The Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has returned home after several months deployed in the Western Atlantic from the Westlant 19 deployment, a major exercise designed to test her ability to work as both an aircraft carrier, and also as the lead for the wider ‘Carrier Strike Group’ (CSG) concept.
This has been a landmark deployment for the ship and is a major milestone on the path towards getting the UK to be truly back in the aircraft carrier game again. But why is it so important and what lessons can we draw from it?
The introduction to service of the Queen Elizabeth (QE) has taken several years and, arguably, some false dawns.
After leaving Rosyth where she was built in the summer of 2017, she undertook initial sea trials in the North Sea, helping confirm the ship could function as expected.
These trials involved some helicopter operations, but didn’t embark any F35 jets – leading to unfair criticism that these were ‘carriers without any planes’.
Following her commissioning into the Royal Navy in late 2017, she then deployed out to Gibraltar and the Atlantic to conduct a variety of intense trials to collect data about the ship and her operating limits.
The purpose of these trials was to work out the precise conditions the ship could safely operate aircraft and helicopters in, and begin to get used to embarking different types of aircraft.
For example the RAF Chinook heavy lift helicopter, or more recently the British Army’s Apache attack helicopter.
With these trials completed, the ship then sailed to the USA to carry out trials to see how the F35 jet would work when embarked.
These trials were intended to test the technical parameters of operating the jet, from making sure it could be serviced onboard, be prepared for a mission and take off safely, through to successfully landing again without the deck melting (a genuine issue!).
During this deployment, the QE embarked a pair of test jets that were specially fitted out with test equipment to measure every imaginable parameter to help provide critical data for scientists monitoring these tests.
The ship was also used as the backdrop for impressive defence diplomacy events in New York, before returning to the UK late last year.
In 2019, the ship has ‘worked up’ (in other words carried out sea training to prepare for operations) with the Royal Navy’s sea training team known as ‘FOST’ where the crew were put through their paces to prepare for deployment. This challenging training then led to a short period of maintenance, before, finally she sailed over the summer to the USA.
Unlike previous trips, this deployment, known as ‘Westlant 19’ was intended to help develop the wider task group tactics that would be required to help ensure the ships escorting the QE could work together and operate as one formed and trained force.
To that end, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and the Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland, supported by the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker RFA Tideforce sailed together as a coherent force out to the USA.
The main role of the Type 45 is to provide anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) capability, tracking inbound aircraft and, if necessary, shooting them down using the immensely capable Sea Viper missile. The ship carries 48 of these missiles in a vertical launch silo, in both longer and shorter ranged variants, a significant capability increase over the preceding Type 42 destroyers which could only carry 2 Sea Dart missiles at a time on their launcher.
The Type 45 is extremely well designed to carry out AAW, and ships of this class have often been used to escort US Navy aircraft carriers in the Gulf, and also the French Navy aircraft carrier ‘Charles De Gaulle’ as well. Their biggest weakness is arguably the fact that of the 12 planned, only six were built, but they remain a very capable and effective asset to provide air defence.
By contrast, the Type 23 is intended to provide protection from submarines, using a combination of sonars and the ships Merlin helicopter to hunt them down and destroy them with stingray torpedoes or depth charges.
Designed in the 1980s to face off against the Soviet submarine threat, with 16 built, of which 13 remain in Royal Navy service, the Type 23 has been continually updated since the first entered service 30 years ago, and remains one of the most cutting edge ASW platforms on the planet.
This advantage comes about due to a combination of clever design, making the vessel extremely quiet and difficult to hear, combined with the presence of a ‘towed array sonar’ (essentially a sonar deployed behind the ship with a very long range) and the ability to embark the very large Merlin helicopter, giving a long reach and lethal weapons.
The presence of both ships ensured that in the unlikely event of the CSG experiencing any operational challenges, they would be well placed to counter it.
Meanwhile, RFA Tideforce would ensure that the force was able to refuel and resupply, acting as a floating petrol station and providing essential supplies for the ships while at sea. This act, known as a ‘replenishment at sea’ or RAS is a very complicated manoeuvre to carry out safely, and the Royal Navy is one of only a few navies in the world able to carry it out.
By bringing these ships together as one force, the Royal Navy was able to test a key part of its future structure and operational focus, which is known as the Carrier Strike Group concept. In previous years the RN has rarely operated fixed carrier battle groups, unlike the US Navy, preferring instead to bring ships together as required for a specific mission.
With the Queen Elizabeth class though, the plan has changed considerably and the future Royal Navy will instead focus on being able to create and support two Carrier Strike Groups, with one at very high readiness and the other at slightly lower readiness. The aim of these ships is to provide the UK’s high readiness response capability, able to sail across the ocean and provide a very strong conventional deterrent.
Under current plans, each CSG will have two destroyers and two frigates, plus support ships and maybe a nuclear attack submarine too, to support it.
