Since MS&T reported in November 2015 (MS&T 6-2015) on the Royal Navy’s preparations to accept the two new Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carriers into the Fleet, much progress has been achieved in both the carrier and the associated F-35B Lightning II programmes. MS&T’s Europe Editor Dim Jones captures the current status.
The first of class, HMS Queen Elizabeth, left the dock at Rosyth, where she was built, on 26th June 2017; this itself was not entirely straightforward, since the lateral clearance through the dock gate was measured in centimetres rather than metres, following which the ship’s mast needed to be lowered to allow her to pass under the Forth Road Bridge. She then proceeded to the North Sea for her initial sea trials around the coast of Scotland, during which she met with ships taking part in Exercise SAXON WARRIOR, including the US carrier USS George H W Bush. This first chapter of sea trials was designed to test the power and propulsion systems, stability and manoeuvrability; according to the Commanding Officer, Captain Jerry Kyd – in his then alter-role as the Admiralty Trials Master – she performed extremely well, proving both strong and stable, and permitting operation at full power early on. Following completion of this phase of testing, she arrived in her home port of Portsmouth for the first time on 16th July, with five Merlin helicopters of 820 Naval Air Squadron embarked.
Following a period of post-trial dockyard engineering, HMS Queen Elizabeth (abbreviated by the RN to QNLZ) left Portsmouth for Mission Systems trials on 30th October. These primarily tested the ship’s sensors, including the radar and communications systems, and also allowed air flow pattern tests over the flight deck. For both sets of trials, a combined team of RN and industry personnel, the latter representing the building consortium, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA), operated the ship. She returned to Portsmouth after a month, and was commissioned into the Royal Navy by HM The Queen on 7th December 2017, which marked the formal acceptance of the vessel, and the handover from the ACA to the RN.
Having established the ship’s seaworthiness and mission systems effectiveness, the next step was to continue the operational training of the crew, which had started, in harness with ACA personnel, during build at Rosyth, and continued during the proving trials. During January 2018, the ship underwent a short period of Harbour Trials, under the supervision of Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) staff, and sailed at the end of the month, with FOST staff embarked, for a programme at sea. This included major peacetime Fire and Damage Control evolutions, and the first Replenishment At Sea (RAS), when QNLZ took on fuel from the new Fleet Auxiliary vessel, RFA Tidespring – a first for both ships. The next phase was the initial rotary wing trials, initially with Wildcat and Merlin aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, but this will rapidly progress to include RAF Chinooks and Army Apaches, which will be integral elements of the ship’s Air Group for certain roles. Finally, QNLZ will proceed to the eastern seaboard of the US towards the end of the year, to start fixed-wing trials with F-35B aircraft, initially flown from the Integrated Test Force at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland (which includes RAF and RN test pilots), but later from the US Marine Corps.
QNLZ’s sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales (PWLS), continues in build at Rosyth, and was recently floated and moved from the construction dock to her fitting-out berth alongside. In the presence of her namesake, she was named on 8th September by the Duchess of Rothesay (Prince Charles is titled the Duke of Rothesay when in Scotland). The ship’s forebear, a World War 2 King George V-class battleship, had a brief but eventful operational career, being badly damaged by the German battleship Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait in May 1941 (in which action the battlecruiser HMS Hood was sunk) before deploying to the Far East and earning the dubious honour of being the first capital ship to meet her end solely at the hands of naval aircraft in December 1941.
Meanwhile, much progress is also being made with aircraft of the QEC’s planned Air Group; principal among these is the F-35B Lightning II. No 17(R) Squadron, a joint RAF/RN unit and the UK’s F-35 Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) squadron, have been operating alongside US and foreign personnel at Edwards AFB for some time. The first operational squadron, No 617 (Dambusters), previously equipped with Tornado GR4 at RAF Lossiemouth, has reformed at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina, and is working up on the new aircraft. Groundcrew and aircrew are drawn from both RN and RAF, and last year the first four ‘ab-initio’ pilots – i.e. direct from advanced pilot training on the Hawk T2 – joined the squadron. 617 received its 14th aircraft at the end of last year, and is expected to move to its new home, at RAF Marham in Norfolk, this summer. The second operational squadron, forming this year, will be 809 Naval Air Squadron, and the Operational Conversion Unit, standing up in 2019, will be No 207 Squadron, which has its roots in both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, before their amalgamation to form the RAF in 1918. The operational squadrons are expected to concentrate on achieving operational capability from a shore base, before progressing to shipborne operations. The final piece of the Air Group jigsaw, and the Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) capability which it provides, will be the Crowsnest system, to be fitted to Merlin Mk2 helicopters, and delivering a long-range air, maritime and land surveillance and tracking capability.
