USMC F-35Bs on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers: The benefits and challenges

This week, there was sudden ‘breaking news’ that USMC F-35Bs will be deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth when the aircraft carrier deploys on its inaugural deployment in 2021. Experts, analysts and journalists (or so they title themselves) quickly praise or criticise this news.

But wait, don’t you all have any memories? This is not new news; rather it was announced at least 3 years ago. During a press conference with then Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon and US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, the former remarked, ” I can welcome the commitment of the United States to deploying F-35s on the first operational deployment of Queen Elizabeth — the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2021.” This was even previous mentioned by defence-savy BBC journalist Mark Urban back in 2014. Other news articles, releases or documents that mention the USMC F-35Bs on HMS Queen Elizabeth include:

Defensenews article citing former First Sea Lord George Zambellas saying US will aid British F-35s entryr into operations

A Royal Navy news release in 2014 saying “The aim is for US aircraft to be able to operate from UK aircraft carriers and vice versa.” Also see similar news here.

Aviationweek news article in 2015 stating exactly the same news. You can find a related article here.

Also reported on USNI news, see also this article which says “A Marine F-35B squadron will join the Royal Navy strike group on its first operational deployment in 2021 as part of the air group.”

It’s also mentioned on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s issus news article here

Also found on UK parliamentary questions

as well as the anti-F35 website, War is Boring

So, the Military.com news isn’t really new news.

Anyway, like it, hate it, or love it, the Yanks are coming to fly off a British-made aircraft carrier. Of course, as previously pointed on on twitter and in an academic paper, this is not a new format of military operations. The good blogger Sir Humphrey also notes that during WWII, the usage of HMS Victorious, aka USS Robin, is another example or US-UK joint naval partnership. I argue that, it is not exactly, since firstly, the request to use a Royal Navy carrier was due to circumstances, while in this case, US usage of either HMS Queen Elizabeth or HMS Prince of Wales was well planned in advance. Second, while HMS victorious was rapidly altered to suit USN carrier operations, both QECs already were planned–ingoring the STOVL to CTOL and back debacle–from the start to be joint operable with USMC F-35Bs, or even other allied F-35Bs, more about that later.

OK, we can debate the history of allied operations from a single deck or cross-decking, but now that we are definitely certain HMS Queen Elizabeth’s 2021 deployment will include USMC F-35Bs, what are the benefits and challenges for the USMC or US forces in general?

Benefits:

1) Flight deck size, elevator: One, the USMC will enjoy a much larger flight deck. As far as I can gather, the QECs have a flight deck size of around 4.5 acres while the America-class, which the USMC F-35Bs wil use, has only 2 acres of flight deck. The QECs also quite possibly have a larger hangar–I may be wrong, and its elevators can lift 2 F-35Bs each while an America-class can lift only one–again I may be wrong. The typical deployment of USMC aircraft on an America-class LHA will be around 6, maximum 10, excluding some helicopters. With the QECs large size, it can deploy a full squadron–either of 10 of 16 planes. Naturally, the more the merrier. Also, by deploying their F-35Bs on board the QEC, this would free up space on their America-class for more helicopters, making them pure amphibious assault ships.

2) Ski-jump: I suppose this is the most important benefit the USMC will gain and utilise. The British love the skim-jump and since they are set for STOVL operations in the long-term, ie, using the F-35B, the have included the ski-jump to ensure the STOVL aircraft can safely fly off the aircraft carrier–since it doesn’t have catpults and more crucially, able to launch with a heavier payload. USN Wasp and America-class LHDs and LHAs have never included a ski-jump in their design, so the USMC F-35Bs will enjoy flying off the QECs confidently and with a heavier payload. This is especially since their weaponary, particularly their GBU-32 (1,013 pounds) is generally heavier than the RAF/FAA Paveway IV (550 pounds). The USMC may even learn how to land using Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL), the British-specific method of landing a STOVL aircraft with a heavy payload.

3) Organic AEW or ASAC, ASW: The USMC Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) / Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) Air component / Marine Air-Ground Task Force(MAGTF) does not, as yet, have an organic aerial early warning (AEW) aircraft/helicopter while the RN tailored task group will have the Merlin Mk2 mounted with the modified Thales Searchwater 2000 AEW radar . This AEW or ASAC system might not exactly be fully operational by the 2021 deployment, but it will quite definitely be part of any UK carrier-based strike group. The USMC might be procuring a better AEW UAV, but that will take time to develop, so while their are flying of either QEC carrier, they will have the safe knowledge that Royal Navy FAA AEW/ASAC helicopters will be aiding them.

