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British, American, and Japanese flattops at play

As part of Exercise Noble Union/Large Scale Global Exercise (LSGE), units of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, U.S. Navy’s America Expeditionary Strike Group (with the 31st MEU aboard), and the Royal Navy’s CSG21 task group have been operating together this week.

Notably, this put the 65,000-ton British carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), the 45,000-ton Lightning carrier/gator USS America (LHA-6), and the 19,000-ton Hyūga-class “helicopter destroyer” JS Ise (DDH-182) side-by-side.

Both HMSQE and America have F-35s on deck, while Ise is sticking with rotary-wing assets, although it is theorized that she and her sister Hyuga could someday operate the little 5th Gen fighter. (Royal Navy photo)

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aron Montano, 210824-N-BG089-0596)

Of interest, RN FAA Merlin helicopters of 820 Naval Air Squadron cross-decked from HMSQE to America during the exercise, as did Marine F-35s of VMFA-211, a historic moment for each type and class.

RN Flattops Echo History in the Med

Moving on to the second leg of the Royal Navy’s 28-week CSG21 deployment (which has already seen combat sorties), HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), along with her task force, on 6 July passed into the Suez Canal from the Med and into the Red Sea and firmly inside the Middle East on her way, eventually, to the Pacific.

“Flanked by the spectacular scenery of Egypt’s desert landscape, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her escorts and auxiliaries have passed through the Suez Canal, marking a new chapter in the operational deployment of the UK Carrier Strike Group,” photo/caption by RN. Note the American Aegis destroyer (The Sullivans) behind her.

With an airwing made up of RAF, RN, and USMC aviators flying a mix of 40 AEW, strike fighter (F-35B), and ASW/ASuW helicopters (Wildcats), the 65,000-ton carrier is escorted by the RN Type 23 ASW frigates HMS Richmond (F239) and HMS Kent (F78); Type 45 air defense destroyers HMS Defender (D36) and HMS Diamond (D34); Royal Fleet Auxiliaries RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring; the Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805); and the (largely unseen) attack boat HMS Artful (S121).

As the task force has a company of 42 Royal Marine Commando spread out in dets across the various ships, you can bet eyeballs are peeled and magazines are loaded, if needed.

Royal Marines of 42 Commando have been on intensive training missions as part of their role on the Carrier Strike Group deployment (Photo/caption, RN)

Enter player #2 

On the same day as HMSQNLZ ran the Suez, 6 July, her sistership, HMS Prince of Wales (R09) entered Gibraltar with a rotary-wing group of Apache attack helicopters of the British Army’s 656 Squadron and Wildcats of 825 Naval Air Squadron (as the ship is still in shakedown and the Brits don’t have any “spare” F-35s currently)

HMS Prince of Wales, Gibraltar July 6, 2021

Still, this makes it the first time two British large-deck carriers (not Invincible-class through-deck destroyers/Harrier carriers) were in the Med in the same year– much less the same time– was circa 1970, when both of the operational 40,000-ton Audacious-class flattops of the Royal Navy– HMS Eagle (R05) and HMS Ark Royal (R09)— passed through the sea with active air wings. Alternatively, Ark Royal and the smaller 23,000-ton HMS Hermes (R12) were both in Gibraltar at the same time in 1970 immediately before Hermes was downgraded to a helicopter-only “Commando Carrier” (that would later carry Harriers in the Falklands) and still had an airwing that included a squadron each of Blackburn Buccaneer S.2s (801 NAS) and De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2s (893 NAS).

But the history of last week’s evolution by the Royal Navy goes further.

“Hello, Gibraltar!” noted Prince of Wales‘ social media feed on the occasion of sighting The Rock. “It’s been a fair few years since the name @HMSPWLS has graced your shores. We are looking forward to it.”

Indeed, the last HMS Prince of Wales, the famed King George V-class battleship that, although not fully complete, engaged in the epic Hunt for the Bismarck in May 1941, called at Gibraltar during WWII twice that same year, in September, as bookends of a series of convoys to Malta.

