HMS Queen Elizabeth will be in port for a few more weeks before heading out for another round of trials. There is still plenty to do: the ship has not yet received its weapons (Phalanx CIWS mounts and DS30M 30mm guns), for example. While she is in port she is getting further elements of the deck visual aids installed, and there will be no doubt further touch-ups on the list. Judging from CGIs and from the metallic frame well visible, the forward island should get a large display which is still missing. When she goes out to sea again, she’ll be more complete.
|Testing the Firefighting Foam Spray system|
|Testing the pre-wetting system for CBRN washdown|
There is still plenty to be tested, too. So far, Queen Elizabeth has not used her Mission System. Only navigation radars have been in use, while Artisan and LRR have been kept motionless. The next phase of trials will almost certainly focus on this area, to get to the point when the Royal Navy can commission her. That should happen by the end of the year or in early 2018. As of now, the Queen Elizabeth is still contractor owned and does not fly the White Ensign.
A further period of defect rectification and capability insertion is planned for next year. That’s when the F-35 related kit, beginning with the ALIS computers and ending, probably, with the planned complement of mission simulators to be carried onboard at all times.
The Instrument Carrier Landing System (ICLS) AN/SPN-41/41A, which provides all weather instrument approach guidance from the ship to the aircraft, might also only appear onboard during this period of works. Currently, the space reserved for the AN/SPN-41 Azimuth aerial is still empty.
The AN/SPN-41 is found on all American aircraft carriers, LHDs and LHA, as well as on the Italian carrier Cavour. It has a large, flat antenna installed on the stern of the carrier, for the provision of Azimuth data, and a second element, for elevation, found normally on the back of the island.
The particularly powerful and hot downwash of an F-35B coming in for a vertical landing has however introduced the necessity for appropriate shielding of the Azimuth component. The three vessels that the US Navy has so far refitted for F-35B operations (USS Wasp, USS America and USS Essex) are a good example: their stern area has been re-arranged, moving some equipment around (Phalanx CIWS mounts, most notably) and building a protective box around other pieces, including the 41’s antenna.
On HMS Queen Elizabeth, the 41 Azimuth component is contained within a specially designed sponson which was rapidly worked into the design and into the building process after the MOD requested it in November 2013, when the F-35 had completed two periods of Development Trials at sea on USS Wasp (DT-1 in October 2011 and DT-2 in august 2013.
|The AN/SPN-41 is among the systems that still have to be installed|
Other equipment yet to be filled includes the Height Indicator Hover Aid Thermometer (HIHAT) which will appear on the forward island. A good view of the main Landing Aid lights and tools is available in the brochure by AGI, which produces them and is working right now on QE in Portsmouth.
Meanwhile, on September 8, the second ship in class will be named with a ceremony in Rosyth which will see the Royal Lancers, affiliated to the ship, proving a spear Guard.
|The USS America as commissioned (top) and following F-35B modifications applied in 2015 (bottom). The shielding of the AN/SPN-41 is evident. Phalanx has moved, with RAM replacing it. This might indicate that RAM is less vulnerable to hot downwash.|
Ship boats for both carriers are in delivery or on order. Four purpose-built boats have been ordered for Queen Elizabeth, and two (named Swordfish and Buccaneer) have already been delivered.
|Queen Elizabeth's boat|
|Ship boats and RHIBs are carried in fully enclosed bays in the sponsons|
Prince of Wales, instead, will receive three boats from the recent contract for “up to 38” workboats of the SEA class. The workboat contracts includes 33 firm orders and 5 options. Included in the firm order are three boats for Prince of Wales, while the options include 3 more boats of the same kind.
