Looking ahead – US Marine Corps aircraft to embark on board HMS Queen Elizabeth

Last week the US Marine Corps formally announced what had been known for some time, that their F-35B jets will join the 2021 Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) operational deployment on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. Here we look at the implications and benefits of this joint operating arrangement.

Hurry up and wait

Shallow analysis might suggest “the threadbare Royal Navy is relying on Uncle Sam to fill up the decks of their empty aircraft carrier.” This would be to misunderstand the way carrier aviation is being regenerated and the benefits to all concerned. In an ideal world, the aircraft (and ships) would be delivered faster, but even if there was the production capacity, the fast jet training system would be unable to produce a large number of qualified pilots in time. These are not cheap aircraft and the defence budget cannot afford to buy them in larger quantities. Purchase of aircraft is negotiated in multi-$Billion ‘Lots’ with participating nations getting an agreed number of aircraft from each Lot. Customers should also see the unit cost of each airframe declining over time as production becomes more efficient. A prolonged but steady build-up of F-35 strength is the only realistic way to assemble the force and not a failure by MoD planners.

The British-owned F-35B force currently stands at 17 aircraft and, as a Tier-1 partner in the project, the government is committed to buying 48 by the end of 2024 (what happens beyond that point is a thorny issue). The first 9 aircraft of 617 Squadron have arrived at RAF Marham and pilots are accumulating flying hours. They will make their first overseas deployment to RAF Akritori in Cyprus shortly as they train and prepare to embark on HMS Queen Elizabeth for her Westlant19 deployment in the Autumn.

Another F35 will be delivered to the UK fleet in 2019 followed by 3 next year, 6 in 2021, 8 in 2022, and 7 in 2023. When HMS Queen Elizabeth sails for CSG21, 617 Squadron should have at least 12 aircraft. (Precisely how many aircraft will constitute the frontline strength of a UK F-35 squadron remains vague). Three other aircraft are in the Operational Evaluation Unit based in the US and the remainder allocated the Operational Conversion Unit (training squadron). By 2023 there will be enough aircraft to stand up the second frontline squadron and 809 NAS will be born.

Exercise Crimson Flag will be held at RAF Marham in Autumn 2020 which will see USMC and UK F-35Bs conduct synthetic live combat training together. RN helicopters will also participate as the ‘CV Wing’ starts to come together. (The CVW was formerly referred to as the ‘Tailored Air Group’ but has since been Americanised). USMC jets are also likely to spend some time aboard QE in 2020 before the operational deployment the following year.

When HMS Queen Elizabeth sails for CSG21, expect to see 24 F-35Bs and rotary wing assets on board. 12 aircraft from 617 Squadron will be joined by 12 US Marine Corps aircraft, probably from either VMFA-211 or VMFA-122. (Full strength USMC squadrons will typically number 16 aircraft, but may deploy in smaller numbers as needed – the Wasp class LHD assault ships normally embark between 6 – 9 F35s.). The USMC says it plans to eventually permanently designate one of its squadrons to provide aircraft for deployment on Royal Navy carriers.

Nine F-35B Lightnings of to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA-121 lashed to the rain-drenched flight deck of USS Wasp in the South China Sea, April 2019 (Photo: US Navy).

Learning from the pioneers

The USMC has the most experience of any service working with the F-35. They have been flying F-35Bs from US Navy assault ships since 2011 and were first to declare IOC in July 2015. In January 2018 the first operational aircraft were forward-deployed in Japan and have since been at sea on operations since March last year. The USMC also flew the first F35-B combat mission over Afghanistan in October 2018.

The Marines are now well into a planned transition of its squadrons from AV-8B Harriers to F-35B and F/A-18 Hornets to F-35Cs which will take nearly two decades. There are still issues with the F-35 with include lack of spares to support front-line aircraft, problems with the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) and LM engineers were still needed at sea to provide technical assistance. Like any early adopter, the USMC is having to overcome initial problems but as the UK follows on behind, can benefit from their experience. RN/RAF aircrew can learn from USMC pilots with more flying hours on the type, while the maintainers can witness how the Marines look after their aircraft at sea. More broadly, the UK will further benefit from being part of a large international programme using the shared experience of Japan and Italy, also operating the B variant.