The USMC aviation team also does not have organic ASW helicopters, although their USN counterparts might deploy MH-60R helicopters off their baby aircraft carriers. In contrast, the RN FAA has the Merlin Mk2, which has a primary ASW role. Furthermore, the QEC task group will most definitely be accompanied by a RN Type 23 or in future, Type 26 ASW frigate. So the USMC pilots will safely know that while on board either QEC carrier, they will be surrounded with perfect ASW assets, unlike in their ARG/MEU, which typically is just one LHA, one LPD and one LSD, no ASW assets.

4) Logistics: In relation to the first argument, the USMC themselves the utility of the QEC carriers due to their larger size. Various USMC Aviation plans, such as the 2015, 2016 (can’t find the link but a hard copy says so) and 2017 versions explicitly indicate that the QECs, as well as the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi will be used as for not just allied/joint operations but forward basing for logistics operations. The USMC calls it ‘Distributed Aviation Operations’ or DAO.

5) AAW: Again, a basic USN-USMC ARG set of ships does not include an air defence ship. The QEC carriers, on the other hand, will always, and I say this with certainty, be accompanied with a Type 45 destroyer or maybe two, or even allied AAW ship(s). I know their are many armchair admirals on and offline criticising the Type 45s for lack of sufficient numerical VLS cells, but I say it is a very effective and lethal AAW destroyer. So given that the US ARG doesn’t include such a ship as yet, USMC F-35B aviators will have an excellent opportunity working with RN Type 45s to form AAW operations for the task group.

These are just some of the benefits that the USMC will gain while operating from either QEC carrier. Of course, the RAF and FAA will likewise benefit from a USMC squadron in terms of mass–more aircraft for again air defence, training and strike operations. They will benefit from learning USMC logistics and repairs procedures, especially since the USMC is the leading force in terms of operating the F-35B. Now for the challenges

1) Messing: I suppose this is minor challenge or not even a problem. But generally, Americans are larger in weight than the British. The British have a tight Daily Messing Rate for their sailors which although keeps them active and energetic, is limited in terms of budget. I can’t exactly find the USN or USMC equivalent to the DMR, but I suspect US sailors and marines get fed of a slightly higher budget. The amount of calories may not differ, but the lifestyle may take time to adjust to.

2) Terminology: Yes, it is a Special Relationship, yes they are NATO partners, but the terminology used, especially since RAF Air Command is the lead for the joint RAF/FAA F-35Bs, may be different. This again may not be a major hurdle or challenge and quite definitely will be worked out pre-deployment.

3) Logistics: Both countries might be using the same stealth fighter, but each unit and country won’t exactly be using the set of weapons. The UK at present will arm their F-35Bs will ASRAAM, AIM-120 for air-defence/air superiority roles, and Paveway IV LGBs for strike missions. The USMC on the other hand, will AIM-120 and quite definitely AIM-9, and for striking, GBu-32 JDAM and GBU-12 LGB or Paveway II, the former which has never been used by the UK. In future, the UK aircraft will be armed with Meteor and SPEAR 3 while the USMC aircraft will have Small Diameter Bombs. Commander (Logistics), along with Commander (Weapons Engineering) on board the QEC carrier would then be challenged to ensure sufficient stocks of both UK and US weapons for each countries aircraft. In 2021, it is doubtful that the new Future Support Ships (FSS) will be operational ready for the QEC task group will have to depend on United States Navy’s Military Sealift Command ammunition ships, quite definitely the Lewis and Clark-class ships, adding to their challenge. There will quite undoubtedly USN, USNMC and USMC on board to assist with logistics distribution and USN or USMC aviation ordnanceman but this might be a challenge to overcome.

4) Command and control and rules of engagement: Again, whilst both countries have worked extremely closely before, are NATO allies and have a Special Relationship, one of the biggest challenges and perhaps problems will be the C2C and ROE. Sir Humphrey presents a simple friendly scenario of how both countries will work together using the QEC, that is, a NEO. I present a different scenario: Say for example the UK just wants to use the QEC task group for conventional deterrence against country A while the US dislikes country A’s WMD development so much it orders its F-35Bs on board the QEC to attack country A’s facilities. Will the UK, not wishing to start a military conflict, agree? One must take a step back to the Pristina Airport incident, where even well under tight allied NATO command, then Lieutenant General Mike Jackson told his superior US General Wesley Clark, “”I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” What if, during the course of the 2021 deployment, there is a similar disagreement? Will both parties agree to how the QEC will operate? Or take a less confrontational scenario: Say the British only wish for F-35Bs to assist with a NEO that evacuates British citizens but the US wishes to use those F-35Bs to enforce a US-led by UK-abstained, UNSC-voted No-fly zone. Would it then be USMC aircraft launching to enforce a NFZ and British aircraft just for self-defence?