For general interest, the SEA class will include 10 workboats (for delivery in Fiscal Year 2018 (5), 2019 (3) and 2020 (2)), 3 passenger transfer boats plus 3 options, 7 Dive Support Boats (3 in 2019, 3 in 2020), 6 officer training boats plus 2 options, for delivery in 2020 and 2021; 3 survey motor boats (Medium) and 3 Survey motor boats (Small).
|SEA class workboats are modular and come in 11, 13, 15 and 18 meters lenght.|
SafeHaven Marine will deliver the largest boat, a 18-meter WILDCAT60 derivative which will be delivered in May 2018 and will replace the current HMS Gleaner, which is soon to leave service after carrying out key survey work to chart the course out of Rosyth and into Portsmouth for the carriers.
|At 18 meters, the replacement will be a big bigger than the current HMS Gleaner|
Capability build up
Things will get more interesting next year. HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to put to sea between January and March 2018 for Rotary Wing trials and first embarkation of a Special Purpose Task Group of Royal Marines. The aim is to land Merlin HC4, Apache, Chinook and Wildcat on the ship and validate the employment of a rotary wing air group and of an embarked component of Marines up to Company-group size.
By August 2018, HMS Queen Elizabeth should achieve IOC as LPH. It is the Royal Navy’s intention to always embark a Royal Marines SPTG of anything between 50 and 300 marines supported by at least a “unit of action” of up to 4 Merlin HC4 from 845 NAS. The SPTG provides the carrier with a response force that can quickly move ashore for raids, evacuations of british personnel and, crucially, for recovery of downed pilots and recovery or destruction of valuable equipment lost in enemy territory. The F-35 is highly valuable technology and cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands other than in very small pieces. Development of a Joint Personnel Recovery Capability within 3 Commando Brigade is well underway, and the RAF Regiment is working on JPR training of its own.
This period of early LPH trials and experimentation will be followed by the already mentioned period in port for technology insertion, which is meant to prepare the ship for First of Class Flying Trials. Queen Elizabeth will set sail for the US East Coast in the autumn. HMS Montrose is currently expected to escort her there.
The Royal Navy anticipates to send QE loaded with a Royal Marines force including a composite rotary wing air component. This will move inland for exercises alongside the US Marine Corps, while QE will embark 2 instrumented F-35Bs and 4 pilots for 8 weeks of tests and evaluation. Highlight of the trials will be the experimentation of the Short Rolling Vertical Landing technique, which is of routine use ashore but that, for the shipboard side, represents an innovation and something that has so far been trialed only in simulation.
In March 2018, 617 Squadron will formally stand up in Beaufort, in the US, in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters.
In June 2018 the Sqn will begin its extraction from Beaufort, with a first group of 4 aircraft flying to Marham, followed by other waves by August. By December, 617 Sqn should achieve Land IOC with 9 aircraft in Marham.
5 more aircraft and around 50 personnel will remain in Beaufort until the summer of 2019 to repay the USMC of the collaboration and literally provide back training flying hours. They’ll then move to RAF Marham in time for the stand-up of 207 Sqn, the OCU for the Lightning fleet, in July 2019.
3 Instrumented aircraft (BK-1, BK-2 and BK-4) will remain in Edwards AFB with 17(R) Sqn for test, development and evaluation purpose.
By the summer of 2019, work should be complete on the new Integrated Training Centre being built in Marham. It will have 4 networked full mission simulators, and the hope is to hook them up as soon as possible with Typhoon simulators in Coningsby and Lossiemouth as well as with USAF F-35A simulators at Lakenheath and elsewhere, to enable large-scale collaborative operations within the training simulation.
By then, Marham will also have 3 vertical landing pads; a hangar for deep maintenance, a facility for maintenance and monitoring of the health of the stealth coating and a new National Operating Centre hosting the UK ALIS infrastructure as well as the Lightning Force HQ, offices and other key supports. Drive-through sun shelters will be installed in the area destined to 617 and 207 Sqns operations, and existing Hardened Aircraft Shelters upgraded for F-35 compatibility.
The runways (one of 9500 and one of 6500 feet) will be resurfaced and the shorter one will have an area specifically configured as STOVL strip.
|The Hardened Aircraft Shelters for 617 Sqn, to the left, and the 207 Sqn OCU area, including the Integrated Training Centre, to the right|
|The OCU facilities are entirely new builds, developed on brown land|
|Maintenance facility, being built in place of the old No3 hangar. Another engineering facility replaces the old No1 as well.|
|From the journal of RAF Marham, the progress in the build|
|Project ANVIL is a massive infrastructure improvement|
In the summer / autumn of 2019, the intention is to embark 617 Sqn and sail in UK waters for squadron-level trials and certifications.