Once the ship’s company and the air group are worked up to operational capability in their separate environments, they will need to come together and work up as a fighting unit. For this, the ship will undergo an operational work-up programme, under the supervision of FOST staff – known as FOSTies or Sea Riders – which I described in MS&T 2-2011. This commences with Basic Operational Sea Training (BOST), conducted from Devonport, and continues with Directed Continuation Training (DCT) as required. Superimposed on this live training programme will be collective synthetic training of Operations Room personnel in the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS); a full QEC ops staff will occupy an entire MCTS Warfare Team Trainer (WTT), of which HMS Collingwood in Portsmouth has three, and Devonport two. Carrier Strike Group (CSG) personnel have also taken part in US Fleet Synthetic Exercises. Central to the BOST programme are a series of events known as ‘Thursday Wars’, in which all ships undergoing BOST participate, at whatever stage of training they may be, plus ‘guest acts’ as required. The range of roles of which QEC will be capable, not least that of Flagship or Commander Task Group (CTG), plus the complications of exercising the air group and the support required from other ships to form an escort group, means that BOST and Thursday Wars for QEC will be like no others before them.
Budgets and Resources
Of course, programmes as complex as QEC and F-35 never progress without some problems and, in the case of these two ships, their considerable cost, and the slice of the defence budget and future resources that they represent, mean that expectations are high. QNLZ appears to be doing well thus far, despite the media frenzy over a relatively minor technical fault during trials – a leak in one of the propeller shafts, which will be fixed by the ACA. Likewise, all reports of the F-35B indicate that it is an extremely capable air platform, and the aircrew to whom I have spoken are universally enthusiastic.
The issues will be with manning and resourcing. Taking F-35 first, the original order, on the basis of which the UK’s Tier 1 status and manufacturing workshare was based, was 138 aircraft. This commitment was reiterated in both the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR). Yet, in the current budgetary climate, and unless the new Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, registers an unprecedented (and unlikely) victory over the Chancellor, it is difficult to see how this offtake target will be met – other than by the sort of ‘smoke and mirrors’ employed in the Typhoon programme. In my days as an Air Plans slave on the 4th floor of the MoD, the magic number of Typhoon for the RAF was 242; Wikipedia tells me that the ‘expected production’ for UK is now 160. This gloomy assessment of the MoD’s ability to finance its equipment programme is supported by a recent National Audit Office report, which highlights a multi-billion pound ‘black hole’ in the defence budget.
The number of F-35 might not have been so critical had only one ship been in operation at a time, which was the received wisdom during the recession years, and as the cost of the programme became clearer. However, while still Prime Minister, David Cameron made it clear that he expected both ships to be commissioned and available for active service at the same time, presenting challenges in resourcing (both equipment and manpower), and training. The headline cost of £6.2bn for the two carriers is eye-catching enough; however, at over $100m a copy for F-35B, the full seagoing complement of 48 F-35 represents not far off the same amount again, and this does not include training and reserve aircraft required to support the front-line fleet. It is true that, even if both ships are operational, they may not both require the full complement of F-35 (24 aircraft each); specific roles might see Chinook or Apache embarked instead of F-35. Wherever the Air Group personnel come from, however, two QEC ship’s companies represent around 1350 men, and the modest increase of 400 in SDSR 2015 RN manpower levels over SDSR 2010 will not cover this, although some manpower should become available when HMS OCEAN is retired later this year, and also from the planned mothballing of one of the two amphibious assault ships (HMS ALBION and BULWARK), assuming that they survive the current mini-defence review. Many of QNLZ’s company joined during the build programme and trained on the new equipment and systems alongside ACA technicians; however, many of these experienced personnel have now moved on to do the same with PWLS, to be replaced by people less experienced in the role.
Manning the QEC carriers themselves is only part of the problem; the ships required to protect them also have to be resourced, and the sad sight of all six Type 45 destroyers, a pivotal part of the plot, tied up in Portsmouth just before Christmas – reportedly for a variety of reasons, including equipment failures, routine maintenance and manpower shortages – does little to inspire confidence. One chink of light is that defence has now been separated from the wider security capability review being led by the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, and will be conducted by the MoD itself over the next few months – but the caveats about Defence v Treasury stand. A host of retired senior commanders and politicians (to say nothing of their US counterparts) have expressed forceful views on the progressive decay in the UK’s defence capability since 1990, and successive governments’ neglect of what ought to be their primary responsibility – the defence of the realm. However, the prevailing political view seems to be that defence doesn’t buy votes, and there are plenty of competing causes that do.
