The first British F-35B has taken off and landed on the country’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, as the ship and crew got high marks from the defense ministry.
Breaking Defense reported that the pilot, Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray, 41, took off in his aircraft Sept. 25 from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., the flew to the carrier where he landed and then took off again using the QE’s ski-ramp.
Video credit: Breaking Defense
The sea-based air operation was Britain’s first in eight years, since retiring its last generation of aircraft carriers.
For the next two months, Queen Elizabeth and her crew will be laying off the waters of the U.S. East Coast as aircrews and pilots continue training with the F-35B. Then, the ship will return in about year for more sophisticated operational testing with the objective of deploying for combat duty by 2021.
When Queen Elizabeth deploys for real, it will be the first time since a British carrier has been at sea on combat duty since 2010.
Two years after that the ship will be joined by a second carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, giving Britain a new and substantial carrier capability it hasn’t had in nearly a decade after retiring the Ark Royal and Invincible.
“This is a proper strategic asset,” Capt. Jerry Kyd, commander of the carrier, told reporters aboard the QE last week.
United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group Commodore Andrew Betton told reporters that “this is the first time anywhere in the world we have brought together a 5th Gen fighter with a 5th Gen aircraft carrier.”
The QE and Prince of Wales were both designed specifically to carry the F-35B. The Prince of Wales will begin sea trials in 2019 and is scheduled for full deployment in 2023.
British naval pilots have been operating on U.S. and French aircraft carriers since the Royal Navy retired its last two carriers. And they have been involved in the F-35 program from the beginning. Still, Breaking Defense noted, there has been some “muscle memory” loss.
“We’re not going to pretend it’s easy,” Rear Adm. Keith Blount, assistant chief of the Naval Staff told reporters. “But this isn’t unfathomably difficult for us. We are enjoying going back into the big time, and this is one of those big steps on that ladder. It’s hugely exciting and should be reassuring to those back home and to those on this side of the Atlantic.”
Analysis: It should be noted that the UK retired, and then decided to build, two carriers about the same time that Russian aggression was picking up again following Moscow’s short 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Speaking of Russia, the Kremlin’s navy has only one carrier, the aged Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched in 1985 and which just finished a refit this year and a combat deployment to Syria. While there supporting Russian operations, the ship struggled to remain operational and reports claimed that at least two fighters were lost.
The same report cited Russian sources claiming that Moscow wants to build a new carrier called the “Shtorm” which would rival American Nimitz-class carriers in power, displacement (100,000 tons), and aircraft (90 per carrier). But the same source noted Russia would have difficulty funding such a massive shipbuilding project and would equally struggle to equip the ship with aircraft.
Russia has a “fifth-generation” prototype, the T-50, but analysts say it’s fifth-gen “in name only” because it lacks the stealth and avionics capabilities of the F-22 and F-35. So for now, while Russia does field a large number of ships and submarines that can project power globally, Moscow cannot do so with aircraft.
The addition of the British carriers is a huge capability boost for NATO and it gives the United States much-needed assistance in patrolling and projecting power throughout the North Atlantic and beyond. Like its U.S. Navy counterparts, the British carriers will deploy in a battle group designed to protect the capital ships from enemy subs and long-range missiles. Plus, with true stealth capability on its flight deck, its strike power will be unrivaled within NATO navies save the United States.
Without question, the addition of these two ships to NATO’s offensive naval power is substantial and sorely needed as tensions with an old rival rise once again.