That makes it an almost 80-year gap, shy of just a couple months. 

King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales (53) in Gibraltar, 1941.

The battleship, just over two months later, was famously lost to strikes from ground-based Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya as part of Force Z when she was sunk on 10 December 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Echos of USS Robin

In November 1942, with the U.S. Navy down to just two fleet carriers in the Pacific– Saratoga and Enterprise— the Royal Navy helped out its ally with the loan of the Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38).

Using the code name USS Robin, Victorious picked up American equipment and a very Yankee camo scheme in Norfolk in January 1943 and, with 36 Martlet IVs (British F4F-4B Wildcats) of 822, 896 and 898 NAS, and 12 Avenger TBF-1s of 832 NAS, she arrived at Pearl Harbor in March 1943 where she was fitted with heavier arrester wires for the big TBFs as well as more AAA guns.

By May, she formed Carrier Division 1 along with Saratoga and the next month, chopping her Avengers and 832 NAS over to Sara, welcomed aboard two dozen F4F-4 Wildcats from the Tomcatters of Fighter Squadron 3 (VF-3) to provide air cover for U.S. landings in the Solomon Islands while Sara concentrated her efforts on strike.

HMS Victorious in 1943 as USS Robin. She has Wildcats of VF-3 from USS Saratoga on deck and an Atlanta-class lighter cruiser, either USS San Diego (CL-53) or San Juan (CL-54), on the outside of the tanker USS Cimmaron. Photo via Armoured Carriers. 

Victorious spent the next three months in the West Pac, operational with her joint Commonwealth-U.S. airwing, steamed some 23,000 miles and conducted 2,101 deck landings, many of which were done in combat. While VF-3 left the British carrier after that summer, and “Robin” returned to the Atlantic and Admiralty use by September 1943, it was an interesting page in carrier warfare that hasn’t been repeated…

…until this week.

F-35B fighter jets have flown their first operational sorties from the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), striking targets in Syria with aircraft provided by the joint RN FAA/RAF-manned 617 “Dambusters” Squadron and the “Wake Island Avengers” of the USMC’s VMFA-211.

Three F-35B Lightning, one of RAF 617 and two of VMFA-211, on the deck of HMSQE in the Med off Syria, June 2021 (MoD photo)

“The Lightning Force is once again in action against Daesh, this time flying from an aircraft carrier at sea, which marks the Royal Navy’s return to maritime strike operations for the first time since the Libya campaign a decade ago,” Captain James Blackmore, Commander of the Carrier Air Wing, noted.

“This is also notable as the first combat mission flown by US aircraft from a foreign carrier since HMS Victorious in the South Pacific in 1943. The level of integration between Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and US Marine Corps is truly seamless, and testament to how close we’ve become since we first embarked together last October.”

 

A Look at the Biggest Royal Navy Deployment in at least 10 Years

The Queen Elizabeth carrier task force is set to leave on its first operational deployment on Sunday, May 2nd.

HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) has spent the past 40 months in a series of workups, trials, and visits to the yard to correct issues and is ready to head out on an Indo-Pacific cruise on what has been termed “the UK’s largest deployment of sea and air power for a generation.”

Besides the 65,000-ton carrier, the task force will be protected by six escorts to include a Dutch frigate and the Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) as well as an Astute-class SSN and two auxiliaries. Although she could theoretically carry as many as 40 aircraft, Queen Elizabeth will be carrying 18 F-35Bs (10 of which are from the USMC’s VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers” with the balance from the joint RN FAA/RAF-manned 617 Squadron), and, counting those of her escorts, 14 helicopters. Of note, this is the largest F-35 deployment for the type as a whole so far.

Marine Wake Island Avenger F-35B BuNo 169610 of the British Carrier Strike Group, with HMS Queen Elizabeth markings

The Joint British force stacks up nicely compared to a traditional American CSG, although with much fewer aircraft and more escorts.

