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific. CSG21 will be by far the largest and most powerful task group assembled by the RN for some time. QE will be escorted by 2 Type 45 destroyers, 2 Type 23 frigates, an SSN, a Tide-class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria. F-35Bs of 617 Squadron and a USMC squadron will be embarked. Full Operating Capability (FOC) with all-UK jets is planned for 2023.
The scale of the 2021 deployment raises inevitable questions about the number of escorts available and how this carrier strike force capability could be deployed whilst still maintaining the UK’s other commitments around the world. Commodore Utley claimed “we have enough to deliver what we need” and described how this would be driven by UK Government priorities. Steve Moorhouse compared the Navy’s move from individual ship deployments towards carrier strike as analogous to the Army’s move from individual battalion operations back towards fighting as a division. Carrier strike provides the UK with a “conventional strategic deterrent” capability and “diplomacy on water”, and the Minister made the commitment that from 2023, one of the QEC carriers will always be maintained at a high state of operational readiness.
It was suggested that the crew rotation model currently being trialled by HMS Montrose in the Gulf and closer co-operation with allies would allow the RN to maintain its commitments, despite the extra pressured of generating a carrier task group.
Good to go
When questioned about the flood onboard in July, Utley and Moorhouse were keen to point out that floods happen in ships and in this incident, both systems and sailors worked correctly. A pump was started, a seal failed, the systems detected it immediately and the crew responded quickly and professionally – the cause was not a major design flaw. The ship was at the end of her time at FOST and due back in Portsmouth that week. Lagging had been replaced, damage made good and the ship was ‘good to go’. Lessons from QE had been incorporated into the design of HMS Prince of Wales wherever possible and the UK should be proud of how its industry has built the only carriers in the world that have been specifically designed to operate 5th Generation aircraft.
Asked about the departure of the last captain, Nick Cooke-Priest, Utley said that, in his opinion, this was “now a private matter between the Navy and the individual and had been dealt with”. Moorhouse confirmed that ship’s companies were used to captains coming and going and that the morale onboard is good.
Whilst onboard, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, used the opportunity to give a brief statement in which she also outlined how proud she was of British industry creating such an impressive ship, how this deployment with its visits to Halifax and Annapolis would support wider UK Government policies including export and trade, and how the Navy was benefitting from a huge regeneration programme. When asked about the timeline of the Type 31 programme she described how she had recently met the project team and hoped to have an announcement soon and that “£250 million per ship was still the programme cost”. When asked as to whether the Future Solid Support (FSS) ship would be built in the UK she said there was a UK bidder in the mix and that she “wanted to crack on” with the programme.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will be away for just over 3 months and is expected to return to home in early December. Before entering Portsmouth, it is possible QE may be photographed at sea with HMS Prince of Wales, provided she departs Rosyth as expected and initial sea trials progress well. We will provide regular imagery and reports here and on social media covering the progress of the Westlant19 deployment.