UK’s Carrier Strike Group Faces Its First Test

 - October 9, 2020, 5:55 AM
The Carrier Strike Group sails in Scottish waters. The activities of a Dutch frigate and U.S. destroyer are fully integrated with those of six Royal Navy vessels to form a Combined Joint Task Force. (Photo: LPhot Belinda Aker/Royal Navy)

The UK’s Royal Navy (RN) has assembled its full Carrier Strike Group (CSG) for the first time, in advance of undertaking its first operational deployment from May next year. The CSG has been brought together to participate in the two-week Joint Warrior exercise—NATO’s largest—held off the coast of northwest Scotland, and follows a busy 2020 of work-ups by the 65,000-tonne carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its air wing.

The carrier lies at the heart of the CSG, which also includes eight other surface vessels. They comprise two Type 45 destroyers, HMS Diamond and HMS Defender, two Type 23 frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Northumberland, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans, and the De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate HNLMS Evertsen from the Royal Netherlands Navy. The royal fleet auxiliary ships Fort Victoria and Tideforce are in support. Along with at least one submarine, these vessels will form the initial operational CSG.

The strike group is the most powerful maritime European-led force assembled for 20 years. “The new UK Carrier Strike Group is the embodiment of British maritime power, and sits at the heart of a modernized and emboldened Royal Navy,” said Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the CSG’s commander. "Protected by a ring of advanced destroyers, frigates, helicopters and submarines, and equipped with fifth-generation fighters, HMS Queen Elizabeth is able to strike from the sea at a time and place of our choosing; and with our NATO allies at our side, we will be ready to fight and win in the most demanding circumstances.”

HMS Queen Eiizabeth
Twelve of the 15 F-35Bs embarked on Queen Elizabeth are seen with four Merlin helicopters. The carrier can carry a normal maximum of 36 F-35Bs, with additional surge capacity. (Photo: LPhot Belinda Aker/Royal Navy)

Embarked on board the Queen Elizabeth are 15 Lockheed Martin F-35Bs from the jointly-staffed Royal Air Force/RN No. 617 “The Dambusters” Squadron and the U.S. Marine Corps’ VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers”. This represents the largest embarked deployment of fifth-generation fighters to date.

The VMFA-211 aircraft deployed to the UK on September 3, ferrying 5,500 miles from their base at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, via MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, to RAF Marham in Norfolk, the home base of No. 617 Squadron. A period of joint shore-based exercises included participation in the major Point Blank exercise that saw over 50 NATO aircraft—including Global Strike Command Boeing B-52Hs flying from RAF Fairford—involved in complex war-fighting scenarios over the North Sea.

F-35B VMFA-211
VMFA-211’s “color-bird” operates from Queen Elizabeth while working up for Joint Warrior in late September. (Photo: LPhot Mark Johnson/Royal Navy)

On September 22 the F-35Bs embarked aboard the carrier along with six Royal Navy Leonardo Merlin helicopters. Leonardo Wildcat helicopters are also embarked within the CSG on the Type 45 destroyers. A series of work-up exercises ensued prior to the CSG sailing for the Joint Warrior exercise area, where activities began on October 7. In early scenarios, the CSG came under simulated air and missile attack from RN Hawk aggressors and Dassault Falcon 20s operated by Cobham/Draken.

Following the conclusion of Joint Warrior, both UK and U.S. F-35Bs will return to RAF Marham in mid-October to participate in Exercise Crimson Warrior, a high-end multi-domain exercise that will also feature RN helicopters.