The Ministry of Defence have confirmed plans for aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to visit the British territory of Gibraltar in the coming weeks.
The recently reported rumours regarding this deployment have finally been confirmed, the first to confirm them with the Ministry of Defence was Sky News Defence Correspondent Alistair Bunkall.
MOD confirms @HMSQnlz will call into Gibraltar in the next few weeks – her first overseas port visit. Great news for Gib. Will be interesting to see what the Spanish reaction is.
— Alistair Bunkall (@AliBunkallSKY) January 25, 2018
When contacted, the Royal Navy said in a statement:
“As part of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s next phase of sea trials, there is an option for the ship to visit Gibraltar next month”.
We understand that this would be a routine logistical stop. The visit remains an “option” because of the rapidly changing nature of sea trials.
Recently, the 70,600 tonne vessel began the initial stages of her rotary wing trials. A Merlin helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron was putting Flight Deck crews through a series of drills and procedures that are part of flying trials.
During the two days embarked the Merlin was used to verify many of the flight deck and hangar facilities by connecting up to the ship’s on-board electrical supply cables and refuelling hoses.
“The Merlins of 820 NAS are old friends of ours. The Squadron was the first rotary Unit to embark with us up in Scotland when we came out of build. These Sea Acceptance Trials (Air) or ‘SAT (Air)’ has proved the ship’s aircraft services are ready for action with a live helicopter and that everything functions correctly.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail from her home port for rotary wing trialS VERY SOON, where she will undergo deck trials with Royal Navy Merlin helicopters.
Lt Cdr Cobbett continued:
“Introducing the Ship to aviation and aviation to the Ship is all part of the learning structure we are going through. We are taking it slowly at first before we embark whole squadrons of rotary and fixed wing aircraft.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to start fixed-wing flight trials with three or more F-35Bs off the eastern coast of the US around September this year. A fantastic info-graphic created by SaveTheRoyalNavy can be found here and details the timeline of the programme.
What will the vessels carry when in operational service?
The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions. 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 2023, 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.
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.
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.
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.
A source we spoke to, currently flying the jet, explained to us that the vessels will deploy with the number and type of aircraft required for a specific deployments:
“Where F-35B is based is entirely down to the most suitable basing option for the tasks/missions is being sent to do. If that’s a well-founded host nation base, great; if it’s the Carrier, great; if it’s an austere location, fine. Range, logistics and other ‘enablers’ such as AAR and connectivity will determine what’s the best option.”
The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.