REVIVING Britain’s ability to deploy an aircraft carrier taskforce has been an ‘uphill struggle’ after a decade-long ‘capability holiday’, military leaders have admitted.
The Royal Navy has been without a full carrier strike capability since vicious government cuts to defence budgets in 2010.
Despite the break, Royal Navy top brass have insisted the Senior Service is now ‘well on track’ to rebuilding its future carrier strike group and that it will be one of the most advanced and lethal in the globe.
The comments come as the navy’s largest warship ever built, HMS Queen Elizabeth, takes centre stage as part of a small British taskforce of warships based off the east coast of America.
The mighty £3.1bn aircraft carrier is taking on her most important mission to date in the waters around Florida to test the F-35B stealth jets.
Speaking to The News in Florida, Vice-Admiral Jerry Kyd, HMS Queen Elizabeth's first captain and now Royal Navy fleet commander, said: ‘We knew when we took Ark Royal and Harrier away from operating at sea that we would have an uphill battle.
‘But I think the plan we put into place to make sure we kept the pilot lights alive, not least fixed-wings pilots in the system and making sure old hands like me were kept on the books for better or for worse, has meant we have actually got those muscle movements back into operation far faster than we dared hoped.
‘So it was a real uphill battle, absolutely, and 10 years is a long time to have capability holiday but we are clearly well on track.’
Queen Elizabeth left Portsmouth for the USA in September, accompanied by £1bn air defence destroyer HMS Dragon, submarine-hunting frigate HMS Northumberland and tanker RFA Tideforce.
The headline-grabbing focus of the 65,000-tonne supercarrier’s American odyssey have been the landings of the F-35B stealth jet.
The state-of-the-art warplanes first touched down on the carrier’s flight deck last year during previous trials off the American coastline.
However, naval chiefs have insisted this year’s tests are vastly different and more aimed at integrated the jets with the taskforce of ships for the first time through various exercises and war games.
Captain Steve Moorhouse, commanding officer of Queen Elizabeth, said: ‘The scale of complexity has now turned up another degree.
‘Now we’re integrated the jet at the same time as rotary wing (helicopters) and Type 45 and Type 23 operations. So it’s much more realistic carrier strike operations and we’re really turning the tempo up.
‘We’re looking at the end-to-end capabilities now. That’s everything from fuelling and arming the aircraft, planning and preparing the missions, launching the jets and then going either ashore to US ranges or conducting warfare serials at sea that are representative of what you would expect us to be able to do on operations around the world.’
For the past week, F-35 pilots have been getting used to the ship, carrying out training landings and takeoffs before moving onto more advanced maneuvers and exercises next month.
Lieutenant Commander Matt Fooks-Bale is one of the F-35 pilots embarked on Queen Elizabeth. The former Harrier pilot said the jets were in a different league to anything he had flown before and had forced his team to rethink how they operated.
‘When you combine all that situational awareness from the F-35 with its various sensors and it’s low-observable characteristics it makes a huge difference,’ said the 38-year-old aviator.
‘It really does transform the way you think and the way you operate. We’ve had to build new tactics around it to really maximise what we can do with the F-35 because it is a huge step forward in capability.’
But he added the training process was being taken at a steady pace.
‘We’re adopting a very much crawl-walk-run approach to training – we’re very much in the crawl phase,’ he said.
In the coming weeks, Queen Elizabeth is expected to embark two more British F-35s, bring the total number of UK-owned jets to six.
They will also be joined by a small contingent of US Marine Corps F-35 - which will be joining the supercarrier on her first operational deployment in 2021 - bring the total number to more than 10.
Capt Moorhouse stressed the next five weeks would be crucial in the programmes next phase, expected to be held in UK waters next year.
‘This is the first step in a 40-year capability. So it’s a really important moment and the more comfortable and interoperable we are at the end of this package the better,’ he said.
In tomorrow’s final instalment of The News’s special features from Florida, the future direction of naval warfare, the F-35 and dangers facing Britain will be revealed.