US Navy aircraft handlers from VX-23 Air Test and Evaluation Squadron assist with flight trials on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, October 2018. The RN has been heavily reliant on the US to maintain carrier aviation skills at all levels.

In it together

Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, head of Marine Corps aviation, commenting on the plan said: “It’s going to be a wonderful new way, and will potentially offer a new norm of doing coalition combined allied operations with a maritime partner.” The USMC are clearly enthusiastic about flying from the QEC carriers. The obvious advantage for the US is access to another forward-deployed platform, reducing pressure on USN ships. The QEC are very much larger than the assault ships of the ‘gator navy’ and the USMC will benefit from far more hangar and flight deck space, together with more comfortable accommodation and planning areas. Being up close for a sustained period on operations may also provide both parties with inspiration and ideas about how to improve procedures learned from each other. The innovative design and manning arrangements of the QEC may also have lessons for the USN that is struggling to maintain its colossally expensive conventional aircraft carrier fleet.

For the US to deploy an entire squadron on a foreign vessel for a sustained period is described as ‘historic’ and a demonstration of the very deep trust that exists particularly between the US Navy and Royal Navy. Occasional cross-decking aircraft between carriers of different nations is not new but this has usually been for short periods and not with the intention to be permanently deployed and to fight alongside each other if required. In 2007 HMS Illustrious embarked 14 USMC AV-8B Harriers for several weeks and there is a long-standing relationship that continues to develop. As far back as 2015 the RN had arranged with the USMC that their aircraft would operate from the decks of the carriers then under construction.

In the short term, the biggest challenge will be to synchronise the logistical support to ensure the USMC has the correct spares, weapons and equipment available on board the carrier. Although sharing the same aircraft, there are likely to be significant differences between UK and US in support equipment and practice which must be resolved. Once the logistics are in place, communications, procedures, operating routines and tactics will need to be harmonised. The primary job of the Marine’s F-35Bs is close air support of their troops on the ground while the UK Lightning force, by necessity, has to have a much wider remit which includes combat air patrols to protect the fleet. It will be interesting to see how the different concept of operations developing in the two forces may influence or complement each other.

In July 2007, fourteen USMC AV-8B Harriers joined HMS Illustrious along with 200 US support personnel for a Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFX) with the US Navy. This was the largest ever embarkation of AV-8Bs on a foreign warship and the F-35Bs that join QE will be following in their footsteps.

Is there a catch?

There is some debate as to where Queen Elizabeth will first be operationally deployed. Robust statements from politicians who are no longer in post that she will be sent to the South China Sea are open to question. There is some dispute within government about whether becoming involved in a naval confrontation with China is in the best interest of the UK. The US and many Asia Pacific partners would like the RN to be a significant part of their alliance to contain the Chinese and joint air wing on a British carrier in the region would be making a statement. Alternatively, QE may be better deployed to the Persian Gulf relieving pressure on US vessels that might be deployed elsewhere.

UK and US strategic interests are likely to remain broadly aligned for the foreseeable future in an alliance that is deep and strong but there are still areas of disagreement. The current incumbent of the White House won’t be there forever but has instincts that may be very divergent from UK policy. Will the UK government permit US aircraft to launch from our carrier on an independent US mission, even if British aircraft are not sanctioned to participate? US aircraft based in Britain have taken part in actions in the past that have occasionally been highly controversial and this situation can be politically complicated.

The size of the RN means that to safely deploy the QEC carriers into areas of significant threat will require reliance on allied escorts. The idea of a fully independent British carrier group may be something of a mirage and the joint air wing is just a part of the new reality. To be trusted by the US to embark and integrate its aircraft on the QEC carriers is a great compliment and a sensible way forward that should mostly prove mutually beneficial to all concerned.