A complex Autumn programme for the Royal Navy begins

The RN is about to start a multi-national Carrier Strike Group exercise while also deploying the Littoral Response Group. Here we round up the plans for the next few weeks.

UKCSG group assembles

Having been alongside since early July, HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Portsmouth on 9th September for a brief workup and for the ship’s company. Departure was twice postponed as a small number of sailors on board (less than 10) tested positive for COVID-19. The RN said those affected have been isolated and are they working with the NHS Test and Trace system to prevent further spread. Ensuring the safety of the ship’s company is an evolving management challenge but the delay should not affect the planned programme too significantly.

She returned home four days later to embark stores, fuel and additional personnel in preparation for the biggest exercise she has yet undertaken. With a large US Marine Corps contingent and other air group personnel, she now has her largest complement yet of around 1,700 people on board.

Around 3,000 naval service personnel in total will involved in the exercise and the vessels that will participate with HMS Queen Elizabeth have been announced as; HMS Defender, HMS Diamond, HMS Kent, HMS Northumberland, RFA Tideforce and RFA Fort Victoria. The US Navy has sent the destroyer, USS The Sullivans and Dutch Navy is represented by the frigate HNLMS Evertsen. Although the warship numbers are modest compared with what those of the past, this is the largest exercise of its kind for around 15 years.

It should be noted that this escort force includes four air defence platforms; two of the highly-regard Type 45s, an AEGIS-equipped Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and a Dutch De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate. An SSN, two towed array sonar-equipped Type 23 frigates together with 6 Merlin Mk 2 helicopters already embarked on the carrier, also make for a potent anti-submarine element.

  • USS The Sullivans, equipped with the AEGIS air defence system. The USN has 68 of these ships (Plus a further 10 under construction) that form the backbone of its fleet.

  • HMS Defender conducting training off Plymouth. HMS Richmond in the background. Richmond is scheduled to join the CSG deployment in May 2021 but her place will be taken by HMS Northumberland for the GROUPEX. (Photo © RFA Nostalgia, August 11th)

  • HNLMS Evertsen leaves Plymouth, already preparing for the deployment in UK waters. (Photo ©Kevin Kelway, 7th September)

  • RFA Fort Victoria passes under the Forth Road Bridge, inbound to Crombie Jetty to load munitions ahead of the exercise (Sept 5th).

  • RFA Tideforce alongside in Devonport as she prepares to join the GROUPEX. HMS Dragon astern  (Photo @P3arny_B3ar, 13th Sept)

  • USMC jets – safely arrived and in the aircraft shelters at RAF Marham

  • Happy pilots of VFMA-211 after completing a trans-Atlantic flight from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to RAF Marham on 3rd September (Photo: USMC)

The carrier Strike GROUPEX is likely to see the carrier conduct her first solid stores replenishment at sea (RAS) with RFA Fort Victoria. HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail for further helicopter training during September and it is possible the two carrier will be seen at sea together for the first time, at least briefly.

The GROUPEX is planned in include between 7 to 10 days of work-up, followed by two weeks of ‘free play’ in combat scenarios. The exercise will be integrated with the bi-annual Exercise Joint Warrior (JW202) which runs from 21 September – 15 October. (The was no Spring JW201 this year). The exercise is likely to take place predominantly in the waters off the North West coast of Scotland.

The USMC arrives

On 3rd September 10 F35-B jets of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) crossed the Atlantic and arrived at RAF Marham. The squadron had to undergo a quarantine period, during which they conducted synthetic training in the simulators at Marham to familiarise themselves with the local airspace and procedures. On 10th September they participated in Point Blank 04 with around fifty US, UK, Dutch & Italian aircraft of various types in a complex air exercise over the North Sea.

The USMC aircraft will exercise with their 617 Squadron counterparts before they join HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea. Both squadrons will initially conduct carrier qualification serials to ensure all pilots are proficient to operate from the carrier during both day and night.

