HMS Queen Elizabeth Sets Sail for the US for Next Phase of Operational Trials


While the winds of Brexit pick up speed, HMS Queen Elizabeth heads to the United States for the next phase of its preparations for its first operational engagements in the early 2020s.

According to a story published on the Ministry of Defence website on August 30, 2019, the event was highlighted.

For the first time, UK fighter jets will join this state-of-the-art ship in a significant milestone for the programme.

The deployment, known as ‘WESTLANT 19,’ will see the carrier conduct ‘Operational Testing’, with British F-35B Lightning jets embarking for the first time as she moves closer to her first operational deployment in 2021. The carrier will also spend time in Canada during her four-month travels.

Operational Testing is designed to put the jets, ship and supporting units through their paces. The tests allow the equipment and crew to operate under realistic warfighting scenarios to ready them for their first operational deployment.

From planning campaigns, briefing, preparing and arming the jets and pilots, to flying and sustaining them on their ‘mission,’ the trials ensure that the units can fight as one.

Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said:

“HMS Queen Elizabeth is symbolic of the UK’s global reach and power. As she enters this stage of the programme, she will demonstrate her immense engineering, capability and battle readiness.

“As she makes her second voyage across the Atlantic, HMS Queen Elizabeth will also strengthen our special relationship with the US and Canada. Our naval forces will visit Canada then spend the coming months working and training side by side with the US to ensure the UK’s carrier strike is ready for operations in 2021.

“The deployment represents the continued positive relationship between the UK and US. Units from the United States Navy, US Air Force and US Marine Corps will all take part in the ‘WESTLANT 19’ deployment, further demonstrating the close partnership between the two NATO allies.”

While at sea, HMS Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by other units of the Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (COMUKCSG) including a Type-45 destroyer, a Type-23 frigate and air assets from the Carrier Air Wing. This provides vital warfighting skills and training for each element to the Royal Navy’s potent carrier strike capabilities.

RFA Tideforce is providing tanker support to the Strike Group, which will be joined by ships and air assets from other nations throughout the deployment. Lima Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines based in Plymouth and a Role 2 Medical Team Afloat are also embarked on the carrier.

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer, Capt Steve Moorhouse said:

“To command any warship is a privilege but to be able to command HMS Queen Elizabeth during this pivotal phase of her capability development is a real honour. In addition to my core ship’s company, the fixed and rotary wing air assets, enhanced medical capability, Royal Marines and other force elements from across Defence will enhance HMS Queen Elizabeth and the UK’s Carrier Strike capability on this deployment.

“WESTLANT 19 is a hugely exciting deployment and as we increase the scale and complexity of our training and testing, so the potency of this extraordinary ship continues to grow.”

Commander of UKCSG, Cdre Mike Utley said:

“The success of last years’ deployment during which we embarked and operated the F-35B for the very first time put us ahead of the curve in terms of developmental testing between the jets and ship. We have a significant switch in focus this year, towards operationalising this national defence capability; turning this ship, the jets for which it has been built and all supporting units into a cohesive, agile, efficient force.

“Whether that’s warfighting at one end of the scale, peacekeeping at the other end or delivering humanitarian support across the globe. Our first operational deployment in 2021 is not far away and we will be ready for any eventuality.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth will also host the second Atlantic Future Forum during her time in the US, following on from the inaugural forum held last year in New York. The forum provides a platform for innovators, business leaders and tech entrepreneurs across government and industry to explore emerging cyber, artificial intelligence and space trends, technologies and threats.

The ‘WESTLANT 19’ Strike Group will return to the UK at the end of the year. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s sister ship HMS Prince of Wales is in her final stages of build at Rosyth Dockyard. She is expected to commence her sea trials in the coming weeks.

The featured photo: HMS Queen Elizabeth sets sail from Portsmouth today. Crown copyright.

As we hare argued, the coming of the carrier is an integral part of UK military transformation as well as a redshift of focus on the Northern and Southern Flanks of NATO.

This is about the return of geography in the direct defense of Europe as well as the reshaping of the force.

With the coming of Brexit, there is a natural withdrawal of military attention from what used to be called the Central Front during the Cold War days, and a renewed focus on the flanks. France and Germany have asserted that their defense collaboration will take care of Europe’s defense and providing the maneuver forces and space for the defense of Europe’s new front line in Poland and the Baltics, and the UK’s contribution will be reduced to reinforcing efforts, not leading them in this continental European sector.

The new carrier is a key piece of sovereign real estate around which flank defense will be generated. It is also a focal point for RAF and Royal Navy integration of the sort, which a transformed force will need to deliver to the nation.