There are other challenges but of course, the higher powers will work it out, although there may be more Pristina airport like disagreements. There are also other questions such as:

1) How many F-35Bs will the USMC VMFA squadron have 10, or 16? Either number is the proposed size of any USMC VMFA F-35B squadron. If it is 10, this will mean that there will be 22 (12 (UK) + 10 (US) fixed-wing aircraft on board. If it is 16, then there will be 28 (12+16). The larger the number, the less number of Merlin Mk2 (ASW and AEW/ASAC) and Merlin Mk4 (Join Personnel Recovery and Commando air assault).

2) From which USMC Air Station will the squadron deploy from? There are no USMC bases in the UK on permanently stationed in the NATO/European continent so they will most likely deploy from either USMC Air Station Cherry Point or USMC Air Station Beaufort–these are US East Coast USMC Air Stations; it is highly unlikely the squadron will come from those stationed on the West Coast. Which ever Air Station they come from, it still might affect the direction HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail to for its first operational deployment.

3) Following up from deployment and the the challenge of differing ROE and C2C, will the inaugural operation actually be towards the the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region as former Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson announced? Or will it be sail directly to the Persian Gulf where Donald Trump and John Bolton and fanning the flames of war towards Iran?

There are so many questions. For now, it is welcoming to have friendly F-35Bs on board.

Doing more with less or rather higher quality

This post by the pretty famous aviation-centred geek Foxtrot Jalopnik takes a critical view of a graphic presented Contemporary Issues and Geography. The picture as show below shows a graphic or rather ORBAT of almost all or all the UK’s active military aircraft, combat, combat air support and even training.

UK military aircraft Feb 2016

UK military aircraft Feb 2016

(All rights go to http://cigeography.blogspot.fr/)

Foxtrot Jalopnik (henceforth FJ) goes on to say:

The Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps have shrunk dramatically over the last decade, but the recent Strategic Defense and Security Review has ordered the UK begin to reinvest heavily into its air arms…Of particular note in this case is just how small the UK’s front-line fighter force is…Even the Army Air Corps helicopter transport fleet looks particularly small…

It does however end on a positive note:

This graphic will dramatically change once again in the coming decade as the F-35 is introduced into the Fleet Air Arm and RAF inventory, as well as other aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon. Still, its unlikely that the UK’s air combat end-strength will ever look anything like it once did as recently as 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then again, the same can be said for America’s air combat aircraft inventory.

If FJ’s post could be said to be critical, the commentators below are far more acerbic. Sxay91 bring up the common swipe that previous (Labour) governments have destroyed the UK military. Buzz Killington is even more biased, using the “usual” line hat the UK (and European nations) have to spend more on welfare (than the Us, which by the way, has some sort of welfare system in certain areas) and now has to tend to (Muslim) refugees. JohnDiz cites his (possible) own experience saying that UK Special Forces needed UK rotary and aviation support (damn the Special Relationship?), FSBCyberPropagandaDivision calls the UK’s future carriers “useless” (not exactly about UK aviation) the list goes on and on. To sum up, These commentators who I guess are mostly American or Brits who want to jump on the bangwagon, agree the UK military aviation is shrinking, lousy, useless (insert your own negative adjective here).

Ok, fine, it is a small force. It’s smaller than it was during World War Two (where by the UK did get US help through the Lend-Lease Act and the wider Commonwealth), it’s a smaller force since immediate post-World War Two, it’s a small aerial force since the Falklands, Gulf War One, Operation Telic. But ok, since FJ brings up the 2003 invasion. Back then, the UK just did have the Tornado Gr4 and the classic Harrier, but it did not have the high accurate Brimstone missile. It ha only the Tornado ADV, the air defence fighter which was definitely less agile and deadly as the Eurofighter Typhoon or its USAF counterparts. In 2003, the Nimrod was was certainly in the ORBAT and in more than one squadron, but not that it was really need for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The Harrier version in Op Telic was the GR7, not the GR9. There was at best one Army Air Corps (AAC) Regiment there, but not the famous Apache. The UK used its old Lynx AH7 and Gazelle AH1s in the initially campaign. As for Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) assets, Op Tellic saw the ageing Sea King, not the Merlin helicopter.