The carrier air group will include at least 5 UK and 10 USMC jets, plus 6 Merlin helicopters. With 15 jets on board, this will be the largest embarkation of F-35s afloat in the world so far. With deck qualification and familiarisation complete, the jets will participate in ex Joint Warrior which will bring together multiple elements of the Carrier Strike Group to train collaboratively. Aircraft will participate in live and inert weapons training sorties. Merlin Mk 4s of 845 Naval Air Squadron are likely to operate from RFA Fort Victoria and the carrier, while the Type 45s will embark Wildcats of 815 NAS.

There has been some complaint that US jets will outnumber the UK for this Groupex, and potentially for the May 2021 operational deployment. Numbers for next year may be subject to change but COMUKCSG told us in July he expects to deploy with 8 UK and 6 USMC jets. USMC aircraft have been factored into planning for the introduction of the QEC carriers at least as far back as 2014 and Britain should be grateful the USN is helping rebuild carrier aviation skills after a long gap. Access to the USMC accumulated specialist experience in operating F-35B at sea is especially valuable.

For the air group, Joint Warrior will be followed by exercise Crimson Warrior, a flying exercise based at RAF Marham which will see USMC and UK Lightning jets conduct further synthetic and live combat training together. RN helicopters will also participate in this land-based exercise as the ‘CV Wing’ works up more complex flying scenarios.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will return to Portsmouth where she will host the 3rd Atlantic Future Forum from 20-21 October. The AFF, which promotes defence, security, trade and technology partnership between the US and UK, will be chaired by Sir Mark Sedwill and will be a live broadcast and virtual event.


A further 1,000 sailors and Royal Marines are about to embark on the Littoral Response Group (Experimentation) Deployment. The task group consisting of HMS Albion, RFA Lyme Bay and HMS Dragon will head to the Mediterranean and join HMS Trent working for a while in support of NATO security operation Sea Guardian. Visits to Gibraltar and North Africa are also likely. Led by Commander UK Littoral Strike Group, Cdre Rob Pedre, The group will also include Wildcat helicopters from 815 and 847 NAS and marines from 47 and 42 Cdo and 30 Cdo Information Exploitation Group. The ‘Jungly’ Merlin Mk 4s will be absent from this exercise as there are no appropriate hangar facilities and their aircraft are already deployed in the Caribbean and on GROUPEX.

The LRG will also conduct exercise Olympus Warrior and Autonomous Advance Force 3 off Cyprus. Building on the work done during exercise Cold Response in March, this will be a further opportunity to trial autonomous systems, other new technologies and tactics in support for the Future Commando Force model. The group will later enter the Black Sea for joint exercises and port visits to demonstrate the UK’s support for regional security.

  • Procedure alpha as HMS Albion sails from Plymouth on 8th September. As part of the preparation for sailing all ships company tested for COVID and a very small number found to be positive. The ship is scheduled to remain in UK waters for a period before heading to the Mediterranean. (Photo ©Kevin Kelway)

  • HMS Dragon on her way into Devonport on 14th September as she prepares for the LRGX deployment. (Photo ©Kevin Kelway)

  • RFA Lyme Bay Loch Ewe

    RFA Lyme Bay has recently completed maintenance period in Falmouth and will join the LRGX deployment (Photo: @Navylookout, April 2019)

These dual naval operations are politically opportune. The Cummings faction in Whitehall, along with Max Hastings and some blokes that read something on the internet, believe we should be radically shaping our forces away from ‘heavy metal’ and rely entirely on autonomous systems, AI, cyber and other assorted vapourware. This kind of thinking maybe influential in the Integrated Review process and it is important to demonstrate there are credible, deployable conventional platforms that can deliver effects right now. These ‘old fashioned’ ships will still be needed to get the new generation of weapons into the fight. While the RN looks forward, embracing innovation and experimentation it would be a form of madness to dispense with expensively-acquired and proven assets that are already in service.