Saturday, 29 July 2017

Up close with a US super carrier and the pilots fresh from combat operations

The arrival of the USS George HW Bush in British waters to participate in exercise Saxon Warrior with the Royal Navy provided a useful opportunity to meet US naval aviators who have recently completed combat missions against ISIS in the Middle East. Although they are very different, inevitable comparisons will also be made between the Nimitz class CVN and the Queen Elizabeth class CVF, which deserve to be put in perspective.

The US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2 have been in action in the Middle East for almost 7 months and there was a high tempo of operations with 99 days conducting combat sorties. With the fall of Mosul, ISIS has been virtually defeated in Iraq and there is some satisfaction that the aircraft from the Bush group have seen a job through to completion. Whatever your view on the complex issues of the Middle East, it should be recognised that hard-working sailors and aviators aboard the Bush have at completed their assigned mission, helping to destroy the evil of ISIS, as directed by their political masters.

Up to July this year, the coalition of 68 countries against ISIS (including 9 countries flying combat missions) conducted a total of around 25,000 air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. The majority of the missions have used very accurate laser-guided munitions with a very clear aim of avoiding civilian casualties. Given the number of bombs dropped, the civilian death toll from coalition strikes has been low, although it would be very naive to believe any nation claiming there have been no civilian deaths caused by their air strikes.

A very rare air-air kill

The majority of missions flown by the F-18s from the Bush used the 500lb JDAM laser-guided bomb against Islamic State targets as requested by US allies on the ground. One mission stands out from the rest, on 4th June an F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 “Fitter”. The Soviet-era aircraft had been bombing US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State.

Lt Cdr Michael Tremel of the Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-87 ‘Golden Warriors’ made the first US air-to-air kill since a USAF F-16 shot down a Serbian MiG-29 in 1999, during the Kosovo campaign. Tremel, speaking to media for the first time aboard the Bush anchored in the Solent said “the whole incident lasted about eight minutes… I did not directly communicate with the Syrian Jet but he was given several warnings by our supporting AWACS aircraft… So yes, we released ordnance and yes it hit a target that was in the air, but it really just came back to defending those guys that were doing the hard job on the ground and taking that ground back from ISIS.” He recalled; “I didn’t see the pilot eject but my wingman observed his parachute.” Tremel is an incredibly modest and relaxed gentleman, it is others, not himself who are keen to make a big deal about what was a relatively simple air-air kill against an obsolete aircraft. “When you think about the shoot down in the grand scheme of things… we flew over 400 missions in support of friendly forces on the ground” he said.

Lt Cdr Tremel with his F/A 18-E jet. Tomahawk icons represent strike missions. The Air-Air kill is denoted by icon on the top right under the Syrian flag.

One aspect of the engagement does raise questions. Asked if it was a straight Sidewinder shoot down, Tremel admitted it took 2 missiles. The infrared guided AIM-9X Sidewinder short range air-to-air missile missed, apparently lured away by decoy flares from the SU-22. It was a second radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM missile that destroyed the aircraft. The AIM-9X is the latest version of a very well proven family of missiles and it would not be expected to be fooled by flares or fail against such an obsolete aircraft. (The UK uses the superior ASRAAM, although it shares some common components with the Sidewinder).

steam catapault

What we could have had… looking down the waist catapult on the angled deck.

USS George HW Bush v HMS Queen Elizabeth. Apples v Oranges.

Walking down the flight deck of the Bush there was a feeling of regret at how the UK has managed to squander its hard-won lead in innovation. Britain pioneered naval aviation, invented the steam catapult, the angled deck and automated deck landing system (the meatball in US parlance), not to mention the jet engine, radar and steam turbine, all of which are foundational to the Nimitz class super carrier. Although it is regrettable, the Queen Elizabeth class will not have catapults and traps and we must accept that CATOBAR is beyond the inadequate resources the government is willing to provide the RN. STOVL and F-35Bs are the only sensible choice for the RN, given its budget and manpower constraints.