The bottom line is, in 2003 Iraq War (or previous campaigns), the UK did have a numerically larger force of aviation assets and a larger variety. What it did not have back with those numerical quantity was quality. Today, even with a smaller FAA, AAC, and Royal Air Force, it has far better equipment and weaponry. The UK has Apaches (and soon to be upgraded AH-64s), Merlin HM2 and later HM4s, Lynx Wildcats, Eurofighter Tranche 1/2 and later versions, as well as other support and ISTAR aircraft. One most common touted weapon by politicians and the media is the Brimstone missile, used in Op Ellamy and the present Syria/Iraq campaign, Op Shader. Everyone wishes for a larger force and FJ did mention that the US aviation force is smaller than it was in Gulf War One and Two. Power doesn’t just come through quantity alone. Ok fine, quantity does matter, but as I’ve quickly shown, it matters at best with high quality.

It’s a good ideal world to have large quantities of forces, aerial, maritime or land-based. But that’s an ideal world. For now, a good quality force helps more than just a larger quantity.

The Other Merlin: Merlin HC3/4 numbers

Most people have fallen in love with long serving UK military aircraft like the Harrier, the Spitfire and perhaps the Sea King Helicopter. The Sea King Mk4 (the troop carrying version) will soon leaving active service and will be replaced by the Merlin HC.3/HC.4.

Under the Future Force 2020 (not really SDSR 2010), 25 RAF Merlin HC.3s would be modified and transferred to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Army (also see this). Or more specifically, the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) of, or rather for the Royal Marines. The plan has sort of proceeded smoother than most other post SDSR 2010 projects, with 846 NAS being the first squadron to gain these aircraft and then next, 845 NAS. In fact, 846 NAS just returned to RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron) with six/6 of these new helicopters. I believe, as the Defense Industry Daily article says, that there were to be at least seven/7, so maybe one more will join it (more on this below). At around the same time, the UK MOD announced a sustainment contract for both Merlin Helicopters. Some may say this is typical Conservative/Tory PR for their General Election 2015/GE2015 campaign, but you still do need investment to create and sustain helicopters.

The whole new Royal Navy/FAA Merlin Fleet will specifically consist of

…845 NAS and 846 NAS each operating 10 Merlin HC.4s, with five aircraft in the maintenance fleet. Each squadron will operate three flights. 845 NAS will have three deployable, go-anywhere flights, with each flight deploying with four Merlins. 846 NAS will have the Operational Conversion Flight, Maritime Counter Terrorist Flight, and a deployable flight to bolster 845 NAS if required.

Now that immediately seems strange. 10 aircraft per each active medium-lift squadron, but you want 4 x Merlins per flight? That would mean 12 x Merlins per Squadron. I guess the extra 2-4 will be drawn from the five/5 helicopters in maintenance? Or would this four/4 per flight configuration only occur during active operations/wartime? Pro-military people would of course still argue this 20 + 5 configuration is too small. I say it’s not bad consideration the fleet size is smaller than it’s counterpart, where 30 HM2 or Mk2 have been ordered and possibly eight more may be converted. Possibly.

Now, let’s go even deeper into the helicopter itself. As said above, it is replacing the veteran Sea King helicopter Mk4. The Sea King supposedly is able to carry 28 troops while these Merlins will only carry carry 24 equipped troops. (I’m not so sure the Sea King’s were able to carry that many soldiers. The Agusta-Westland site says the Merlin can carry up to 38 troops but that’s only possibly without gear). There’s a good description on the upgrades of the Merlin HC.3/HC./3A to the Merlin HC.4 in this Naval Technology article. It is pretty well-written so I shan’t summarise it here.

Overall, the Merlin HC.4 plan seems pretty alright, except how the FAA will detail the number of aircraft per flight. The maximum of twelve/12 Merlins for 845 NAS (as you see 846 NAS ultimately is for training and counter-terrorism, with only one flight for troop transport), means the CHF alone can only life a small almost company-sized force from ship to shore or from land to land. This is the stark reality of Future Force 2020.

This post will be updated later.