Tag Archives: VMFA-211

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flattop, the Harrier carrier HMS Illustrious (R06), in early 2014 and the final British GR9/A Harriers themselves were withdrawn in 2010 with the disbanding of the Naval Strike Wing.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…

Ersatz carrier, you are here

A joint US Navy/Marine Corps “Proof of Concept” demonstration held off the coast of Southern California Nov. 18-20 put the largest force of F-35B Lightning II stealth STOVL strike fighters ever assembled at sea together by placing a full dozen planes from the “Wake Island Avengers” of VMFA-211,  fleshed out by VX-23 and VMX-1 from Patuxent; along with a few MV-22B, AH-1Z and UH-1Ys aboard the USS America (LHA-6).

The F-35B Lightning II third developmental test phase (DT-III) evaluated the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment.

161115-N-N0101-012 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 14, 2016) Ordnance is prepared for an F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft on the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). This event marked the first live ordnance uploaded to the F-35B at sea.During the third and final F-35B developmental test phase (DT-III), the aircraft is undergoing envelope expansion via a series of launches and recoveries in various operating conditions such as high sea states and high winds. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

161115-N-N0101-012 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 14, 2016) Ordnance is prepared for an F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft on the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). This event marked the first live ordnance uploaded to the F-35B at sea.During the third and final F-35B developmental test phase (DT-III), the aircraft is undergoing envelope expansion via a series of launches and recoveries in various operating conditions such as high sea states and high winds. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

In preparation of DT-III load testing, America‘s Weapons Department assembled two types of smart bombs. The team assembled 72 laser-guided Guide Bomb Units (GBU) 12 and 40 satellite-guided GBU-32s for the first time in the ship’s short history.

America, the ultimate evolution of the 1970s Tarawa-class LHAs and 1980s LHD designs, looks a lot like an Essex-class fleet carrier from WWII. In fact, they are the same rough size (45,000-tons/844-feet for LHA vs. 36,380-tons/872-feet for CV) though the old school flattops were much faster, carried an immense array of topside armament, and could squeeze 100~ piston engine planes on their deck.

However, a dozen or so F-35Bs with 5th Generation carrier-strike capabilities, when the bugs are worked out, should prove much more capable than a few squadrons of Corsairs or Hellcats.

Also, there is always the prospect of adding a second squadron aboard, giving an LHA a full 24 aircraft, which isn’t too far-fetched, after all, it should be remembered that 20 AV-8Bs of VMA-331 operated from USS Nassau (LHA-4) in support of Operation Desert Storm, flying 240 combat sorties and dropping 900 bombs. Sure, the F-35 is heavier than the Harrier, but LHA-6 is optimized for aviation operations, whereas Nassau was not.

Such an ersatz carrier group, augmented by a few DDG/CG assets to screen it, could fill several expeditionary contingencies short of all-out war. For instance, recent limited air operations off Libya, non-combatant evacuation operations offshore of a country with a deteriorating security situation, keeping sea lanes open against an asymmetric threat, or enforcing a naval quarantine.

Besides the meaning for U.S. carrier forces, being able to add some LHAs as mini-flattops in a pinch, this month’s trials with a dozen F-35s at sea shows the Brits what they have to look forward to. Though the beautiful 70,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth is to commission next year, the RN Fleet Air Arm has no real fixed wing assets to put aboard her at this time.

Queen Elizabeth is capable of carrying up to 36 F-35s in her hangars, and while the current plan is for the carriers to deploy with an air wing of just 12 jets, this may take a while to pull off. The Brits, who intend to ultimately have as many as 138 joint RAF/RN F-35s, will only have their first operational squadron in late 2018 and just 24 operational frames in inventory in 2023. Indeed, USMC F-35Bs are expected to deploy on QE until the UK gets theirs fully fleshed out.

And the gentlemen from the UK were on-hand on America this week.

“As we all know, we can’t choose the battle and the location of the battle, so sometimes we have to go into rough seas with heavy swells, heave, roll, pitch, and crosswinds,” said Royal air force (RAF) Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, an F-35 test pilot embedded at the Pax River ITF. “The last couple of days we went and purposely found those nasty conditions and put the jets through those places, and the jet handled fantastically well. So now the external weapons testing should be able to give the fleet a clearance to carry weapons with the rough seas and rough conditions. We know the jet can handle it. A fleet clearance will come — then they can go forth and conduct battle in whatever environment.”

In the meantime, in 2017, an up-gunned Expeditionary Strike Group consisting of a three-DDG strong surface action group and a more traditional three-ship Amphibious Ready Group centered around USS Wasp (LHD-1) with an LPD and LSD in tow, will deploy with a squadron of Marine F-35Bs. 

Welcome to the new Navy.

PACIFIC OCEAN -- An F-35B Lightning II takes off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration, November 19, 2016. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)

PACIFIC OCEAN — An F-35B Lightning II takes off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration, November 19, 2016. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)

161120-N-VT045-0001 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 19, 2016) Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration.  The F-35B will eventually replace three  Marine Corps aircraft; the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler. (U.S. Navy photo by Andy Wolfe/Released)

161120-N-VT045-0001 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 19, 2016) Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. The F-35B will eventually replace three Marine Corps aircraft; the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler. (U.S. Navy photo by Andy Wolfe/Released)