Up close with a US super carrier and the pilots fresh from combat operations

The arrival of the USS George HW Bush in British waters to participate in exercise Saxon Warrior with the Royal Navy provided a useful opportunity to meet US naval aviators who have recently completed combat missions against ISIS in the Middle East. Although they are very different, inevitable comparisons will also be made between the Nimitz class CVN and the Queen Elizabeth class CVF, which deserve to be put in perspective.

The US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2 have been in action in the Middle East for almost 7 months and there was a high tempo of operations with 99 days conducting combat sorties. With the fall of Mosul, ISIS has been virtually defeated in Iraq and there is some satisfaction that the aircraft from the Bush group have seen a job through to completion. Whatever your view on the complex issues of the Middle East, it should be recognised that hard-working sailors and aviators aboard the Bush have at completed their assigned mission, helping to destroy the evil of ISIS, as directed by their political masters.

Up to July this year, the coalition of 68 countries against ISIS (including 9 countries flying combat missions) conducted a total of around 25,000 air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. The majority of the missions have used very accurate laser-guided munitions with a very clear aim of avoiding civilian casualties. Given the number of bombs dropped, the civilian death toll from coalition strikes has been low, although it would be very naive to believe any nation claiming there have been no civilian deaths caused by their air strikes.

A very rare air-air kill

The majority of missions flown by the F-18s from the Bush used the 500lb JDAM laser-guided bomb against Islamic State targets as requested by US allies on the ground. One mission stands out from the rest, on 18th June an F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 “Fitter”. The Soviet-era aircraft had been bombing US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State.

Lt Cdr Michael Tremel of the Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-87 ‘Golden Warriors’ made the first US air-to-air kill since a USAF F-16 shot down a Serbian MiG-29 in 1999, during the Kosovo campaign. Tremel, speaking to media for the first time aboard the Bush anchored in the Solent said “the whole incident lasted about eight minutes… I did not directly communicate with the Syrian Jet but he was given several warnings by our supporting AWACS aircraft… So yes, we released ordnance and yes it hit a target that was in the air, but it really just came back to defending those guys that were doing the hard job on the ground and taking that ground back from ISIS.” He recalled; “I didn’t see the pilot eject but my wingman observed his parachute.” Tremel is an incredibly modest and relaxed gentleman, it is others, not himself who are keen to make a big deal about what was a relatively simple air-air kill against an obsolete aircraft. “When you think about the shoot-down, in the grand scheme of things… we [our squadron] flew over 400 missions in support of friendly forces on the ground” he said. On encounters with Russian aircraft, he said: “They behaved with great professionalism at all times.”

Lt Cdr Tremel with his F/A 18-E jet. Tomahawk icons represent strike missions. The Air-Air kill is denoted by icon on the top right under the Syrian flag.

One aspect of the engagement does raise questions. Asked if it was a straight Sidewinder shoot down, Tremel admitted it took 2 missiles. The infrared guided AIM-9X Sidewinder short range air-to-air missile missed, apparently lured away by decoy flares from the SU-22. It was a second radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM missile that destroyed the aircraft. The AIM-9X is the latest version of a very well proven family of missiles and it would not be expected to be fooled by flares or fail against such an obsolete aircraft. (The UK uses the superior ASRAAM, although it shares some common components with the Sidewinder).

steam catapault

What we could have had… looking down the waist catapult on the angled deck.

USS George HW Bush v HMS Queen Elizabeth. Apples v Oranges.

Walking down the flight deck of the Bush there was a feeling of regret at how the UK has managed to squander its hard-won lead in innovation. Britain pioneered naval aviation, invented the steam catapult, the angled deck and automated deck landing system (the meatball in US parlance), not to mention the jet engine, radar and steam turbine, all of which are foundational to the Nimitz class super carrier. Although it is regrettable, the Queen Elizabeth class will not have catapults and traps and we must accept that CATOBAR is beyond the inadequate resources the government is willing to provide the RN. STOVL and F-35Bs are the only sensible choice for the RN, given its budget and manpower constraints.

Searching for a candid view of how the US Navy see the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, one officer was asked if they perceive them as something like a larger USS America (LHA – Marine assault ship operating F-35Bs) or closer to the Bush and the CVNs? “It’s true her air group cannot deliver quite the same effect as us, but she’s another big deck. She will make a similar diplomatic impact to our carriers, they have great command and control facilities and some innovations we are keen to learn about” he replied carefully. “As far as we’re concerned they will help share the load and relieve some of the burden on the US fleet”.

In European terms, the QEC will be a huge jump in capability and will be a very big step forward for the Royal Navy. In pure combat terms, the QEC is still far behind the US Navy. The 12-14 jets aboard the QEC will not compare well with the 44 carried by the Bush on this deployment (with space for an air group of up to 90 aircraft). CATOBAR means the Bush also benefits from dedicated electronic warfare aircraft (Growlers), buddy-buddy air-air refuelling jets (adapted F-18s) and EC3 Hawkeye which have approximately double the radar range of the Crowsnest Merlin helicopters.

This capability does not come cheap. Despite having nuclear-powered propulsion, the food, aircraft fuel and spares bill for the Bush runs at around $10M per month when on operations. It would be instructive to know if the MoD has calculated and properly budgeted for the running costs for the QEC when deployed. Manpower is the biggest through-life cost. QEC will have just 1,500 with a full air group embarked which compares very well to the 5,300 required by the Bush. HMS Queen Elizabeth cost around £3.2Bn to construct, while the Bush cost $6.2Bn back in 2009.

Observing both ships at close quarters they are very different workplaces. QE benefits from a 10 year advance in technology and a design philosophy aimed at reducing manning to a minimum. It is slightly unfair to compare a seasoned 8-year-old ship that has been in action for 6 months and inevitably looks battered, with a brand new vessel. QE feels like a more comfortable ship with automation everywhere, while the Bush has a more workman-like interior. A good example is a comparison between the Chief’s mess aboard the Bush and the equivalent Senior Rates dining hall on QE. Both are cafeteria-style eating areas but QE’s is far larger, has carpets and a suspended ceiling. On the Bush the deckhands and pipework are all exposed, whitewashed bulkheads and a lino floor make for a tough, utilitarian atmosphere.

What the two ships will have in common, is the reach of carrier air power that extends across the globe. The ability to strike our enemies or to provide support to our allies by air from the sea is a capability that all the greatest nations aspire to.


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