Searching for a candid view of how the US Navy see the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, one officer was asked if they perceive them as something like a larger USS America (LHA – Marine assault ship operating F-35Bs) or closer to the Bush and the CVNs? “It’s true her air group cannot deliver quite the same effect as us, but she’s another big deck. She will make a similar diplomatic impact to our carriers, they have great command and control facilities and some innovations we are keen to learn about” he replied carefully. “As far as we’re concerned they will help share the load and relieve some of the burden on the US fleet”.

In European terms, the QEC will be a huge jump in capability and will be a very big step forward for the Royal Navy. In pure combat terms, the QEC is still far behind the US Navy. The 12-14 jets aboard the QEC will not compare well with the 44 carried by the Bush on this deployment (with space for an air group of up to 90 aircraft). CATOBAR means the Bush also benefits from dedicated electronic warfare aircraft (Growlers), buddy-buddy air-air refuelling jets (adapted F-18s) and EC3 Hawkeye which have approximately double the radar range of the Crowsnest Merlin helicopters.

This capability does not come cheap. Despite having nuclear-powered propulsion, the food, aircraft fuel and spares bill for the Bush runs at around $10M per month when on operations. It would be instructive to know if the MoD has calculated and properly budgeted for the running costs for the QEC when deployed. Manpower is the biggest through-life cost. QEC will have just 1,500 with a full air group embarked which compares very well to the 5,300 required by the Bush. HMS Queen Elizabeth cost around £3.2Bn to construct, while the Bush cost $6.2Bn back in 2009.

Observing both ships at close quarters they are very different workplaces. QE benefits from a 10 year advance in technology and a design philosophy aimed at reducing manning to a minimum. It is slightly unfair to compare a seasoned 8-year-old ship that has been in action for 6 months and inevitably looks battered, with a brand new vessel. QE feels like a more comfortable ship with automation everywhere, while the Bush has a more workman-like interior. A good example is a comparison between the Chief’s mess aboard the Bush and the equivalent Senior Rates dining hall on QE. Both are cafeteria-style eating areas but QE’s is far larger, has carpets and a suspended ceiling. On the Bush the deckhands and pipework are all exposed, whitewashed bulkheads and a lino floor make for a tough, utilitarian atmosphere.

What the two ships will have in common, is the reach of carrier air power that extends across the globe. The ability to strike our enemies or to provide support to our allies by air from the sea is a capability that all the greatest nations aspire to.


Photo Tour

from Save the Royal Navy

Monday, 24 July 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth sails from Invergordon, an echo of the Royal Navy’s illustrious past

After nearly sixteen days alongside in Invergordon for replenishment and repairs, HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed last night to resume sea trials. Her time in the port was slightly longer than anticpiated but today’s departure from the Cromarty Firth provides an opportunity to take in some historical perspective.

HMS Queen Elizabeth departs Invergordon, 23rd July 2017. Video via ACA.

Sixty years ago the Home Fleet, including three aircraft carriers arrived in Invergordon after welcoming the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh home from a state visit to Denmark. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s departure is another episode the long history of Royal Naval connections to the Cromarty Firth. Although rather forgotten now, the port became increasingly important from the start of the 20th Century, strategically placed between Rosyth and the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. By 1912, the Admiralty had established a permanent naval base at Invergordon which played an important role in supporting the Grand Fleet in the First World War. Spending cuts forced the navy to scale down the base in 1933 and it was little-used during the Second World War because of vulnerability to German bombers. However, warships on operations in the North Sea have continued to visit the port right up until recent times.

Royal Navy Home Fleet 1957

HMS Superb leads the Home Fleet in sail-past of HMY Brittania before entering the Cromarty Firth, 27 May 1957. (Photo from the NavyLookout family archive)

The Pathé news footage from the time shows three aircraft carriers, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean and HMS Albion. (Two out of three names that still live on in the RN today). The Royal yacht was also escorted by two cruisers, fast minelayer HMS Apollo, destroyers HMS Duchess and HMS Diamond, four ‘battle class’ destroyers and four submarines, including HMS Artful and HMS Trump:)

It would be rather unkind to make comparisons between the Royal Navy of 1957 and that of today. The RN is indeed a shadow of its former self, too small and undermanned, yet there are things be positive about. 15 vessels are at various stages of construction including 2 aircraft carriers, 1 frigate, 5 OPVs, 3 submarines and 4 replenishment tankers.

