An aircraft carrier will take aircraft to where you need them to operate them – with the added benefit that the ship remains UK sovereign territory and that it can carry everything needed to sustain its aircraft for weeks or months on end. The process of preparing for HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment in 2021 is progressing across a broad front. Everything from the base, the equipment and the people.
Based at Portsmouth, the Carrier Strike Group staff is taking shape. With a team of about 70 specialists – predominantly officers with a few senior ratings in the mix. Together they cover a broad spectrum of maritime expertise. There are fighter pilots, helicopter aircrew, logisticians, warfare officers, submariners, intelligence and cyber and communications specialists.
The staff is built around three core functions – operations, information warfare and logistics – but what makes the Carrier Strike Group special is the addition of a strike warfare cell with fixed-wing, helicopter and submarine expertise. This cell generates the strike DNA that flows right through the staff, giving it a focus on strike operations.
Essentially the Carrier Strike Group consists of the carrier, the escorts, support vessels and, when applicable associated land-based aircraft. In terms of the UK carrier group, the exact configuration will be tailored to the mission. That said, whenever one of the carriers deploys, it is likely to be escorted by a number of frigates as part of the anti-submarine defence layer, destroyers for defence air and potentially an integrated submarine for longer-range surveillance and protection.
There are also a number of other supporting elements that will play a part. Any future Carrier Strike Group could be accompanied by one of the future fleet support ships as well as a Tide-class tanker to replenish stores of food and ammunition as well as fuel, water and anything else required for a long deployment.
The Integrated Mission System
Alongside the F-35B, the new carriers can embark any aircraft that has been cleared for carrier operations. This covers Royal Navy rotary-wing assets such as Merlin, Merlin CROWSNEST, and Wildcat. Added to that, there is also the Royal Air Force Chinook and Puma helicopters, and crucially the Army Air Corps Apache gunship, which add another element of carrier strike to the capability.
The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be ready to serve as significant players on the global stage in peacetime and wartime. They will offer the ability to go to a crisis before it comes to us. In a high-end conflict, this could be in the carrier strike role. But, if it is in response to an earthquake, tsunami or other humanitarian crisis, the carriers can be adapted to conduct a non-combatant evacuation or a disaster relief operation.
The Carrier Strike Group staff is already in training for any of these eventualities and in early 2017 the team conducted synthetic (computer-based) training with the US Navy as it was preparing to deploy a carrier to the Middle East.