UK Carrier Strike Group Begins Deployment

 - May 4, 2021, 6:17 AM
A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B is seen after its arrival aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on May 3. The aircraft has colorful markings and wears the name of the carrier on its fins. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG), centered around the 65,000-tonne carrier Queen Elizabeth, has left port on schedule. Following a two-week exercise with NATO forces the CSG will head for the Mediterranean and further east on its first operational cruise. This will be the first time that the Royal Navy has undertaken an operational carrier deployment since 2010.

Queen Elizabeth left its home port at Portsmouth on the south coast of England on May 1, accompanied by Type 45 destroyers Defender and Diamond, and Type 23 frigate Kent. Another Type 23, Richmond, sailed from its base at Devonport, and the CSG is to be joined by the U.S. destroyer The Sullivans, the Dutch frigate Evertsen and an Astute-class submarine. Two Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, Fort Victoria and Tidespring, are with the CSG to supply fuel, food, and ammunition.

The carrier set sail with most of its helicopter force already embarked. This comprises four Leonardo Wildcat HMA2 surveillance/attack helicopters from 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), three Leonardo Merlin HC4 transport/rescue helicopters from 845 NAS, and four Merlin HM2 anti-submarine helicopters from 820 NAS. The latter squadron also operates the three Merlin HM2 Crowsnest airborne surveillance and control helicopters on board.

The deployment is the first for the Crowsnest helicopter, which features a Thales radar that swings down for use on a pylon mounted on the port side of the cabin. The main role of the variant—which entered service in late March—is to provide airborne early warning and control, but it also offers a useful overland surveillance capability.

Merlin Crowsnest
Two Merlin Crowsnest helicopters land on the carrier while it was still alongside at Portsmouth in late April. The airborne radar picket is making its operational debut, having only entered service in March. (Photo: Royal Navy)

On May 3 the CSG’s main air wing component began to arrive while the carrier was at sea, comprising eight Lockheed Martin F-35Bs from the Royal Air Force’s No. 617 “Dambusters” Squadron and 10 F-35Bs from the U.S. Marine Corps squadron VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers”, which had flown in from the U.S. via RAF Lakenheath. Queen Elizabeth and its supporting vessels sailed initially for waters off northwest Scotland for Exercise Strike Warrior, in which the CSG will train against a multinational NATO fleet. The two-week exercise will focus on validating the CSG’s capability in a high-threat environment against a highly capable foe.

Following the conclusion of the exercise, the CSG will depart on its operational deployment. Scheduled to last for 28 weeks and cover 26,000nm, the cruise will include visits to the waters of more than 40 countries, and a wide range of exercise and joint operations will be conducted. Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to conduct dual-carrier operations in the Mediterranean with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as exercise with a number of navies, including that of Israel. Elements of the CSG will also conduct maritime security operations in the Black Sea.

F-35B fighters from the carrier are expected to fly combat missions over Syria and Iraq from the eastern Mediterranean as part of Operation Shader, the UK’s contribution to the anti-Daesh campaign. The CSG will then move further east to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, exercising with the UAE along the way and visiting India. Further visits are planned to Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, underlining the United Kingdom's new shift in defense focus towards the Pacific. The group will participate in Exercise Bersama Lima with forces from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. The exercise coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement between the five nations.

Currently, the Royal Navy has both of its new carriers at sea. On the day prior to Queen Elizabeth's departure, sister-ship Prince of Wales also left Portsmouth. The carrier has been laid up for some time for maintenance and equipment installation. The vessel is remaining in southwest UK waters to undergo a period of intensive Basic Operational Sea Training as part of the work up to operational capability.