Commodore Andrew Betton and Col. Phil Kelly on the HMS Queen Elizabeth

By Robbin Laird

During my visit to Portsmouth, England and to RAF Marham in early May 2018, I visited senior Royal Navy and defense personnel involved in the standing up of the UK carrier strike capability.

After my morning briefings with the Royal Navy with regard to preparing the carrier for its role as the flagship of a maritime strike group, I had a chance to discuss the way ahead with the commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, Commodore Andrew Betton and with Colonel Phil Kelly, Royal Marines, COMUKCSG Strike Commander.

The new UK carriers are coming at a time when there is a broader UK and allied defense transformation and a strategic shift from counter-insurgency to higher end operations.

The new UK carrier provides a mobile basing capability by being a flexible sea base which can complete UK land based air assets, and a flexible asset that can play a role in the Northern Flank or the Mediterranean on a regular deployment basis and over time be used for deployments further away from Europe as well.

Commodore Betton and Col. Kelly both underscored the flexible nature of the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The UK is building out a 21stcentury version of a carrier strike group, one which can leverage the F-35 as a multi-domain combat system and to do both kinetic and non-kinetic strike based on these aircraft, as well combine them with helicopter assault assets to do an F-35 enabled assault, or if desired, shift to a more traditional heavy helicopter assault strike.

As Commodore Betton put it: “Our new carrier offers a really flexible, integrative capability.

“The carrier can play host and is intended absolutely to play host to a carrier air wing.

“At the same time, it can provide something very different inn terms of littoral combat operations, primarily using helicopters.”

They emphasized that the Royal Navy was building new escort ships as well as new submarines and the approach to building a maritime strike group meant that working through the operational launch of the carrier was also about its ability to integrated with and to lead a 21stcentury maritime strike group.

And the new maritime strike group was being built to work with allies but just as importantly to operate in the sovereign interest of the United Kingdom.

The F-35B onboard was a key enabler to the entire strike group functions.

Commodore Betton : “The airwing enables us to maneuver to deliver effects in the particular part of the battlespace which we are operating in.  You can have sea control without the airwing.

“Our air wing can enable us to be able to do that and have sufficient capability to influence the battlespace.

“You clearly do not simply want to be a self-sustaining force that doesn’t do anything to affect the battlespace decisively.

“The F-35 onboard will allow us to do that.”

Col. Kelly noted that with the threat to land air bases, it was important to have a sea base to operate from as well, either as an alternative or complement to land bases.

“The carriers will be the most protected air base which we will have. And we can move that base globally to affect the area of interest important to us.

“For example, with regard to Northern Europe, we could range up and down the coastlines in the area and hold at risk adversary forces.

“I think we can send a powerful message to any adversary.”

Commodore Betton added that the other advantage of the sea base is its ability to be effective on arrival.

“If you have to operate off of land, you have to have the local permission.  You have to move assets ashore.  You have to support assets ashore.  And you have to protect the land base.  The sea base has all of that built in.

“And there is nothing austere about our carriers in terms of operating aircraft.”

We focused on how the carrier becomes integrated with broader strike picture, for the point is not simply that the carrier itself launches F-35s or helicopters, but how the command post can manage the aircraft they launch with the distributed strike assets in the strike group, which could include land based air or land based forces as well.

Col. Kelly emphasized that their position was similar to the evolution of the USMC where “every platform can be a sensor or a shooter” in the battlespace.

The C2 onboard the carrier on in the air with the Crow’s nest or the F-35Bs can be part of a distributed CS system to ensure maximum effect from the strike and sensing capability of the task force and its related partners in the battlespace.

And innovations in the missile domain up to and including directed energy weapons have been anticipated in the support structure onboard the carrier. 

During my visit to the Scottish shipyard where Queen Elizabeth was built, I had a chance to look at the infrastructure onboard the ship to support weapons as well as was briefed on the significant power generation capabilities onboard the ship which clearly allow it to when appropriate technology is available to add directed energy weapons.

In addition, to the longer range weapons already in train and the ones which will be developed in the decade ahead, the British carriers are being built to be able to handle rolling landing which allow the F-35s to come back onto the ship with weapons which have not been used during the mission.

The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales is the first of the two carriers to be fitted with this capability which will be further tested when it comes to the United States in a couple of years for its F-35 integration trials as well.

In short, the new carrier is being built with “growthability” in mind, in terms of what it can do organically, and what it can leverage and contribute to the maritime task force, and reach out into the battlespace to work effectively with other national or allied assets operating in the area of interest.

Note: The Brits have been working closely with the US and other allies as they prepare to bring their new carrier into operational life.

Beyond the question of various aspects of cooperation with the US Navy, the USMC and the Military Sealift Command (addressed in a separate piece), two exercises conducted with Commander Betton as the UK Carrier Strike Group Commander have taken place over the past year to prepare for future deployments.

The first was the Saxon Warrior exercise held last year.

In a Royal Navy article published July 27, 2017, the role of this exercise in the training for the new UK carrier was described.

One of the world’s largest aircraft carriers has today sailed into Portsmouth for a port visit before embarking Royal Naval personnel for a two-week exercise.

