Without doubt the most impressive defence related story of the week was the news of QUEEN ELIZABETH and the USS GEORGE W BUSH steaming together off the coast of Scotland in concert with a variety of escorts. The sight of a pair of allied carriers operating together is increasingly uncommon, and its even less common to see a US carrier in UK waters these days.
The pictures are genuinely stirring – two of the largest and most complex warships in human history sailing together, one returning from operations in the Middle East and the other at the start of a career that will see her doubtless spend many years deployed in the Middle East. But its not just a photo that is so compelling here, it’s the deeper story of integration and co-operation between the US and UK that makes this such a fabulous story to tell.
Any nation can put on a photo shoot of ships together at sea – indeed when you have multi-national maritime exercises between countries that don’t work closely together, the most important ‘take away’ is being able to get them all to steam together long enough to take a photo or two. But a photo is little more than a snapshot in time intended to look good for PR images. Ultimately there is nothing particularly difficult for the RN & USN to form up in a completely non-tactical but very photogenic formation and steam in roughly the same direction for a short time.
What really matters is the wider support and links between the USN and RN that have helped keep the UK on track to sustain and regenerate carrier strike over the last few years. This is less visible, but as equally important.
The decision by the RN to move to a bigger generation of carriers for CVF posed a number of challenges. For nearly 30 years it ran a reasonably small airwing on the Invincibles – usually peaking at roughly 20 airframes all told of which only about half were fixed wing Harriers. This meant the RN had lost its experience of dealing with big deck carriers, and wasn’t used to dealing with large airwings anymore – not just in terms of practical handling on deck, but the wider issues of force generation, sortie generation and employing a large airwing in a very different manner to a small force of defensive fighters.
From the outset of the CVF project the RN has worked closely to maintain an excellent relationship with the USN, who have in turn provided fantastic assistance. This took on renewed significance after 2010 when the decision was taken to delete the GR9 from service and take a gap in operating fixed wing carriers. At the time the intent was to move to a CTOL F35 fleet, and even though this later changed to STOVL, the USN remained very willing to let the RN in and have access to its resources and training pipeline.
This offer has played an enormous part in keeping the RN able to keep naval aviation alive and prepare for the reintroduction of a truly ‘big deck’ carrier capability. The USN hasn’t just trained pilots (there are a lot of RN F18 pilots out there now), its also provided training for RN flight deck crew to get them aware of just how complex a ‘big deck’ carrier is, and what a step up it is from the Invincibles.
For many years now, there has routinely been a detachment of 6-10 RN personnel onboard many US Carriers, usually flight deck crew, pilots or officers carrying out roles as an integrated part of the ships company. This isn’t always without its challenges – apparently the USN doesn’t allow beards, and at least one copy of Queens Regulations has been sent out to confirm to the USN that the bearded RN crewmen aren’t trying to get one over on them!
A similar story can be told about the manner in which the USN is prepared to allocate control of its assets to the RN, such as during SAXON WARRIOR to help the RN gain experience of operating a large carrier with significant strike capability. It is no exaggeration to say that the RN has simply never had the level of strike capability generation that QEC offers. Even in the supposed ‘heyday’ of the RN carrier fleet in the 1970s, the strike package was limited to 18 buccaneers. Once QEC is fully up and running, she will be able to support and sustain an air-group of 36 JSF and potentially significantly higher, with a level of sortie generation far in excess of what has been possible before.
Being able to practise this sort of planning and co-ordination with a US carrier matters because the RN is going to be operating at a scale of capability that it simply has not experienced before. At the risk of descending into ‘fantasy fleets’ territory here, its worth noting that a combined US/UK embarkation of 48 F35 on a CVF gives her an almost equivalent level of capability to a US carrier. If the US didn’t give the UK this sort of access, it would take many more years for CVF to reach her full potential with a much steeper learning curve.
The USN has always been generous to other fixed wing carrier operators – for instance allowing Argentinean and Brazilian jets to practise ‘touch and go’ landings to maintain currency, or working closely with the French when De Gaulle is in refit. But the level of co-operation and support extended to the UK is far in excess of what any other nation has ever had.
This is because CVF is such a big deal for the Americans as well as the UK, and there are very strong US national interests at stake in seeing her succeed. To the USN, CVF represents a ‘near peer’ carrier capability that is on their side. She is able to embark and more crucially operate US jets (more below) and brings a self sustaining task group with the level of defensive capabilities and replenishment abilities needed to operate in high threat areas. In other words she is a vessel able to operate alongside and if needs be relieve a US Carrier on station.
