Netherlands F135 engine maintenance facility has been approved for initial depot capability.
Interview: Commander Air, HMS Queen Elizabeth (Studio)
In September 2020, the USMC Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) embarked ten F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters onboard the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, joining British platforms of the same aircraft type.
The deployment underlined the interoperability benefits of acquiring an aircraft such as the F-35B, as well as its role in projecting the UK’s carrier strike capability, according to Cdr Edward Phillips, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commander Air.
The VMFA-211 aircraft shared the carrier with the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters”, with the aircraft taking part in a UK-led NATO group exercise in the North Sea.
The deployment was the first time that US fifth-generation aircraft were integrated on another country’s vessel, and was the largest air group operating from a Royal Navy carrier since the early 1980s.
The two-month USMC deployment on HMS Queen Elizabeth was ‘the greatest level of fifth-generation combat airpower at sea in a single ship ever to date’, Cdr Phillips told Studio from onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
By operating together in an integrated fashion, the two nations were developing both operational understanding and a sense of camaraderie, he noted, adding that this would ‘stand us in very good stead’ for the aircraft carrier’s first deployment as part of Carrier Strike Group 2021 in the Asia-Pacific region.
That deployment will again see US Marine Corps F-35 aircraft joining the carrier, and include USS The Sullivans, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
This concept of ‘interchangeability’ brings a range of advantages, Cdr Phillips said.
‘It’s about trying to get to the highest level of integration between us so that we can be flying together, we can be operating together on our flight decks, we can be truly interchangeable in our procedures, in our concepts, and in our outlook - and ultimately in our capability.’
HMS Queen Elizabeth is one of two carriers in Royal Navy service, along with HMS Prince of Wales. Developing the capability has been a long journey, with the programmes for both the F-35 and the carriers beginning many years ago, noted Cdr Phillips.
‘What were once computer-generated images a decade or so ago are now made real,’ he said from the bridge of the new carrier.
HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in December 2017, after which it went through a period of developmental testing for the aircraft, which ‘went very successfully, as you would expect from a ship and aircraft that have been designed to operate with each other from the start’.
A series of operational tests then took place in 2019, Cdr Phillips said, which ‘was about taking the ability of the aircraft as an aircraft on an aircraft carrier to one that can fight from an aircraft carrier, in terms of the weapons capability, sensor integration, and how that links with all of the other capabilities across a carrier strike task group’. The focus in 2020 was on training, he said, including with the USMC, ahead of the deployment in 2021.
Carrier-based F-35B aircraft have great significance for the UK as a sovereign power, Cdr Phillips added.
Carrier-enabled power projection and the carrier strike capability ‘is very much at the forefront of what the UK’s defence ambition is for now and into the future’, he said, noting that the country is just at the beginning of a 50-year programme.
‘That’s about global power projection and global influence in the years ahead,’ he said.
The F-35B is a fifth-generation, world-beating capability, Cdr Phillips said, ’at the cutting edge of combat airpower around the world’. The carrier programme – along with the aircraft’s acquisition – has placed the country at the forefront of carrier aviation, he said.
‘Integrating F-35 into these ships – which have been designed from the keel up for this remarkable aircraft – is incredible stuff.’
The new carrier class design has both the present and the future in mind, said Cdr Phillips. A key aim was to ensure their versatility and adapt to future growth and developments in technology.
‘I think you’ll see the ability for [HMS Queen Elizabeth] to adapt, whether that’s five, ten, 15, 20 years in the future, to emerging technologies, emerging aircraft types, whether that’s crewed aircraft or not. You can see the latent potential that’s there within the class.’
It is impossible to predict the full extent the carriers, their aircraft and associated systems could develop in the decades to come.
However, Cdr Phillips said that ‘when you look at the technological advancements that we see … both in terms of aircraft as a whole, but [also] in terms of datalinks, in terms of systems, in terms of weapons, there’s a really exciting future there’.
The emphasis on versatility, then, will enable the UK to exploit whatever those changes might be successfully.
‘F-35B will be around for a great many years yet,’ Cdr Phillips concluded. ‘Whether F-35B is supported by another type of combat aircraft, or supplanted by [one] in decades to come, we’ll have to wait for the future to see. But the ships themselves have the capacity to adapt.’
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