We will also not dwell on the events at Invergordon 1931, when a government plan to cut sailors pay caused the last recorded mutiny in the Royal Navy. Instead for now we will focus on the inspiring sight of warships at sea and wish HMS Queen Elizabeth success with her continuing trials programme. She has already achieved a speed of 27 Knots (according to AIS) as her machinery and propulsion continues to be tested in the Moray Firth today.


from Save the Royal Navy

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dunkirk movie review. Great cinema, but is it great history?

Dunkirk is a fine drama, gripping and well paced. Tension is maintained throughout and Christopher Nolan has directed with a fine sense of pace and action. An outstanding musical score by Hans Zimmerman at times seems to howl like a diving Stuka or rasps like a machine gun adding to the feeling of fear and foreboding. There are a few confusing jumps back and forward in time and an odd subplot about soldiers trapped in a fishing boat being used for target practice but overall as a piece of cinema it deserves its 5-star reviews.

The first significant dialogue in the film is “where’s the air force?” and to some extent, the film sets out to prove the significant role played by the RAF in protecting Dunkirk. The RAF have suffered from the myth that they were largely absent, mainly because they were not visible to the soldiers on the beaches but in fact were fighting at high altitude over France. Conversely, the myth that the RAF alone saved us from invasion later in 1940 has been grossly overplayed. A disproportionate amount of the film is devoted to the aerial battle with spectacular live footage of Spitfires mixed with very convincing sequences including German aircraft. The Spitfires seem to spend most of their time at low level over the water presumably so they can be seen in glorious “fly past mode”, protecting the ships but in reality, they would have kept much higher as altitude is a key advantage in air combat.

In the 9 days between 26 May to 3 June 1940, the RAF lost 177 aircraft damaged or destroyed, Mostly Blenhiems, Fairy Battles and Hurricanes but not many of the Spitfires featured so prominently in the film. There were also French Airforce and French Naval Air Arm fighters involved in the defence of Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe lost a total of around 240 aircraft (including losses to ground fire) in this period.

Of the 200 destroyers possessed by the RN in May 1940, 39 of these precious ships were sent into action at Dunkirk along with a cruiser and a further 300 assorted other small naval vessels. When fully loaded, the destroyers could evacuate up to 700 soldiers and make several round trips in a day. 6 destroyers were lost in the operation. Just as the RAF could not commit everything to the defence of France, and later Dunkirk, the RN had also had to husband its resources for the future, not just for the defence of mainland Britain, but for the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic.

Although there is a very harrowing and realistic sequence depicting the horror of being trapped below decks when a ship is torpedoed, unfortunately, a representative amount of time is not extended to the central naval aspects of the Dunkirk story. It was the navy and many small merchant ships, paddle steamers and river ferries that in fact rescued the majority of the soldiers saved from Dunkirk. The 700 or so ‘little ships’, so central to the Dunkirk myth were indeed brave and admirable but probably rescued less than 5% of the total saved. They did assist in bringing soldiers off the shallow waters of the beach out to the waiting ships, but the majority of men that made it home passed down the East mole and walked straight onto ships.

60 vessels were employed during the making of the film and they did succeed in portraying the small ships very authentically. The strange decision to eschew CGI meant the attempt to depict the 200 British and French naval vessels of all sizes committed to the fight are completely are inadequate. Just five real naval vessels feature in the film. The only large warship depicted is a Cold war era French destroyer, the FS Maillé-Brézé, now a museum ship, although dating from 1958, to the trained eye she looks far too modern with enclosed bridge and prominent radars. Two former Dutch Navy minesweepers feature, Hr.Ms. Naaldwijk and Hr.Ms. Sittard, the latter having been rather crudely made-over with fake gun turrets. Another Dutch heritage vessel, the MV Castor has also been painted grey and appears as ‘generic warship’. Two preserved and seaworthy WWII coastal craft, the USN P22 and HMS Medusa were also used. Despite valiant efforts and considerable work by a lot of people, the big scenes are simply too empty, lacking enough soldiers, ships and smoke, if compared to photos taken at the time. When the evacuation was in full swing the East Mole was jammed packed with ships embarking men. When CGI is so prevalent in modern films and relatively cheap, this should have been addressed.

