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Flightline Friday: HMS Queen Elizabeth to put to sea with US Marine squadrons? September 18, 2015

Posted by Tantumblogo in awesomeness, Basics, Flightline Friday, fun, General Catholic, non squitur, silliness, technology.

Well this is a pretty interesting revelation.  The Royal Navy has really put all its eggs in one – err….two – baskets, two new relatively full-size carriers that have been under planning and construction since the “Strategic Defense Review” of the Tony Blair government back in 1998.  The first carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is nearing completion.  She is supposed to begin sea trials in 2016 and is planned to enter service in 2018.  The air wing will include 2 or 3 squadrons of F-35B short-takeoff vertical landing variants (STOVL).  However, the Brits won’t stand up their first F-35 squadrons until 2020 and 2021.  So they will have a 2-3 year gap when they will have a combat aircraft carrier with no fixed-wing combat aircraft.  What to do?

Send in the Marines:

……..the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is in the final stages of construction and will begin sea trials next summer, with initial flight training in 2017-2018.  But with the RN’s first F-35 squadrons not scheduled to achieve their initial operating capability until 2020 (at the earliest), the Brits are looking for aircraft that can embark earlier and provide a combat punch before their own Lightning IIs are ready for action.

The solution is a lesson in creativity and coalition warfare.  According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the RN has reached agreement with the U.S. Marine Corps to deploy F-35 squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth until British units achieve their IOC in the jet:

The U.S. Marine Corps will deploy its Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II strike fighters on combat sorties from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, a senior U.K. Royal Navy officer has confirmed.

Rear Adm. Keith Blount, who is responsible for delivering the two 65,000 ton ships, said that using Marine aircraft and pilots to bolster the U.K.’s nascent carrier strike capability would be a natural extension of coalition doctrine.

“We are forever operating with allies and within coalitions. It’s the way wars are fought”, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers) and Rear Adm. Fleet Air Arm told an audience at the DSEI defence exhibition in London on Wednesday.

“In order to get the best out of [the U.K. carrier program] we have to be able to situate it in a coalition context. That could mean that we operate with an American ship as one of the protecting escorts”, Blount said.

“But … given the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps are buying and will operate the same type of aircraft as we are buying and operating, it would make no sense whatsoever if we were to close down the opportunity and potential of the U.S. Marine Corps working from this flight deck.

“So yes, I expect the U.S. Marine Corps to operate and work from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. We are going to get the most bang for the buck we can for the U.K. taxpayer, and that’s one of the ways in which we’ll achieve it.”

A Marine Corps fighter attack squadron (VMFA-121) became the first unit to achieve an initial operating capability with the F-35B in late July; the squadron–based at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, currently has 10 Lightning IIs available for worldwide deployment, and might be an early candidate for  a visit to the RN’s new carrier. Two other Yuma-based squadrons are scheduled to convert to the F-35 by 2018. [I had originally misidentified VMFA-121 as the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the F-35B.  This is actually VMFAT-501 stationed at MCAS Beaufort, SC. VFMA-121 is the first operational, deployable F-35B squadron. The first operational Air Force F-35A squadron is in the 388 TFW at Hill AFB, UT]

While British pilots and ground crews are currently training on the Lightning II in the U.S., the first UK-based squadrons won’t begin forming until 2018.  Without the Marine presence, the Queen Elizabeth would be little more than an over-sized helicopter carrier for a couple of years, until the RN’s first F-35 squadrons become fully operational.

The interim combination could also provide a little more punch in places like the Persian Gulf and the Baltics, where the down-sized U.S. Navy is already stretched thin.  As we’ve noted previously, the American fleet suffered a “carrier gap” in the western Pacific this summer, and for the first time in recent memory, there will not be a U.S. carrier operating this fall in the Persian Gulf. [Because 10 carriers is not enough. I know some people may find that crazy, but with naval assets, you have to divide total number in service by 3 to get the number always available for actual military duty.  That’s because for every carrier forward deployed in some hot spot, you will have one in refit and one coming/going from a deployment.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, and certainly navies can surge to forward deploy most critical assets at the same time, but not on a constant basis.  If you have 10 carriers total, it means only 3-4 will be forward deployed most of the time.  That’s why the Navy maintained an 18, then a 15, then a 12 carrier standard.  12 is really the minimum for what have heretofore been normal national needs] While the Queen Elizabeth is about two-thirds the size of a Nimitz-class carrier (and can embark no more than three dozen F-35s), it could be a useful gap-filler, or extend the coalition presence into areas where U.S. carrier groups aren’t patrolling.

At one point, the British government contemplated scrapping the ski ramp/VSTOL aircraft combination for the Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship, thePrince of Wales (still under construction).  Switching to a catapult/arresting gear system for launch and recovery would have allowed the UK to buy a more capable version of the F-35.  But adding the catapults, arresting gear and related hardware would have stretched construction times and increased costs.  With the Marine Corps already at IOC with the F-35B–and capable of operating from a ski-ramp carrier–the notion of embarking USMC squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth makes a great deal of sense.

In order to pay for the carriers in a period of extremely austere defense budgets, the Royal Navy has had to accept extremely deep force structure cuts in almost every other area.  Today, the Royal Navy has only 6 area air defense destroyers and 13 frigates in service.  They have a single helicopter carrier for amphibious assault and two dock landing ships.  There are only 6 SSNs and 4 SSBNs.  The Royal Navy generally has less than 1/3 to 1/2 the major combatant force structure it had 20  years ago.  Of course, they’re hardly alone in that, the USN is in much the same……….boat.  Get it?!

Much of that force structure was dumped, at government behest, with the promise: let us cut another half dozen frigates and you can keep your carrier.  That happened several times.  The very nice Sea Harrier FA.2 were retired way early as part of this process.  BUT……having a “full size” carrier is probably worth the rest for the capabilities they provide.




Fitting out at Rosyth

The Queen Elizabeth’s will be the largest warships ever to enter Royal Navy service.  The RN is finally getting back to where it should have gotten with CVA-01 back in the 60s.



1. richardmalcolm1564 - September 18, 2015

All of this is a testament to the deeply problematic procurement decisions that the RN has made throughout this process over the past two decades – which is only partly attributable to the penny-pinching of a series of governments always keen to slash guns for butter when ever the need (or want) arises.

So the RN traded off a big chunk of its surface fleet for a pair of the biggest and fanciest helicopter carriers you ever saw, with, as it turns out, nothing but helicopters to operate off them, since they retired all their VSTOL naval fighters, too, and put all their eggs in the F-35 basket. I guess this helps make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but it has to be a humiliating one for more than a few RN officers.

How far the mighty have fallen.

2. Brian E. Breslin - September 19, 2015

Speaking of carrier forward deployment, Tantum, in one command I had to wait for my relief an extra 4 months in place because he was on the Ike and they were held much longer than originally scheduled on a Med. That is the kind of thing most Americans do not know about their military members and families- the long deployments and the family uncertainties. For me it was no big problem since I was Stateside and comfortable- just couldn’t get going with things for a while.

Tantumblogo - September 22, 2015

Oh sure. The normal carrier deployment used to be six months, but during the various wars since 2001 there have been carriers forward deployed for over a year, of memory serves. I think there was a record of more than 15 months? Shades of WWII.

3. Obsever - September 20, 2015

In these confusing times we can be forgiven for thinking the primary function of a navy is to protect a nation from invasion not to actively facilitate it. I guess ‘we’ need to get with the new paradigm!

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