In 2020 this will be followed by a larger exercise combining 617 Sqn with the other elements of the air wing (Merlin from 820 NAS; CROWSNEST from 849 NAS and so along) and of the surface task group, in order to reach IOC Carrier.
Finally, in 2021, Queen Elizabeth and her task group are expected to set sail for the first major operational deployment away from home.
The UK has received 11 F-35B so far, and by the end of the year they will be 14. 3 more aircraft will be delivered next year (BK-15, 16, 17), while BK-18 will follow in 2019, alone, as the MOD ordered a single aircraft within LRIP 11.
3 will follow within LRIP 13, for delivery in 2020. 6 more in 2021, 8 in 2022 and 7 in 2023. By the end of 2023 the UK will have 42 F-35B, of which 24 will be in frontline units as 809 NAS stands-up.
6 more aircraft will follow in 2024, so that by January 2025 the UK will have taken delivery of 48 F-35B.
The number of aircraft effectively embarked will depend on the Routine Operating Model that will be written down.
The profile of orders beyond Lot 16 (deliveries in 2024) is not yet known. The latest Major Projects Report released by the MOD has the F-35 programme end date as 31 March 2035. To receive all of the promised total of 138 aircraft by then, the MOD should place the last order in 2033, as two years pass between order and delivery.
Beginning in 2023 and ending in 2033, the MOD would have to order 8 - 9 aircraft per year. Not a particularly ambitious target, yet a non insignificant one for a ministry in perennial budget crisis.
The greatest threat for the future of embarked fixed wing aviation is the Split Buy idea that continues to float around as very real threat. More on the split buy danger here.
Within the Joint Force, the manpower split is currently expected to hover at around 58 to 42% in favor of the RAF, but with the Squadron’s commanders alternating by Service.
There is every intention to have a permanent exchange programme in place with the USMC, as used to happen with the Harrier, with one UK instructor in Beaufort within the USMC OCU, and a USMC instructor in the UK within 207(R) Sqn.
For expeditionary operations, the UK has the same kind of ambitions as the USMC. AM-2 matting stocks are expected to be rebuilt, and Royal Engineers should already be involved in USMC expeditionary airfield training at 29 Palms as this is being written. Next year, a landing strip and pad should appear in Kinloss, home of the Air Support engineers.
Training of deck handlers is carried out at the School of Flight Deck Operations at Culdrose, on the “HMS Siskin”, the dummy carrier deck modified for the new QEC age. 4 training mock-ups of the F-35B have been procured, and thanks to water tanks inside their structure they can replicate the various weights of different load-outs. They are also equipped with cockpits suitable for training of emergency extraction of injured pilots. Old Sea Harriers, which do not fly but which have working engines, are used to prepare personnel to the noise and hazards typical of flight deck operations. The School includes a special simulator, an enclosed space where personnel can train safely for fire emergencies.
|4 Ground Training Aids, Sea Harriers and real helicopters are used for deck training|
Since late 2015 the School also includes a new Flight Deck Training Simulator which allows flight deck crews to simulate every aspect of deck operations. Fire fighting & engineering emergencies, aircraft refuelling, marshalling and multi-spot landings can be simulated as well as changing sea states and day and night conditions.
In terms of capability of the F-35B, the UK is looking ahead to Block IV software and hardware updates, for integration in four successive incremenets (4.1 to 4.4) between 2021 and 2025/26. The full list of upgrades and additions is still being finalized by the Pentagon, but for the UK Block IV is defined by integration of the latest mark of ASRAAM (New Build, or Block 6 if you prefer); of the bunker-buster warhead variant for Paveway IV; of Meteor and SPEAR 3.