The USS George HW Bush and elements of her carrier strike group – the USS Philippine Sea, USS Donald Cook and Norwegian ship HNoMS Helge Insgstad are on the final leg of their deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Global Coalition’s fight against ISIS.

The Nimitz-class carrier has UK personnel on board as part of the UK-US Long Lead Specialist Skills Programme which qualifies them in US carrier operations in preparation for the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the UK’s own carrier strike capability.

Also embarked is Commander UK Carrier Strike Group Commodore Andrew Betton and his team for Exercise Saxon Warrior 17 – a joint maritime exercise that will focus how the two nations work together during a number of challenging scenarios around the UK coastline.

“Exercise Saxon Warrior is a large, multinational joint exercise which involves fifteen warships from five different nations, submarines, over 100 aircraft and about 9,000 personnel,” said Cdre Betton.

“The UK contribution will be two Type 23 frigates supporting the US aircraft carrier, a Royal Navy submarine, the Carrier Strike Group UK battle staff, fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft operating from ashore, and then the central training staff who will based in Faslane in Scotland.”

The exercise, which begins once the group leaves Portsmouth, will also be key to ensuring UK personnel are fully equipped ahead of the arrival of the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Over the next fortnight U.S. Naval personnel will train side-by-side with UK pilots, engineers and deck handlers to build combined maritime and aviation capability and capacity.

Colonel Phil Kelly, Royal Marines is the COMUKCSG Strike Commander. He said: “This exercise is a great demonstration of the UK’s relationship with the United States who are helping us in getting back our carrier strike capability and making a success of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier programme.”

The Type 23 frigates taking part in Ex Saxon Warrior will be Portsmouth-based HMS Iron Duke and HMS Westminster who will be joined by Royal Fleet Auxiliary fast fleet tanker Wave Ruler.

 The second was an exercise held earlier this year from Portsmouth.

An article published by the Royal Navy on January 29, 2018, describes the exercise:

Another milestone has been reached in the UK’s return to carrier strike operations.

Personnel from five Royal Navy ships took part in the latest validation exercise, learning how to work as part of a battlegroup with the nation’s new aircraft carriers.

The UK Carrier Strike Group exercise was run by the US Navy and involved the French, Danish and German navies.

As well as personnel from HMS Queen Elizabeth, members of the ships’ companies from Prince of Wales, Type 45 destroyer’s HMS Dragon and Diamond and Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose, also took part.

Destroyers and frigates will be escorts for both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales when they deploy.

The Multi-National Fleet Synthetic Training Group Command Exercise was run from the Maritime Composite Training System site at HMS Collingwood.

Those taking part in the exercise were visited by Rear Admiral Patrick Piercey, Director for Operations US Pacific Command.

“It was an excellent opportunity to review concepts of operations at different threat levels for CSG operations.

Key themes discussed focused on the need for range for the Carrier Air Wing and future operational environments,” said Colonel Philip Kelly RM, CSG Strike Warfare Commander.

“The Admiral had a very keen understanding of the challenges we both face and was impressed with UK CSG’s progress thus far. I think we the UKCSG will be a welcome addition to any allied force as we bring significant combat power.”

The Admiral also visited HMS Queen Elizabeth, touring the hangar and the ship’s Flyco, before stepping out onto the carrier’s four-acre flight deck.

Commander UKCSG Cdre Andrew Betton also briefed Admiral Piercey on the carrier regeneration programme and how the two Navies are working together.

“It’s a great opportunity to discuss the UK’s return to Carrier Strike operations and how we can build our close operational partnerships across the globe,” said Cdre Betton.

Following the exercise, Cdre Betton hosted Vice Admiral Tim Fraser, Chief of Joint Operations, visiting from Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Vice Admiral Fraser toured the aircraft carrier and met members of the Carrier Strike Group as he was updated on the development of carrier strike.

Last year the CSG brushed up their skills when they embarked in the USS George HW Bush for Exercise Saxon Warrior.

The build up of CSG has also seen experts from the US Navy and US Marine Corps help to train and mentor the COMUKCSG team, who have also worked closely with the RAF.

In the autumn of this year HMS Queen Elizabeth is set to deploy to the east coast of the USA for her first-of-class flying trials with the F-35B.

With regard to the new landing system, one source had this to say about that system and its potential impact:

The Royal Navy wants their F-35Bs to be able to the return to the ship with more gas and weapons than they normally could by landing vertically on the decks of their two new Queen Elizabeth classaircraft carriers. The aim is to accomplish this by making a slow-speed—57 knots indicated airspeed to be exact—rolling recovery down the ship’s landing and departure area, instead of a vertical landing. Officially this hybrid maneuver, which uses lift from the aircraft’s wings and thrust from its engine and lift fan, has been dubbed a “Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing,” or SRVL for short. 

 Another advantage of standardizing this recovery concept is that it will put less wear and tear on the F-35B’s costly lift fan and its associated subsystems and linkages—a move that could potentially save large sums of money over the aircraft’s operational life. It would also help alleviating thermal wear on the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales titanium injected deck coatings. 

The featured photo shows Commodore Jeremy Kyd (left) greeting Commodore Andrew Betton OBE outside Victory Building prior to the handover as the CO of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Credit: Royal Navy