Does this detail matter? From a dramatic perspective not very much, but if the importance of the Navy is airbrushed from our history, even unconsciously as here, it further reduces the public understanding of its value and role.

“Commander Bolton” Photo © 2016 Warner Bros

Omitted from the film is mention of the organisational genius behind the Dunkirk evacuation, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who ran the operation from his base at Dover Castle. Kenneth Branagh plays “Cdr Bolton”, a grizzled RN commander calm in the face of chaos and danger. Presumably, his character is based on the senior naval officer at Dunkirk, Captain Bill Tennant, whose inspired decision to use the East Mole as a jetty was critical to the large numbers saved. He provides the only brief moment of light relief in a film light on dialogue and humour “The tide changes every 3 hours.” says the Colonel “It’s every 6 hours. That’s why I’m in the Navy & you’re in the Army” replies Bolton.

Some will see this film as a timely metaphor for Brexit, as Britain faces another “Dunkirk”. Remainers will view Dunkirk as a story of a defeated nation, making a chaotic retreat from Europe. Brexiters see Britain making its escape from the forces of evil, a plucky underdog in a precursor to victory. Although this story is a part of history that can be shaped into a narrative that suits your world view, what is certain is that Dunkirk reminds us that we are lucky to live on this island protected by the sea. If we keep our navy strong enough to exert control at sea, we can both protect ourselves and exert influence on events far away. Ultimately Dunkirk is a story about the inspired rescue of a lot of brave, scared and mostly very ordinary, young men. The final total of men rescued at Dunkirk was an incredible 338,226, incidentally around 4 times the size of the entire British Army of today.

This film is far from being a historical abomination such as “U571” and is very real. Its obvious weakness is that by telling three main stories; of a soldier, a Spitfire pilot and one of the ‘small ships’ it rather overlooks the naval heart of the operation. There may not be enough ships, but it still makes for great viewing.



from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s extended stop at Invergordon explained

HMS Queen Elizabeth has been alongside in the deepwater port of Invergordon for more than 10 days now and there is growing speculation about the reason for her extended stay. The planned stop at Invergordon had always been in the programme to allow refuelling and replenishment after 12 days at sea which included full power trials. Replenishment alone would not require 10 days so it is clear there are engineering issues involved.

It has been confirmed that while conducting sea trials sometime in early July she hit an item of debris in the sea. Whether it was a discarded fishing net or something else, the exact nature of the debris is unknown as it had cleared itself before the ship arrived in Cromarty. What is certain is that she did not hit a rock or a Russian submarine as claimed by some credulous online sources. On arrival, the shaft and propellers were quickly inspected by divers.

Repairs alongside and returning to sea soon

Mercifully the propeller shafts have not sustained major damage which would require dry docking and a complete charge to the trials schedule, not to mention at the accompanying negative headlines. However, in the course of the inspection, a defect was discovered that had the potential to have caused significant future problems if it had not been caught at an early stage. Divers have been working on the problem which is expected to be rectified soon. Unconfirmed reports suggest this involves one of the supports for the two shafts being slightly out of alignment. This reduces the efficiency of the propeller, causing vibration and noise. Engineering work that might have required dry-docking in the past can sometimes now be done underwater, thanks to pioneering developments by the offshore oil industry. QE had her propellers fitted underwater in the basin at Rosyth as she was originally fitted with brake blades that allowed the shafts to be turned to test the propulsion without moving the ship.

