Royal Navy carrier strike development – the next 18 months

On the day HMS Prince of Wales commissioned into the Royal Navy, we spoke to the Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, Commodore Mike Utley, about the medium-term plans for the aircraft carriers.

With HMS Queen Elizabeth having just returned from a successful Westlant 19 deployment and her sister ship completing part one sea trials ahead of schedule, Utley was upbeat and confident about the way forward.

QNLZ will deploy in January to conduct the first F35 pilot Carrier Qualifications in UK waters and Landing Signal Officer (LSO) Qualifications for 207 Squadron instructors. She will undergo further operational sea training before going straight into Exercise Crimson Ocean in June.

Crimson Ocean, held in UK waters and the Eastern Atlantic and will be an operationally focussed exercise. UK-owned F-35s will continue to develop their carrier aviation and warfare skills and build on the initial work done during 2019. Westlant 19 demonstrated the logistic capability to support the Lightning Force and the ability to launch, arm and repair the jets. The uploading and downloading of digital mission data to between the aircraft and the ship was also proven. Utley confirmed “all the marks had been hit” during the Operational Testing period off the US and that there had been good progress in understanding how to integrate the carrier, supporting ships and the aircraft together.

Captain Moorhouse speaking about the achievements of the Westlant 19 deployment, November 2019.

Soon after Crimson Ocean, Exercise Crimson Flag will be held at RAF Marham in Autumn 2020 which will see USMC and UK Lightning jets conduct synthetic live combat training together. RN helicopters will also participate in this land-based exercise as the ‘CV Wing’ works up more complex flying scenarios.

There will be a further GroupEx in the Autumn involving the complete UK Carrier Strike group comprising HMS Queen Elizabeth and escorting warships. After Christmas leave there will be simulation exercises and a final safety and certification exercise before the UKCSG achieves initial operating capability (IOC) and sets out for the first operational deployment in May 2021 (CSG21). This impressive force will include a submarine, two Type 23 frigates, two Type 45 destroyers, a Tide class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria.

8 plus 8 and 24 in ’24…

Utley also put to bed much of the speculation and guesswork about aircraft numbers. CSG21 will involve “8 plus 8” Lightning jets. The fixed-wing element of the CV wing will comprise 16 aircraft – 8 UK jets from 617 Squadron and 8 US Marine Corps jets of VMFA-211. The Commodore also stated that ultimately the intention is to have “24 in 24”, ie. 24 jets will routinely embark on the deployed carrier from 2024.

A Statement of Intent document was signed 10 years ago at government level to have USMC assets integrated in UK carrier strike operations. This is breaking new ground and will be a first for both nations. The USMC jets will be under UK tactical command, although a senior US national representative will be on board, presumably able to veto their involvement if not in line with national objectives. Rotary wing assets are expected to include 5 ASW Merlin Mk2s and 3 Crowsnest-equipped Merlins. Surprisingly the intention is that the Merlin Mk4s that provide search & rescue, personnel recovery and troop insertion capability will be based on board other ships, presumably the RFAs. Whether USMC rotary-wing assets including the V-22 Osprey, could be involved in CSG21 are still under discussion and “nothing is off the table”.

And then there were two..

The Royal Navy now has two aircraft carriers in commission. (Photo: Andy Amor)

HMS Prince of Wales will sail for part 2 sea trials in February 2020. PWLS will conduct helicopter trials and crew training throughout the year before embarking jets for the first time in 2021. She will carry out more demanding SRVL trials with the F-35 off the US coast.


Subsequent to publishing this article, the captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Steve Moorhouse was promoted and has replaced Commodore Mike Utley as Commander UK Carrier Strike Group.