However, it is impressive for the RN in the respect that the country retired their last flattop, the Harrier carrier HMS Illustrious (R06), in early 2014 and the final British GR9/A Harriers themselves were withdrawn in 2010 with the disbanding of the Naval Strike Wing. Even so, the Invincible-class “carriers” were actually designed in the 1970s as something of a through-deck destroyer with limited aviation capacity and rarely deployed with more than eight Harriers (with a few notable exceptions such as the Falklands.)

With that, Queen Elizabeth is really replacing the capability lost to the Admiralty when the 53,000-ton Audacious-class carrier HMS Ark Royal (R09) flew off the last of her 892 NAS McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1s in November 1978. For those wondering, Ark’s “warload” was two squadrons of Phantoms and one of Buccaneers at the time, which would put her with 36~ combat aircraft. 

Physical size comparison between HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), of today, and the old HMS Ark Royal R09, on the right

It Only Took the Royal Navy 37 Years to Come Full Circle

Once upon a time: HMS Ark Royal (R09) loaded with F-4 Phantoms and Buccaneers. 

The country that in 1918 designed the first ocean-going aircraft carrier retired their last “big deck” flattop, the 53,000-ton HMS Ark Royal (R09) in 1979, taking the ability to support (F-4) Phantom FG.1s and Buccaneer S.2 bombers with her.

27 November 1978: 892 NAS Phantom XT870/012- last fixed-wing catapult launch from HMS Ark Royal took place at 15.11 that day, flown by an RAF crew of Flt Lt Murdo MacLeod and Deputy Air Engineer (RIO) Lt D McCallum in the back seat (pictured).

The replacement for Ark Royal was to be the 22,000-ton “through deck destroyer” HMS Invincible, capable of fielding a small force of about a dozen helicopters or so and V/STOL Sea Harriers. A mid-sized (28,000-ton) 1950s-era Centaur-class carrier, HMS Hermes (R12), was to be kept around for a minute for use as a “commando carrier,” akin to an LPH in the U.S. Navy.

Then came the Falklands War, and with Ark Royal long gone and Invincible only able to carry a handful of aircraft, the aging Hermes was stacked with an impressive 26 Harriers (to include 10 RAF GR.3 ground-based variants) and 10 Sea Kings. Retired in 1983, she was sold to India two years later– a country that loved Hermes intently as INS Viraat until she was sent to the breakers this very month.

Since 1984, the UK had to make do with the postage-stamp-sized “Harrier Carriers” of the expanded Invincible-class, which were maxed out at 8 Sea Harriers and 12 helicopters although they typically carried far less. By 2014, even those vessels were gone.

However, last week the new supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth put to sea with the largest single air wing any British ship has carried since Hermes was put to pasture in 1983: 14 F-35B Lightning (reportedly “the largest air group of fifth-generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world”) and eight Merlin HM2 (“Grey Merlin”) ASW helicopters– two of which are “baggers” carrying experimental Crowsnest AEW radar sets.

The F-35s come from the RAF’s 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) and the US Marines Corps VMFA-211 (The Wake Island Avengers), while the Merlins come from 824 NAS of the Fleet Air Arm– truly a joint wing with Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and USMC elements.

Of note, a QE-class carrier has deck and hangar space for as many as 45 F-35s. So one day they may reach 1979 levels of seapower again…

Continuity in ships’ tradition, across both sides of the Atlantic

This week saw the christening of the new Ford-class carrier, USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) sponsored by no less a person than Caroline B. Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, and the late President’s only living child.

As you may well remember, a smaller Ms. Caroline also sponsored the new Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier, USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) in May 1967, some 52 years ago.

While CVN-79 is expected to be completed in 2022, CV-67 has been on red lead row since 2007 and is nominally set to be preserved as a museum ship.

Meanwhile, in Portsmouth, HMS Prince of Wales (R09) was commissioned this week as the Royal Navy’s second 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, the largest class of warships ever to carry the White Ensign.

Aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth this week

The last HMS Prince of Wales (53), a King George V-class battleship, was famously lost 77 years ago this week on 10 December 1941 by Japanese air attack off Kuantan, in the South China Sea

The stricken battleship’s original bell, salvaged in 2002, is on permanent display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s gallery.