Block IV should give the F-35 full video downlink capability as well as swap the current EOTS targeting / FLIR assembly with the Advanced EOTS which offer a greater resolution, a new TV camera, an IR pointer and a lead-in laser for improved moving target engagement capability with laser-guided bombs.
A new processor (Technology Refresh 3, TR3, as opposed to current in-production aircraft which use the TR2, which supplanted the earlier TR1) a new cockpit display by Elbit are expected in Block 4.2.
Significant improvements to the engine, which would make it more powerful and reduce consumption of fuel by a good 5%, have been proposed but it is not yet known if there will be room to actually take such mods aboard in the Block IV programme, which is already quite extensive especially due to the long list of weapons to be added.
The IOC will be attained with Block 3F instead, which will begin to roll out in the coming months, and which brings integration of 2 ASRAAM for external carriage as well as up to 6 Paveway IV (2 internal, 4 external), plus of course 2 internal AMRAAM (or 4 if no bombs are carried internally).
The UK chose to wait out on the gun pods and only bring them aboard with Block IV, even though they will be cleared with 3F.
|Phase 2 Ski Jump trials are underway at Patuxent River. Here a F-35B launches with a heavy ASRAAM and Paveway IV external load for the first time. Asymmetric loads and high wind launches are also being validated.|
On the amphibious side of things, the Royal Navy is working to embody some unspecified modifications and enhancements on Prince of Wales with the aim of getting it to a “LPH FOC” status in 2023.
This is a larger scale capability than the SPTG embarked on QE. Prince of Wales will embark two company groups of Royal Marines with stores and some vehicles / light guns as well as a large composite wing of helicopters for their insertion and support. It will be the de-facto replacement of HMS Ocean (which bows out early next year) and will be at the heart of the amphibious task group. With Prince of Wales, 1 LPD and at least 2 of the Bay-class LSDs the Navy intends to deliver the same 1800-strong Lead Commando Battlegroup envisaged today, with a greater rotary wing support.
The Lead Commando Battlegroup is meant to insert simultaneously a Company group by air assault and a mechanized company group mounted on Viking vehicles by landing craft from the LPD and LSDs.
The other companies and supporting elements would follow in subsequent waves.
Prince of Wales will be able to simultaneously launch 10 to 14 helicopters per wave thanks to her vast deck.
The modifications introduced on Prince of Wales should then be applied to Queen Elizabeth during her first refit around 2026.
The Navy intends to hold the aircraft carrier at Very High Readiness (5 days notice to move) with the “LPH” at High Readiness (20 to 30 days notice to move). For major deployments / operations, the two carriers would deploy together.
There will be, however, periods in which only one ship is available as the other enters refit. During those periods it will be more frequent to see mixed air wings including a smaller number of F-35Bs and a greater number of Marines and helicopters.
The current plan is good. There is a lot of work to do, but the project looks solid and it is particularly reassuring to see the planned development of the amphibious capability, since the loss of HMS Ocean would otherwise have catastrophic consequences for the UK’s capabilities in this area. Now we have to hope that no new budget cuts come to knock pieces off this plan, and that the split buy idea is killed off, at least until after 4 squadrons of F-35B have been formed. 4 squadrons plus OCU are the current long-term plan and already it represents arguably a bare minimum target for a capable, sustainable fleet which must be able to generate a substantial deployable force. A split buy would greatly harm the entire project and dramatically reduce the UK’s ability to actually put jets on the deck.
An important element coming up is the MARS Solid Support Ship which must replace the old Fort Austin, Fort Rosalie and Fort Victoria around the middle of the 2020s.
Next month might provide some clues about this programme as well as Type 31 since the Shipbuilding strategy should (finally!) be released. The MOD plans to brief industry about Type 31 at DSEI, on September 7.
Contract award for MARS Solid Support is expected in 2020. These large ships, fitted with Heavy Replenishment At Sea rigs, will carry the stores, ammunition and spare parts needed to keep the carrier group going. Their role in support of amphibious operations will also be important, so details of their design and of the acquisition schedule are eagerly awaited.