HMS Queen Elizabeth Sets Sail With Largest Fifth Generation Air Group To Date

HMS Queen Elizabeth embarked her carrier air group yesterday, ahead of her participation in NATO exercises in the North Sea. She departed her home port of Portsmouth on 21 September, and will join up with Royal Navy, American and Dutch to form a NATO Carrier Strike Group that will participate in Exercise Joint Warrior next month.

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “The Wake Island Avengers” and the United Kingdom’s Lightning 617 Squadron shortly after embarking onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on 22 September, 2020, off the coast of the United Kingdom. (Royal Navy Photograph by LPhot Belinda Alker)

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s air group is currently composed of 14 F-35B Lightning IIs and eight Merlin helicopters. 10 F-35B Lightning IIs are of the US Marine Corps’ VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers”, with the remaining four from the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron “Dambusters”. Four of the Merlin MK2s are from 820 Naval Air Squadron, the dedicated carrier air squadron, two Merlin MK2s from 824 Naval Air Squadron with student aircrew undergoing conversion training, and two Commando Merlins of the 845 Naval Air Squadron. Wildcat HMA MK2s of the 815 Naval Air Squadron are due to join the air group at a later date.

According to the commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s air group has the largest amount of fifth generation fighter aircraft at sea to date, with the Commodore saying:

“The United Kingdom’s maritime renaissance has been unfolding over many years, as we introduced a new generation of ships, submarines and aircraft into service. But this marks the first time we have brought them together in a cohesive, potent, fighting force.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will be operating with the largest air group of fifth generation fighters assembled anywhere in the world. Led by the Royal Navy, and backed by our closest allies, this new Carrier Strike Group puts real muscle back into NATO and sends a clear signal that the United Kingdom takes its global role seriously.”

Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, “The Wake Island Avengers” supervise flight deck operations as an F-35B Lightning II lands onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. (US Marine Corps photograph by 1st Lt. Zachary Bodner)

The deployment of VMFA-211 will allow for more Marine Corps experience to be gained operating from the Queen Elizabeth class, following flight operations by F-35Bs of VMX-1 during WESTLANT 19. The squadron arrived in the United Kingdom two weeks ago, participating in Exercise Point Blank out of RAF Marham, the current home base of British F-35 operations. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Freshour, commanding officer of VMFA-211, described his squadron as “ready in all aspects” for the deployment.

Bombs on one of Queen Elizabeth’s ammunition lifts. These bombs have yet to be outfitted with guidance packages. (Photo courtesy Royal Navy)

Exercise Joint Warrior will run from 4 to 15 October, and will see eleven countries taking part in the exercise off the east, west and north coasts of Scotland, as well as other training ranges around the United Kingdom. HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to return to Portsmouth in late October, following the conclusion of the exercise.

UPDATE: The fifth F-35B of the 617 Squadron has landed aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, making the final total of F-35Bs aboard 15 aircraft.