The supports for the QE propellor shafts seen here being mated with the hull while under construction in dry dock, February 2013. Photo via: ACA

There is confidence the ship will sail to resume trials in the next few days. These kind of issues are normal during the trials phase of any new vessel and are no cause for alarm. It should be remembered that QE is effectively a prototype design under testing and some way from being a fully capable warship. The trials programme was always flexible and likely to be subject to change. The ACA, who are still the owners of the ship, are understandably unwilling to discuss the details of every engineering problem that is encountered before the ship is handed to the RN and have not made a specific comment on this issue.

In the internet age, a flagship project like the QE is subject to extraordinary scrutiny and speculation that earlier generations of innovators and engineers never had to endure. Apart from the pub landlords in Invergordon, these delays are frustrating for everyone but should not be a huge surprise, and there maybe more. Keep calm and carry on. There is every confidence QE will prove to be a sound ship and remains well on course to meet the original target of handing her to the RN by the end of this year.

The dry dock conundrum

These events do raise an interesting question. In future where will the QE carriers be dry-docked and, if HMS Queen Elizabeth had required urgent docking, what are the options? Unfortunately Portsmouth Naval Base does not have a dry dock large enough for the QE carriers. HMS Prince of Wales, currently under construction, occupies the dry dock in Rosyth. As QE’s departure demonstrated, moving in or out of the dock in Rosyth is a very complex process, requiring 11 tugs and can only be done within certain tidal and weather windows. The King George V graving dock in Southampton, which would be convenient for a Portsmouth-based ship, has been closed since 2005. The Harland and Wolf dry dock in Belfast is currently involved in wind farm construction and would require some time to be prepared. No 5 Dock at on Merseyside, or Incgreen Dry Dock, Port Glasgow (both owned by Cammel Laird) are just large enough for the ship. In these cases, it is unclear if there would be appropriate personnel and facilities available to support work on QE. The nearest foreign option would be in Rotterdam but relying on overseas facilities is likely to be highly controversial. The expansion of D-Lock at Portsmouth would probably be the ideal solution but the funds for this are likely to be hard to find. Expect to see the QE carriers reliant on Roysth when needing to go into dry dock in the long term.


from Save the Royal Navy

Monday, 17 July 2017

Crowsnest – the strike carrier’s eye in the sky

Crowsnest is the name for the project to provide a new airborne early warning system for the RN. Sea King Mk 7 helicopters operated by 849 Naval Air Squadron currently operate in this role and provide what is now called Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC). They are the last Sea Kings remaining active in UK service but are due to go in 2018, by which time this type will have served for nearly 50 years.

The common sense solution

Crowsnest will not involve the purchase of any new aircraft. Instead, the RN will receive 10 equipment kits for fitting to some of its 30 Merlin HM2s. The £269M contract for these kits was finally placed in January (including £9M worth of spares). Development of the system has been underway for some time and flying trials have started using a Merlin HM1 test aircraft. The project will provide work for more than 200 people in the UK; Lockheed Martin (Havant), Thales (Crawley) and Leonardo Helicopters (Yeovil).

The Crowsnest system is an evolution of the well proven Cerberus tactical sensor suite and the Searchwater 2000 radar that currently equips the Sea King Mk7s. The radar is mounted in an inflatable bag on the port side of the helicopter and can be raised by rotating through 90º for landing. The Crowsnest system will employ a slightly adapted mounting but will work in a similar way. The Cerberus system has been successfully evolved over many years and is able to monitor up to 600 contacts simultaneously. The Searchwater radar is able to ‘look down’ and track small, fast-moving targets over land and water or ‘look up’ and track multiple aircraft. The “baggers” as the ASaC helicopters are affectionately called, proved their worth in Afghanistan, clocking up 3,000 flying hours and over 800 missions providing over-watch for NATO forces on the ground. At sea they have successfully provided reassurance for the RN and its allies in multiple operations since 1982.

The exact details of the range and capabilities of the new system are obviously not in the public domain but it will feature an improved human interface, better target identification and hardening against electronic jamming. The MoD has selected a very low-risk and affordable solution, building upon existing technology and fitting it on an aircraft that is already in service that will not need a new logistics or training pipeline.