During a visit to Portsmouth, England and to RAF Marham in early May 2018, senior Royal Navy and defense personnel involved in the standing up of the UK carrier strike capability highlighted how they saw the new capability fitting into the broader strategic picture.  The new UK carriers are coming at a time when there is a broader UK and allied defense transformation and a strategic shift from counter-insurgency to higher end operations.

The new UK carrier provides a mobile basing capability by being a flexible sea base, which can compliment UK land-based air assets, and provide a flexible asset that can play a role in the Northern Flank or the Mediterranean on a regular deployment basis and over time be used for deployments further away from Europe as well.

The commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, Commodore Andrew Betton and Colonel Phil Kelly, Royal Marines, COMUKCSG Strike Commander discussed the coming of the new UK aircraft carrier.

Commodore Betton and Col. Kelly both underscored the flexible nature of the HMS Queen Elizabeth.  The UK is building out a 21stcentury version of a carrier strike group, one which can leverage the F-35 as a multi-domain combat system and to do both kinetic and non-kinetic strike based on these aircraft, as well combine them with helicopter assault assets to do an F-35 enabled assault, or if desired, shift to a more traditional heavy helicopter assault strike.

As Commodore Betton put it: “Our new carrier offers a really flexible, integrative capability. The carrier can play host and is intended absolutely to play host to a carrier air wing. At the same time, it can provide something very different inn terms of littoral combat operations, primarily using helicopters.”

They emphasized that the Royal Navy was building new escort ships as well as new submarines and the approach to building a maritime strike group meant that working through the operational launch of the carrier was also about its ability to integrated with and to lead a 21stcentury maritime strike group.

And the new maritime strike group was being built to work with allies but just as importantly to operate in the sovereign interest of the United Kingdom. The F-35B onboard was a key enabler to the entire strike group functions.

Commodore Betton: “The airwing enables us to maneuver to deliver effects in the particular part of the battlespace which we are operating in.  You can have sea control without the airwing. Our air wing can enable us to be able to do that and have sufficient capability to influence the battlespace. You clearly do not simply want to be a self-sustaining force that doesn’t do anything to affect the battlespace decisively. The F-35 onboard will allow us to do that.”

Col. Kelly noted that with the threat to land air bases, it was important to have a sea base to operate from as well, either as an alternative or complement to land bases. “The carriers will be the most protected air base which we will have. And we can move that base globally to affect the area of interest important to us. For example, with regard to Northern Europe, we could range up and down the coastlines in the area and hold at risk adversary forces. I think we can send a powerful message to any adversary.”

Commodore Betton added that the other advantage of the sea base is its ability to be effective on arrival. “If you have to operate off of land, you have to have the local permission.  You have to move assets ashore.  You have to support assets ashore.  And you have to protect the land base.  The sea base has all of that built in.

“And there is nothing austere about our carriers in terms of operating aircraft.” We focused on how the carrier becomes integrated with broader strike picture, for the point is not simply that the carrier itself launches F-35s or helicopters, but how the command post can manage the aircraft they launch with the distributed strike assets in the strike group, which could include land-based air or land based forces as well.”

Col. Kelly emphasized that their position was similar to the evolution of the USMC where “every platform can be a sensor or a shooter” in the battlespace. The C2 onboard the carrier on in the air with the Crow’s nest or the F-35Bs can be part of a distributed CS system to ensure maximum effect from the strike and sensing capability of the task force and its related partners in the battlespace.

And innovations in the missile domain up to and including directed energy weapons have been anticipated in the support structure onboard the carrier. During a visit in 2015 to the Scottish shipyard when the initial Queen Elizabeth carrier was being built, I had a chance to look at the infrastructure onboard the ship to support weapons as well as was briefed on the significant power generation capabilities onboard the ship which clearly allow it to when appropriate technology is available to add directed energy weapons.

In addition, to the longer-range weapons already in train and the ones which will be developed in the decade ahead, the British carriers are being built to be able to handle rolling landing which allow the F-35s to come back onto the ship with weapons which have not been used during the mission.

The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales is the first of the two carriers to be fitted with this capability which will be further tested when it comes to the United States in a couple of years for its F-35 integration trials as well.

In short, the new carrier is being built with “growthability” in mind, in terms of what it can do organically, and what it can leverage and contribute to the maritime task force, and reach out into the battlespace to work effectively with other national or allied assets operating in the area of interest.

And the carrier is not simply a new asset for the RAF and the Royal Navy – it is coming into its operational life as the post-Brexit alliance structure is being shaped as well.