These ships will work up together and be held in roughly the same operational readiness cycle, so if a crisis happens, they are able to surge out as a formed unit at the same time.
This represents a very different way of operations to before, so it was essential that the RN tested this as quickly as possible on the pathway to getting the QE ready for operations.
One of the key purposes then of Westlant 19 was the testing of the CSG concept, bringing the ships, aircraft and people together in one spot to make sure it all worked effectively, and that the RN could safely operate the force in some very challenging conditions.
The Royal Navy also wanted to use Westlant 19 to test the ability of its embarked helicopters to meet the extremely challenging demands of operating at sea in a variety of roles. Embarking multiple Merlin helicopters, which externally look similar, but internally are very different, the QE was able to carry out extensive exercises to test the ships ability to conduct ASW operations and also amphibious assaults.
While the presence of frigates like HMS Northumberland will help provide the mainstay of the ASW screen for the ship, the ability to use the embarked Merlin force (in this case from 820 Squadron, the QEs dedicated squadron of Merlin ASW helicopters) is a key way of enhancing the ability of the ship to support bigger ASW operations.
Similarly, the QE also deployed with Royal Marines embarked as part of the concept to ensure there are always trained troops onboard able to conduct an amphibious raid if required to either carry out a specialist strike, or rescue downed pilots (so-called Joint Personnel Recovery).
To that end, the crews of 845 Squadron, fresh from a busy year operating around the globe on exercises, deployed to practise landing Royal Marines ashore in the US to practise these skills and ensure that the QE can operate as both a fixed wing strike carrier, an ASW platform and also an assault ship capable of embarking both troops and heavy helicopters as required.
Another key objective of the deployment was to test the ability of the ship to embark larger numbers of F35 fighters than had previously been the case, and make the step up from merely testing the systems to instead operating as a proper carrier air group and being able to conduct strike missions from the sea.
To that end, the ship embarked a number of UK F35B lightening aircraft (these are jointly operated by both the Royal Navy and RAF) and also some US Marine Corps F35s as well.
In total, the ship appears to have embarked somewhere between 8-10 jets at any one point.
The purpose of this stage of the deployment was to test to see if the ship could handle sustained day and night operations, and also generate multiple aircraft to carry out strike missions ashore. This concept was proven, with on at least one occasion four UK owned F35s launching together on a single mission to drop munitions ashore – a significant step forward.
The wider picture too is of the importance of the US Marine Corps presence as well.
It is incredibly unusual to embark foreign aircraft on another countries aircraft carrier for any length of time, much less operate them in an integrated way.
While there has been a long history of ‘touch and goes’ where a plane from one country would land and shortly afterwards take off again from another nations aircraft carrier, the notion of jointly operating together has only happened once in over 100 years of naval aviation.
This was in WW2 where HMS Victorious embarked US Navy aircraft for several months while operating in the Pacific Ocean.
The challenge with multi-national deployments isn’t just the act of taking off and landing, but more widely the problems of mission planning and having compatible IT and communications (particularly ones that you are comfortable jointly sharing data on) and even down to the basics of ensuring that you have the same operating procedures and practises all make such a deployment very challenging.
From a wider perspective, there is a real challenge with the policy and legal permissions associated with these sorts of deployments. If you embark an aircraft squadron on a foreign aircraft carrier, how do you sort out issues like rules of engagement, or working out the legality of the mission you may want to do – what happens if your nation and the host nation have differing views and permissions on what they can, or cannot do? A lot of the challenges surrounding this sort of issue can be fiendishly complicated to solve in real life.
For the Royal Navy one of the key purposes of Westlant 19 was to test all of these sorts of issues out by embarking a small USMC force to help identify what works, and what may need a bit more ironing out of the bugs. It’s been a really helpful prelude to further deployments, including in 2021 when the QE is likely to go to the Far East on a major deployment with an air wing of at least 24 F35 jets, some of which are likely to come from the US.
Getting these issues sorted now is essential to ensure that in the next few years joint embarkations can occur with the minimal amount of hassle and make for the smoothest possible experience.
This is going to be particularly important for the Gulf region, where it is likely that the Royal Navy will be asked to provide a carrier with some US jets embarked to help cover gaps in the US Navy’s own deployment schedule.
This sort of ask will be made easier by the fact that the CSG is likely to deploy with foreign vessels integrated as escorts from the outset. On Westlant 19, the US Navy deployed a small number of escort ships, including Arleigh Burke class destroyers to form part of the wider battlegroup.
This was the initial steps in testing the next stages of the plan, which will see the QE deploy again in future, but this time with a larger US and UK escort group to continue to refine the Carrier Strike Group concept and make sure that it works as planned.
