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Carrier strike is “the ability to use fixed-wing aircraft from a maritime base to project military power from the sea”.

This debate is about the UK’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and Lightning aircraft which, together with the Crowsnest airborne radar system fitted to Merlin helicopters, will form the UK’s future carrier strike capability. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment will be in 2021.

The UK has been without a carrier strike capability since 2010, following the decision in the Strategic Defence and Security Review to retire the Harrier aircraft that operated from the Invincible-class carriers.

Cost and time into service

Delivering a Carrier Strike capability is expected to cost £14 billion up to 2021. In 2018 the MOD stated its expectation that the aircraft carriers will be delivered within their re-baselined cost of £6.212 billion. In early 2019 the MOD estimated the unit price for an F-35B at $115.5 million, compared to $161 million for the aircraft that were delivered in 2012.

Defence Minister Earl Howe said the MOD expects to declare initial operating capability for carrier strike – consisting of one squadron with 12 aircraft and 18 pilots – in December 2020. Full operating capability, consisting of two squadrons, will be achieved in 2023.

HMS Prince of Wales is expected to start sea trials in late 2019.

First deployment to the Pacific

The Defence Secretary announced the first operational mission of HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region, in a speech on 11 February 2019.

The announcement “scuppered” a planned trip to China by the Chancellor, media later reported, because of China’s unhappiness with the proposed deployment, prompting discord between the Treasury and the MOD. Armed Forces Minister Mark Lancaster said in a written answer “the deployment will include the Pacific region although exact locations and dates for this deployment are yet to be confirmed”.

American F-35s onboard

The Defence Secretary confirmed US Marine Corps F-35 aircraft will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing for her first deployment. The US Marine Corps is the only US Service to operate the same variation of F-35 as the UK (the US Navy will fly the carrier variant). The UK has worked closely alongside the Marine Corps in the F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) and Marine Corps pilots and aircraft were involved in flight trials in summer 2018.

While the number of aircraft deployed will depend on the deployment, the MOD has said the minimum number to be deployed will be one squadron – 12 aircraft. Two squadrons are required to declare full operating capability in 2023. The Carrier can have up to 36 aircraft embarked.

The Carrier Strike Group

An aircraft carrier will not deploy alone. A Carrier Strike Group might be expected, depending on the tasking, to include a destroyer (to provide air defence to the group), an anti-submarine warfare frigate, an attack submarine and auxiliary vessels. The MOD has so far refused to be drawn on exactly which vessels will deploy with HMS Queen Elizabeth as part of the Carrier Strike Group, although it is understood that a Dutch warship will form part of the CSG on its first operational deployment. The group may also include other vessels from Allies – Royal Navy warships have joined French and US carrier groups operating in the Mediterranean and the Gulf in recent years. A Type 45 will also escort Charles de Gaulle on her next deployment in March 2019.

Support facilities overseas

In April 2018 the Royal Navy opened a Naval Support Facility in Bahrain, the first permanent overseas Royal Navy facility operating ‘east of Suez’ in nearly 50 years. It will allow the Royal Navy to provide better support to its vessels operating in the region, which will include the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

In 2016 the UK also concluded an agreement with Oman to establish a permanent Joint Logistics Support Base, including dry dock capability, at the port of Duqm on the Arabian Sea. The facility opened in October 2018 and provides the UK with a strategically important and permanent base east of Suez, but outside of the Gulf. According to the MOD “From Duqm, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be able to project influence across an important region. She will fulfil multiple roles from providing air power anywhere at any time, to supporting allies or delivering humanitarian aid and the port itself provides Britain with a hub from which to tackle issues such as the fight against Daesh”.

Lightning ready to fly from land

In January 2019 the Defence Secretary declared the UK’s first Lightning aircraft ‘ready for operations’. This is from land – the aircraft are based at RAF Marham. The UK has taken delivery of 17 aircraft so far and committed to 48 aircraft out of an expected future total of 138 aircraft.

Defence Minister Earl Howe confirmed the first tranche of 48 aircraft will be the F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing variant capable of flying from the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers but refused to be drawn on subsequent tranches. There has been speculation that future tranches may include the F-35A variant, which cannot fly from the Carriers.

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