The Ministry of Defence has examined the feasibility of deploying Carrier Strike before December 2020 and advised against this in anything other than an operational emergency.
According to a report on carrier strike by the National Audit Office:
“Increasing awareness of Carrier Strike as the equipment is completed may lead to demand for it to be deployed earlier than December 2020. The first carrier is expected to sail during 2017 and the first squadron of jets will be flying from the UK in 2018.
But before the Department can operate the two together as Carrier Strike, there will be an intensive period of training, trials and further work. This period is crucial to ensure that crews can operate the equipment safely and to give the Department confidence the capability works as intended. While the equipment could be used together before these trials are complete, this could carry safety risks or limit how the equipment could be used.
It would also disrupt the Department’s planned schedule. The Department has examined the feasibility of deploying Carrier Strike before December 2020 and advised against this in anything other than an operational emergency.”
The NAO also found that there is ‘increasing pressure on a few highly trained personnel to operate the capability’. There is a shortage of military personnel, running at 4% below a target strength of 145,560.
Staffing gaps include engineering roles and warfighting specialists in the Royal Navy and engineering, intelligence and some aircrew cadres in the RAF. To minimise the impact of these gaps on Carrier Strike, the Ministry of Defence is prioritising it and carrying out targeted recruitment.
Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:
“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed.
We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”
In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2. We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.
The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.
Around the time the first carrier deploys operationally, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.
Recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The addition of US Marine Corps aircraft will see HMS Queen Elizabeth sail with 24 or so F-35Bs in addition to around 14 or so helicopters for her maiden deployment. It is understood that the US aircraft will augment British jets on coalition operations.