This photo and video essay cover the activities of the Carrier Strike Group on the final part of the 2021 deployment that took them from the Gulf of Oman, through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and back to UK waters.
After operations in the Indian Ocean, the CSG headed to Oman, one of the UK’s closest partners in the Middle East. The port of Dqum has been expanded and is capable of providing support to RN vessels with dry docks capable of taking HMS Queen Elizabeth. A permanent Joint Logistics Support Base (UKJLSB) has been established at Duqm, operated by Oman Drydock Company and Babcock on a 37-year lease which would allow the RN to keep the carriers deployed in the Middle East or beyond for a longer period if needed. On the occasion of her first visit, such support for the carrier was not needed on a large scale and the main purpose was to highlight trade and military cooperation links with Oman.
While the flagship was alongside in Duqm the Defence Secretary hosted the Omani Deputy Prime Minister for Defence Affairs, His Highness Shihab bin Tariq. They also witnessed joint exercise Khanjar Oman at the Ras Madrakah training area involving UK and Omani troops, with ground forces supported by the Carrier Strike Group at sea and F-35 jets from the air.
After visiting Bangladesh, HMS kent operated in the Indian Ocean, working with the multi-national task group Combined Task Force 150 on counter-narcotics operations. She then visited Mombassa and the embarked Royal Marines of 42 Commando provided two days of boarding training with the Kenyan Special Boat Unit. There was a full run shore for the ship’s company that included organised safaris and personnel also volunteered to help with painting at two local children’s homes.
While operating in the Arabian Sea on 11th November, USMC aircraft of VMFA-211 cross-decked F-35Bs from HMS Queen Elizabeth to the amphibious assault ship USS Essex. Simultaneously, aircraft from the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-165 based on USS Essex landed on Queen Elizabeth demonstrating increased interoperability. The evolution underscored continued efforts by the USMC to shift away from static, built-up airfields towards Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO).
The lost jet
On 16th November HMS Queen Elizabeth passed through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. While conducting routine flying operations on the 17th November a UK F-35 jet crashed on takeoff. Leaked footage shows the pilot ejected at the end of the ski ramp as the aircraft lacked sufficient airspeed to get airborne. Fortunately, the pilot survived and landed back on the ship under parachute and did not get wet. He has subsequently flown ashore for precautionary medical checks. Various unofficial sources report that the cause was a protective foam engine blank that was sucked into the jet, causing the loss of power. One of the blanks became dislodged and was blown out of sight into the central void in front of the engine. During pre-flight checks, the assumption was made that both covers had been removed when in fact one was lodged in the aircraft out of view. This version of events is unverified and the outcome of the investigation should be awaited before making judgements.
It has subsequently emerged that unfortunately, the aircraft lost was one of the newest in the UK fleet – ZM152. She first flew in June 2019 and would have had significantly lower Block IV upgrade requirements than older airframes. In co-operation with NATO allies, the MoD SALMO is taking the lead in the efforts to recover the wreck of the aircraft believed to be in around 1,500m of water in the Levantine Sea, South of Cyprus. (See previous article). The accident did not have a major impact on the CSG programme which progressed as planned in the Mediterranean but the loss of a precious £100M jet will inevitably slightly overshadow the deployment which has been otherwise highly successful.
On 22nd November, NATO visitors were flown out to the flagship onboard three MV-22 Ospreys from Naval Air Station Sigonella to visit the ship off the coast of Italy where they observed flying operations and toured the ship.
While operating south-east of Sicily, aircraft of a third nation landed on HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time. Italian Navy and Italian Air Force jets conducted joint exercises with CSG. USMC and UK jets also landed on the Italian flagship ITS Cavour and the destroyer ITS Andrea Doria was integrated into the CSG for a few days.
On 20th November RFA Tidesurge took over from RFA Tidespring as the support tanker for the group
On 24th November the USMC jets flew off HMS Queen Elizabeth to Naval Station, Rota in Spain, their first stop on their return to their home base at MACS Yuma in Arizona. The deployment of US aircraft on the British carrier has been an outstanding success and likely to be repeated again in future. The carrier subsequently made her final port visit of the deployment in Rota to offload USMC personnel and equipment.
RFA Tidespring was the first of the UK CSG vessel to arrive home and was formally welcomed by the head of the RFA, Commodore David Eagles. During the deployment, she spent 136 days at sea, steamed 43,136 nautical miles, supplied 58 million litres of diesel fuel, 14 million litres of aviation fuel and 169,000 litres of fresh water.
The remaining CSG participants will return home to the UK later this week after seven months away and covering around 50,000 nautical miles. (Full homecoming and post-deployment report to follow).