In that regard, Westlant 19 has been a significant success in that it has tested not only the ability of HMS Queen Elizabeth to operate a large and capable air wing – comprising multiple F35 jets, supported by both ASW Merlin helicopters, and also the troop carrying Commando version of the Merlin helicopter, but also do so at the heart of an international force.
As the QE returns to Portsmouth, attention now turns to the next stage in the process of getting the Royal Navy to the point of having two Carrier Strike Groups ready to deploy.
On her return home, she is berthing alongside the Prince of Wales, soon to be commissioned as an active Royal Navy warship.
This marks the first time both ships have been alongside together in port as fully commissioned warships.
Next year will see further work continue on developing the CSG concept, with the QE likely to deploy again to the West Atlantic to conduct the final parts of trial work on developing the CSG, while the Prince of Wales will carry out a variety of trials including potentially the embarkation of jets to check her ability to operate them effectively.
The year 2020 will mark a significant step change in the UK’s ability to deploy carrier aviation, and the final stages of delivery of a project which dates back to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.
Having finally acquired both carriers and brought them into service, the Royal Navy will now focus on getting the wider restructuring of the Naval Service as a whole underway to support the deployment of the CSG concept.
In practical terms, this is going to mean more focus on changing deployments, probably with smaller ships like the River class OPVs based overseas more often, and fewer standalone deployments by the major escort fleet, such as the Type 45s.
Instead these deployments will become more targeted and built around the CSG concept, and not an individual hull deploying in isolation.
But at the same time the Royal Navy will face several challenges to ensure the continued ability of the CSG to operate as required. Firstly it will need enough suitably trained personnel able to do all the jobs expected of it to operate both the carrier and the airwing – manpower strengths are a perennial challenge for the RN, which is struggling to retain people in the right areas.
Given the sheer number of people required to keep both carriers at sea, the Royal Navy will probably have to take some very difficult decisions on how to find the people to keep the carriers at sea, and also what ships to possibly put alongside or into reserve as a result.
Other challenges include the fragility of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary support force. While four new ‘TIDE’ class tankers may have entered service in the last few years, there is a need to urgently replace the other support ships which provide the munitions, spare parts and other essential pieces needed to keep the carrier at sea.
The RFA has three of these vessels at the moment (in two classes, known as RFA Fort Austin & Fort Rosalie, and also RFA Fort Victoria).
All three ships are getting extremely old and fragile – the original two are the last remaining UK military vessels in service from the Falklands War.
The competition to build their replacements has been deferred and slipped considerably due to difficulties in finding an acceptable bid from industry. The competition has now been suspended, and it remains unclear how the MOD will attempt to move forward, and whether to go for domestic or international construction of the vessels.
Either way, this delay poses a significant medium term challenge to the ability of the Carrier Strike Group to operate effectively as there is potentially going to be growing reliance on nearly 40 year old vessels to provide support for the carrier strike group.
Finally the Royal Navy may face significant pressure as part of wider defence reviews and cuts to either put one carrier in reserve or even scrap it to help take its fair share of budget cuts.
It seems extremely likely that there will be a Strategic Defence Review in 2020, which is going to ask difficult questions of the roles and missions undertaken by the British Armed Forces.
Given the existing budget challenges that the MOD has, it seems extremely likely that there will be efforts made by some to reduce the readiness of the ships, perhaps only having one carrier strike group active, or alternatively put one of the carriers in reserve at a time – in a manner similar to the way that the RN mothballs one of the two Albion class LPD’s at a time.
Similarly there have been some (hopefully) farfetched suggestions leaked to the media stating that the RN should lease one of its carriers to the USA for a few years to solve internal budgetary challenges.
This sort of idea is hopefully very unlikely to happen, but does show how febrile the atmosphere is, and the scale of the financial challenges facing all three Services at the moment that it needs to even be considered.
The potential risk for the Royal Navy is that as it finally reaches the point where both carriers are available for operations, and the fleet is restructured to support their needs, they may find themselves with only one carrier left in active service.
The hope has to be that the value and importance of the aircraft carrier force and its associated strike group, and its wider value to the UK and allies is recognised and understood in the next Defence Review, but right now this cannot be taken for granted.
But with all this said and done, the Royal Navy should rightly be proud of what it has achieved with bringing the Queen Elizabeth into service, and for its clear vision in getting the ship ready for operations.
It has taken several years to do, much to the frustration probably not only of the operational planners keen to see a UK strike carrier able to deploy operationally, but also the members of the wider public who are keen to see the ship deploy in the manner intended, namely full of jets on the deck.
This patience is about to be rewarded though as within the next few months the UK will, for the first time since 1972 have two large aircraft carriers in commission, both of which represent the biggest warships ever built for the Royal Navy.
Within the next 12 months they will be at sea and able to represent a sea change in capability for the Royal Navy and provide it with the most powerful and capable surface warships it has ever possessed.
There are very exciting times ahead indeed.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.
* All images Crown Copyright 2019.