Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has confirmed that the US Marine Corps will be flying F-35Bs from HMS Queen Elizabeth on the aircraft's carrier's maiden operational deployment.
He said: “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. And in the fullness of time, we expect our F-35s to be welcome on the American carriers.”
Fallon confirmed the deployment while giving a joint press conference on Wednesday at London's Lancaster House with US Defence Secretary Ash Carter.
"We value very much having such a partner in the United Kingdom because that's a commitment the United States shares as well, one that both of our countries, in fact, has stood for together and stood for together 75 years ago this month," said Secretary Carter, "when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter."
The UK will own fewer than 24 F-35Bs by 2021, as El Reg reported back in July. Currently we own just four of the state-of-the-art fighter jets: three are based in the US and one is touring the UK.
The Ministry of Defence would not comment on the size of the USMC contingent, or how many aircraft would deploy aboard QE, though it could confirm that a mixture of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft and personnel would be deployed alongside the US Marines aboard the British carrier.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is capable of carrying up to 36 F-35s, though current plans are for the air wing to comprise just 12 of the fast jets. Aircraft carriers in British service normally deploy with a small contingent of helicopters aboard for “plane guard” duties, in case one of the fast jets crashes on takeoff or landing and the pilot needs rescuing from the sea.
The cynical view of the USMC deploying aboard QE in 2021 is that the UK simply won't have enough F-35s by that point to train new pilots and engineers and sustain an operational deployment to sea. Assuming Blighty owns about 20 F-35Bs by that point, one might expect the air wing of 12 to be split 50-50 between US and UK, with the remaining 14 British aircraft based ashore in the UK on training duties.
The positive view is that this is a nice gesture to our allies, given that they designed, built and sold us the F-35Bs and have been training the Royal Navy's embedded “seedcorn” deck handling personnel on their own carriers, given that for six years the RN has not operated any fixed-wing aircraft from a carrier. British carrier operations will be very strongly influenced by US practices, despite limited efforts to embed RAF and RN personnel aboard the French nuclear-powered carrier Charles de Gaulle over the last few years.
The 70,000-ton Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to begin her sea trials in August. So far these do not appear to have started, with the carrier still firmly tied up in Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth.
Deck landing trials aboard QE with the F-35B are pencilled in for 2018, with the RAF F-35B unit, 617 Squadron, scheduled to reach initial operating capability by the year 2019. Alongside 617 Sqn will be 809 Naval Air Squadron, providing the Fleet Air Arm's contribution to the UK F-35 fleet. The RAF will also operate the F-35 Operational Conversion Unit. ®