US Marine Corps reports successful integration exercise onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth

Last week the US Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 concluded two months of training in the UK which included three weeks of air activities embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth. Speaking to the media, the commanders of the two squadrons were upbeat about a very successful exercise.

A total of 15 aircraft joined the carrier on 22 September, including ten F-35Bs from VMFA-211 and five from 617 Squadron. The GROUPEX and exercise Joint Warrior were used by both squadrons to get pilots deck-qualified and to practice flight operations and maintenance procedures. The commanding officer of the Marine squadron, VMFA-211, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Freshour said: “The jointness of the F-35 program really came to light, and the interoperability between our two units, our tactics, the digital side of how we integrate with them tactically, everything else how we maintain the aircraft all went off without a real hitch, to the point that we even were able to share parts when necessary”. VFMA and 617 flew together as mixed elements. “We had British pilots leading some of our US wingman and vice versa” said Freshour.

Commander Mark Sparrow, CO of 617 Squadron described the tactical integration between the “seamless”. With 15 jets on board this was the largest number of 5th generation jets ever put to sea so far and a significant increase in aircraft numbers beyond the four that have been on board up to now. “We really gelled well as two units. We worked instinctively together on the ship, and the proof of the pudding of that is what we achieved – we went from four jets to fifteen” added Sparrow. Lt. Col. Freshour said the biggest area of learning by the two squadrons was in “pushing the flight deck and getting the flight deck prepared for what the deployment will look like in that size and scope of aircraft.”

While the RN was out of the aircraft carrier game for nearly a decade, the benefits of personnel exchange programs with the US have paid dividends. This not only keeps naval aviation skills alive, but helped build personal relationships and an understanding of procedures and tactics. Both Cdr. Sparrow and Capt. Blackmore (UK Carrier Air Wing Commander) flew Super Hornets with the US Navy.

Executive officer of VMFA-211, Major Christopher Brandt, noted that the diverse range of weather conditions experienced at sea off the UK were a useful training experience. “Our pilots are used to operating around Yuma, which is sunny, you know, 360 days of the year… I think is a huge thing to build on when the actual deployment comes around in the spring.” Before the deployment UMSC pilots trained on simulators in the US and at RAF Marham. For novices to carrier operations the simulator training includes two-day flying sims of around two hours and two night flying sims. This is followed by an emergency procedures sim where the pilot must deal with a variety of aircraft malfunctions while operating at sea. The simulator is able to realistically create the QEC aircraft carrier flight deck and fully prepare USMC pilots who have been used to flying from the US Navy’s assault ships (LHDs).

Adjusting to the ski ramp fitted to HMS Queen Elizabeth did not prove to be difficult and only requires minor change to procedures, compared to the flat deck launch from the LHDs. The ramp allows take-off in a reduced distance and with heavier loads, but apart from allowing for the minor effects of wind turbulence around the ramp, there are minimal differences for the pilot. The F-35 is highly automated and Lt. Col. Freshour described take-off procedure: “You would start from that point on the ship lined up with the ramp and literally just take off and let the jet fly itself away. It recognises the type of take-off programs and the appropriate control laws and then does everything else for you”.

The ability to share logistic support was proven with US jets able to use UK parts temporarily and switch it out for a US one at a later date. The F-35’s bespoke Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) was able to cope with the management challenge of two parts inventories. ALIS is used for tracking and ordering spares, to assess the material state of the aircraft, and used by maintainers to plan engineering activities and for mission planning. The system has had a troubled history, being slow, suffering cyber-attacks and running on outdated hardware. ALIS is being gradually replaced by the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), a vastly improved cloud-based system.

Achieving genuine interoperability is far more complex than it may appear. A common language and operating the same aircraft is just the starting point. Officially the Pentagon describes interoperability as the ability to act together coherently, effectively, and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives, requiring the ability to exchange information through electronic communication. Even more importantly at the human level commanders need to understand each other’s doctrine and tactics if they are to be able to go into combat together.

To some extent, this interoperability is a perishable skill that requires continual exercising together, communication, liaison and planning. Britain is fortunate to have such a committed partner and the regeneration of UK Carrier Enabled Power Projection would have been almost impossible without assistance from the US. There is also a significant political dimension to embarking USMC onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. Potential adversaries are put on notice that the US would be directly in the fight if the carrier group was attacked. This significantly raises the stakes beyond what it would be if it were an entirely British force.

It is also interesting to note that the benefit of the integration of the two forces was in serious jeopardy when in 2010 the UK reversed its decision to buy the F-35B and go for CATOBAR carriers and F-35C. This decision put the USMC in a difficult position and for a short period, the Pentagon began to doubt the whole viability of the B variant. Fortunately for the USMC, the UK reverted back to the STOVL carriers / B variant in 2012 and the rest is history.