On board USS George HW Bush as she helps the RN back into the aircraft carrier game

The USS George HW Bush deployed from the United States in January and has been in the Arabian Gulf and Mediterranean conducting strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Bush is arguably the most potent warship afloat in the world today and her visit to UK waters is very significant for the RN and US relations with Europe. Unlike the 65,000 ton HMS Queen Elizabeth, at 100,000 tons, the Bush is too large to enter Portsmouth and on her arrival in the Solent on 27th July, she anchored in Stokes Bay before hosting media and a VIP evening reception.

The crew of the Bush are looking forward to heading home for a well-deserved break in Norfolk, Virginia but the USN has extended the deployment by 2 weeks, effectively lending the ship to the RN to help regenerate aircraft carrier command skills. Exercise Saxon Warrior 2017 will take place between 1 – 10 August and will see 65 RN personnel from the RN Carrier Strike Group battle staff embarked on the Bush. 30 personnel joined the ship in the Mediterranean two week previously to get used to working onboard. Conducted around Britain, in waters extending from the South West Approaches to northern Scotland, there will be the full range of carrier operations, including scenarios that will see a fictional UN resolution enforced in the face of an enemy.

It has been a long time since an aircraft carrier with fixed-wing aircraft operated close to the UK, and the exercise provides a valuable opportunity for the staff to practice air and maritime traffic management. There will be live firing and dropping of ordnance around Cape Wrath and the frigates will have a chance to practice force protection, escorting the carrier in confined waters. Around 100 carrier and land-based aircraft, as well as 9,000 personnel, will participate and the exercise will be run from Faslane by the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff (JTEPS).

As the submarine represents the greatest threat to aircraft carriers, it is encouraging to note Saxon Warrior will involve RN and unnamed NATO submarines and have a major anti-submarine warfare element. The carrier group will be supported by frigates HMS Westminster and HMS Iron Duke. The Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad and USS Philippine Sea and USS Donald Cook will be mainly tasked with air defence. Support tanker RFA Wave Ruler will also participate. It is slightly surprising neither of the Type 45 destroyers recently operational in UK waters, HMS Diamond or HMS Dragon, are available to join the exercise. Escorting aircraft carriers is a core role for the Type 45s, although they have supported US and the French carriers during combat operations in the Middle East, they have had few other chances for such an exercise.

  • USS Bush at anchor is the Solent

    The most powerful warship in the world in the Solent

  • Rear Admiral Kenny Whitesell, Commander of US Navy Carrier Strike Group 2

  • The cruiser USS Philippine Sea and astern of her is Norwegian Frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad, alongside in Portsmouth prior to exercise Saxon Warrior

  • Statue of Geoge HW Bush in the central hangar area prepared for a VIP reception. As a young man, Bush was a naval aviator and fought in WWII flying Grumman Avengers

  • Demonstrating the diplomatic value of aircraft carriers. The VIP party of politicians, military personnel and local dignitaries queue to board the USS Bush for a formal reception.

Commodore Andrew Bretton, Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group speaking on the bridge of the Bush describes the exercise as “an outstanding opportunity to work up Career Strike skills, offering a fantastic stepping stone to build up carrier strike capability before HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are formally in service”

Rear Admiral Kenny Whitesell, Commander of US Navy Carrier Strike Group 2 was generous in praise of the RN and said “The most fun part of this whole deployment will be working together with Royal Navy strike group battle staff”. Speaking to US personnel on board, it is clear there remains a genuinely high regard for the RN and a readiness to learn from each other.

A Royal Marine officer who had been onboard the Bush for the past two weeks said “There may be considerable cultural differences, but when it comes down to it, we are both all about the fight, and we integrate very naturally. My whole career I’ve been involved in joint operations with the US, working together is second nature”.

There is a chance that during the exercise, the USS George HW Bush could meet up with HMS Queen Elizabeth as she conducts her sea trials off the east coast of Scotland. It would present a magnificent photo opportunity but this is not a certainty, the QE trials programme remains fluid and subject to change. The Portsmouth News has reported a rumour that HMS Queen Elizabeth could arrive in Portsmouth on 21st August. This would be surprisingly early as the ACA had planned an approximately 11-week sea trials period, which began when she sailed on 26th June. Despite the issues with the propeller shafts that required 2 weeks alongside in Invergordon, other aspects of the trials are reportedly proceeding very well and ahead of schedule. The exact date of QE’s arrival in Portsmouth is therefore hard to predict and it is possible the RN will only be able to provide relatively short notice of the date. The entry of QE into Portsmouth harbour is also subject to weather and tidal conditions. In the event of high winds high she would have to anchor in the Solent an await the right opportunity.