The relic will be scanned and cast by Cammell Laird to provide a new bell for the aircraft carrier that bears her name.

That’s a lot of British flattop

HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), the first semi-active big deck aircraft carrier to sail under the White Ensign since the F-4 toting HMS Ark Royal (R09) was retired in 1979, has returned home to Portsmouth after more than a month at sea working up with British-flown F-35s.

Upon coming home, she was met by her brand spanking new sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales (R09– the same pennant as Ark Royal’s!) for the first time.

Boom, 130,000 tons of Royal Navy carriers. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) is expected to deploy in 2021ish while HMS Prince of Wales (R09) is to follow in 2023

The last time more than 130,000 tons of British carriers were in one place at one time was Bruce Fraser’s 1944-45 Pacific Fleet. His force included six Implacable/Illustrious-class fleet carriers, four Colossus-class light carriers, two maintenance carriers, and nine escort carriers, for a total of 320,000-tons of flattop real estate parking for 750 embarked aircraft.

The British fleet carriers HMS Indomitable (R92), HMS Indefatigable (R10), HMS Unicorn (I72), HMS Illustrious (R87), HMS Victorious (R38) and HMS Formidable (R67) at anchor, with other shipping, 1945. IWM MH 5309

The Commanding Officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Captain Steve Moorhouse said:

“Homecomings are always a special occasion, but to be returning to Portsmouth with HMS Prince of Wales welcoming us home makes this a particularly special occasion.

“This has been an extremely successful deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth. Embarking UK F-35 Lightning jets for the first time and integrating them within the carrier strike group is a significant milestone and we are well set for an equally demanding 2020 and our first operational deployment in 2021.”

Recently, it was detailed that the HMSQE-class has deck parking for 45 F-35s, which is a serious (and seriously unlikely without USMC cross-decking) airwing.

Photo via Chris Canvas

Also of note, the Indian government is talking of moving ahead with a plan (and formal offer from BAE) to acquire a CATOBAR version of the class for their own use as well, in response to China moving towards a four-carrier fleet.

Which makes the planned first deployment of HMSQE in 2021 to the Indian Ocean a no-brainer.

Maybe there will be another British (Commonwealth) Pacific Fleet in the future?

With time to spare, kinda

The last Royal Navy carrier launch by a fixed-wing British-owned military aircraft was 24 November 2010 when four GR9 Harriers took off from the Invincible-class light carrier HMS Ark Royal, then operating in the North Sea, to land at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland.

It was expected to a decade from then to the time that British-flown F-35B Lightnings would fly from the then-unbuilt HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08).

That timeline actually just took eight years and 11 months as combined Royal Navy/RAF aircrews landed British-flagged F35s on HMSQE last week in preparation for continued flight ops during Westlant ’19 trials 

Images were taken by LPHOT Kyle Heller, RN:

On Tuesday, elements of the RAF’s 617 “Dambusters” Squadron, based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, jumped from the new British carrier.

They do look funny accelerating to the ski jump rather than being launched via catapult. Note the nozzle orientation. 

“The UK will declare Initial Operating Capability for HMSQE’s Carrier Strike by the end of 2020. The first operational deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth, 617 Squadron, and a squadron of US Marine Corps Lightning jets is due to take place in 2021.”

Just add Cylon Basestar

For the first time in eight years, fighter jets flew from the decks of a British aircraft carrier this week, and here are some great images of F-35Bs conducting night flying trials off the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth look like storyboard shots for a space opera fight scene. Vipers on the Galactica et. al.

From the Royal Air Force:

The trials included state-of-the-art night-vision technology, with the pilots and aircraft handlers successfully guiding the supersonic fighter jets onto the flight deck. HMS Queen Elizabeth has been kitted out with specially-designed LED lighting on her flight deck to aid night time landings.

Photos: MoD Crown Copyright

Of course, Queen Elizabeth is not expected to be operational until 2021, and then only with a wing composed primarily of USMC F-35Cs

 

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