Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group F-35s Conduct First Combat Missions

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence announced today that F-35Bs of the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron have flown operational missions as part of Operation Shader, the UK’s campaign against ISIS. The missions are both the first RAF F-35B operational flights from an aircraft carrier, and the first time the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group has conducted combat missions.

While the MoD did not provide any details on the missions flown by the Dambusters and the Wake Island Avengers of VMFA-211, it described them as a “significant change in emphasis” for the Carrier Strike Group, following the past few weeks of joint exercises with NATO allies in the Mediterannean. Strikes on ISIS, the MoD says, are now putting the “strike” into the Carrier Strike Group.

An F-35B of the 617 Squadron taking off from the HMS Queen Elizabeth on its first combat mission. (Ministry of Defence)

Commanding officer of the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, described the missions against ISIS as a “significant moment in the 50-year lifespan” of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, saying:

“It also marks a new phase of our current deployment. To date we have delivered diplomatic influence on behalf of the UK through a series of exercises and engagements with our partners – now we are ready to deliver the hard punch of maritime-based air power against a shared enemy.

The involvement of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her Air Wing in this campaign also sends a wider message. It demonstrates the speed and agility with which a UK-led Carrier Strike Group can inject fifth generation combat power into any operation, anywhere in the world, thereby offering the British Government, and our allies, true military and political choice.”

According to Moorhouse, the Carrier Strike Group is now carrying the “lion’s share” of aerial missions against ISIS in Iraq, with the majority of US forces in the area focused on supporting the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

A VMFA-211 F-35B takes off on an operational mission against ISIS. (LPhot Unaisi Luke/Royal Navy)

Captain James Blackmore, commander of the Queen Elizabeth’s air wing, said that the missions were also the first time US Marine Corps carrier aircraft had conducted operational missions from a foreign aircraft carrier in 78 years, with the last time being from the HMS Victorious in the South Pacific in 1943. He described the integration between the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and US Marine Corps as “truly seamless, and testament to how close we’ve become since we first embarked together last October”.

F-35B flight operations over Syria and Iraq are reported to have drawn the interest of Russian forces in the Mediterranean, with Blackmore saying that Russian aircraft have come within “visual distance” of RAF F-35Bs. However, Moorhouse says that conduct from Russian, RAF and Marine pilots alike has been “absolutely professional”.

A 617 Squadron F-35B refueling over the Middle East (Ministry of Defence)

The Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group is currently expected to remain in the Mediterranean for the next two to three weeks. Subsequently, it will pass through the Suez Canal en route to India and the Pacific for the rest of the CSG21 deployment.