The US generosity then is as much driven by national self interest – they know that a fully capable RN carrier, operated in an effective manner, is a vessel which can be deployed to cover gaps in their own carrier coverage. It is notable that the Gulf has seen a sharp reduction in US carrier presence, down from 2 near constant hulls only a few years ago, to a situation today where carriers only deploy in for shorter periods, with long gaps. CVF presents an opportunity to put a peer platform into the gulf to cover these gaps and help provide contingent capability.
Integration of the Airwing
The other key difference between the USN support to the RN and the manner in which it is provided to other nations is the depth to which the two nations work together. There is often a lot of military low level exchanges between countries, where a liaison officer may be sent to work alongside a host nation and represent his country. But proper fully fledged exchanges are significantly rarer because they essentially plug a foreign national into a hosts armed forces and treat them as one of their own.
In other words, a British RN pilot on exchange with the US Navy is considered for all intents and purposes to be ‘an American’ (albeit with a far nice accent), and will occupy a permanent slot in a unit that would otherwise be filled by a US national. This means that generally exchange officers can be asked to deploy on operations that their original country may not be directly involved in. For instance, reports of RN exchange officers flying over Syria in USN F18s before the UK Parliament authorised the UK military to conduct these ops. Therefore you want to be certain that you are comfortable accommodating exchange officers and that they wont be pulled hours before a mission over national policy differences.
A lot of people have complained that the decision to not make QUEEN ELIZABETH a CTOL carrier damages the ability to ‘crossdeck’ and operate French and US aircraft, and that this is somehow a mistake. In reality the so-called ‘crossdecking’ experience is an exceptionally rare occurrence.
There have been plenty of low level visits, where a few aircraft may land on, then take off from a foreign carrier, and plenty of photos exist to attest to this. But these were little more than PR shots – the aircraft landed, refuelled and went on its way. In the over 100 years of Naval aviation, Humphrey can find only one occurrence of genuine cross decking occurring, which was in WW2 when HMS VICTORIOUS embarked some US aircraft for a few months during her Pacific deployment. (For more information on this, there is a superb article on the deployment at https://goo.gl/MqLPwU)
True crossdecking is a lot more than just parking some planes on deck. It requires the embarkation of maintenance parties, spare parts and munitions. Every nation will have subtly different modifications and parts that need to be stowed – which in turn requires a stores system that can accommodate these parts, and workshops with the right tools to maintain them.
The aircraft need mission planning software, and the ability to be able to prepare and fly a mission that in turn likely needs access to ‘EYES ONLY’ software. Part of the challenge of operations these days is not the fighting together on the front line, it’s the fight to get your national IT architecture to play together. Crossdecking requires you to feel comfortable in setting up a national eyes IT network on a foreign nations platform and feel that you can operate it without compromising national secrets.
Finally you need to be confident that both countries share the same Rules of Engagement and legal interpretations of how to handle different operational situations. At its simplest, if Country A is flying airstrikes from Country Bs aircraft carrier, then you need to be certain that doing so won’t contravene Country B’s laws and ROE. This is not a small problem – coalition operations are a real challenge at times when trying to work out what the national permissions allow Commanders to do.
You would only embark assets onto another country’s carrier if you were certain that there was total alignment and that you would get the full support needed to carry out the operation – what happens if you want to launch a strike, and the host carrier refuses as its against their laws? Can a Commander provide met data, fuel or other capabilities that would enable you to conduct the strike or is this going to be a breach of their mandates?
True interoperability is an act of faith and trust between partners. This trust takes decades to build up and is only very sparingly given. All it takes is one act where a country is unable to carry out military action due to another refusing access (for instance overflight of airspace) for this trust to collapse.
This is why the QUEEN ELIZABETH is so significant – for the first time ever the US Armed Forces feel comfortable enough to assume that the USMC will be routinely embarking and operating from a foreign platform. This level of shared sovereignty is a real step change for the US, which works well as a coalition lead, but less well as a coalition partner over concerns about how its assets will be used.
This is a big deal, and highlights yet another reason why QUEEN ELIZABETH is such a game changer, not just for the UK but our American allies too. No other country gets this level of access or integration – others get as far as integrating an air defence platform into a CVBG, but this takes the Anglo-US relationship to a whole new level of capability.
At a time when it is fashionable to say that the UK doesn’t exert much influence in DC and gets little from the US, Humphrey would argue that the reverse is true. The UK has been given an astonishing level of access to US Navy capability and platforms, and in return the US feels it can trust the UK enough to embark sailors and marines to sea with the UK on operations.