In sum, then, the work-up of both QNLZ and F-35B appears to be going well, and the RN and RAF are enthusiastic about the Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and air warfare capabilities that they will bring. It is to be hoped that this enthusiasm will be matched by proper resourcing.
Flight Deck Operations Training
A major (perhaps the major) element of the QEC work-up will be flight deck operations, the raison d’être. General RN surface fleet (Type 45 or 23) flight deck operations involve a single aircraft and a single landing spot. The RN’s current flagship, the amphibious assault ship HMS OCEAN, can carry up to 18 helicopters, comprising all the types – Merlin, AW-159 Wildcat, Apache and Chinook – which will routinely be carried on the QEC carriers. Additionally, the RN’s two Amphibious Transport Dock ships, HMS ALBION and HMS BULWARK, each have two landing spots for helos up to the size of Chinook. Nevertheless, QEC will present a new set of challenges: multiple deck landing spots; fixed-wing and rotary on the same deck; multiple aircraft types (the RN are expected to operate F-35, Merlin, Wildcat, Apache and Chinook, and visitors could include Osprey and a variety of helicopter types); and the requirement to co-ordinate activity between FLYCO (in charge of all aircraft operations), the Deck Operations Officer (DOO) and the Flight Deck Officers (FDO), while the deck could be populated with personnel engaged on other tasks, and vehicles. It is some seven years since the Harrier force was retired, and three since HMS Illustrious, by then operating only helicopters, decommissioned. There will have been some loss of expertise although, in the interim, the RN has had Aircraft Handling (AH) personnel undertaking Long Lead Specialist Skills (LLSS) training in US warships, including those operating the F-35B. In the future, a familiarisation period at RAF Marham with the Lightning Force will also be part of the training. As a way of keeping the AH Branch current in fixed-wing flight deck operations, the enhanced synthetic training and LLSS are very much viewed as money well spent, and have been critical across the various branches that have benefitted from LLSS in retaining fixed wing Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP) in the Fleet Air Arm during the Carrier Strike capability gap. It has also significantly assisted our combined US/UK effort, as the RN personnel have been seen as extremely beneficial to the US, including the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) involvement in the US Fleet Synthetic exercises.
The simulator at the Royal Naval School of Flight Deck Operations (RNSFDO) at Culdrose, has been modernised and updated by the original manufacturers, Bristol-based SEA – of whom more to come in Issue 2. Together with replica F-35B’s on the Dummy Deck on Culdrose’s ramp, this facility is now considered suitable for initial QEC AH training, but something more sophisticated is clearly needed to meet the requirements outlined above. The Future Training Unit (FTU) are further developing the DOO Course as the crew of QNLZ develop flight deck procedures, based on aviation experience to date, and this process will be further informed by First-Of-Class Flight Trials (FOCFT) (Rotary-Wing and Fixed-Wing (RW & FW)) leading up to the first Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployment in 2021. A Training Needs Assessment for the FLYCO training elements has been completed, and this is being taken forward commercially by the MoD’s Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) division.
In MS&T Issue 3-2015, I reported on the F-35/QEC flight deck simulator, developed by BAE Systems at their Warton Facility. In August 2017, coincidentally on the day that QNLZ first entered Portsmouth, I attended a media event at Warton, during which we had the opportunity to see and fly the enhanced simulator, which now includes a representation of the flight deck environment as seen from the FLYCO tower. From this position, the Landing Signals Officer (LSO) can control aircraft, either computer-generated or as flown by the cockpit simulator. This facility is the interim solution for LSO/FLYCO training, and it is proving its worth in the run up to FOCFT(FW) with the F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) Test Pilots and UK F-35B LSOs. All of the UK ITF Test Pilots have spent time in the Warton simulator to start building a cadre of SQEP, ahead of FOCFT(FW); furthermore, the modelling is being updated with the results of the recent Air Flow and Air Pattern trials. In the longer term, there will also be some form of synthetic LSO training in-situ at RAF Marham.
Overall, the advanced simulation and modelling used in preparing for QEC aviation operations, plus the RW experience already gained during sea trials, has led to a high level of confidence in the training programme, and further work will continue by FOST and Aviation Assurance teams throughout FOCFT(RW) leading into FOCT (FW) at the end of this year. – Dim Jones
Featured in MS&T Issue 1, 2018.