In the current fiscal climate, Merlin/Cerberus was the only realistic option. Lockheed Martin had proposed a more sophisticated Merlin-based option using a podded AESA radar, derived from the F-35 but it was obviously more expensive. Many would have liked to have seen a V-22 Osprey based ASaC solution (tilt-rotor aircraft). This potentially offers better range and surveillance coverage than a helicopter. Unfortunately, this only exists on paper as a concept and would have added more time and cost to develop, as well as adding an aircraft to the inventory the UK does not (yet) possess.

The correct choice has probably been made but before the order was placed, the MoD had spent more than 17 years and around £40 Million on the Crowsnest project in an excessively drawn out “assessment phase”. In stark contrast to this lumbering process, the original helicopter-borne AEW concept was developed on a shoestring in a just 11 weeks and rushed into service in the wake of Falklands War.

In service, in time, mind the gap

The first Crowsnest kit is due to be delivered in October 2018 and fitted to an operational aircraft by June 2019. Initial Operating capability for the ASaC Merlins will be in 2020, although this is likely to consist of just 2 or 3 aircraft. Effectively there will be an approximately 18-month ‘capability gap’ where the RN has no operational AEW capability between 2018 and 2020.

824 Naval Air Squadron provides training for ASW Merlin aircrew and will also take on responsibility for ASaC training. Some 849 NAS personnel have already begun to convert from the Sea King to the Merlin, ready to take over the new Crowsnest aircraft when they begin deliveries next year. Full Operating Capability for Crowsnest (Ideally at least 6 aircraft and trained aircrew) should be achieved in early 2022, slightly ahead of the FOC for HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Carrier Strike role in 2023.

Kits not aircraft

With just 30 Merlin HM2 airframes available to the RN, it is unfortunate that the Crowsnest aircraft will have to be drawn from this fleet. To add to the pressures and delays, each HM2 will have to be withdrawn from service while Leonardo spends around 15 weeks adding wiring and mountings for the Crowsnest kit. Fitting out all 30 aircraft will have to be spread over several years.

Theoretically, the Crowsnest kit can then be installed in any Merlin in a process that should take around 24 hours, either ashore at RNAS Culdrose or in the spacious hangar of the QE class aircraft carriers. A Merlin changing from the anti-submarine role to ASaC will have its dipping sonar, sonobuoy carousel and ASW consoles removed before the ASaC equipment is added. It is expected that between 6 and 8 Merlins will have the ASaC kit fitted at any one time, with spares available at sea should an ASaC Merlin become unserviceable or lost. This appears to offer some useful flexibility as the carriers will need continuous ASaC capability most of the time. Unfortunately switching precious ASaC platforms to ASW (or vice versa) is far from ideal. The Merlin may have lower maintenance requirements than the Sea King, but 13 aircraft are being replaced by 6-8 kits fitted to aircraft in the existing fleet, a further significant and unwelcome fall in the total number of available airframes.

Crowsnest will be a small upgrade in capability but having proved very useful in non-maritime environments, RAF ISTAR assets are stretched and we need to properly protect our aircraft carriers, there is a very strong case for expanding the number of aircraft, not of reducing them. The obvious solution is to utilise the 10 ‘spare’ Merlin HM1 airframes that have been mothballed for some time, even if not upgraded to HM2 standard. Even the modest funds to refurbish these aircraft do not seem to be available and the RN is again put in a position where it must rob Peter to pay Paul.


from Save the Royal Navy

Monday, 3 July 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth – her first week at sea

On the afternoon of 26th June HMS Queen Elizabeth put sea for the first time. This was a significant milestone in modern Royal Navy history. She is the first British aircraft carrier completed since 1985 and the first true aircraft carrier in the world designed to operate 5th generation fixed wing aircraft.

A good week for the RN…

The RN still has many long-term problems and challenges but can look back on the past week with great satisfaction. Besides the successful departure of HMS Queen Elizabeth, The RN now has 3 ships assigned to NATO duties. HMS Sutherland will join the latter part of NATO anti-submarine exercise Dynamic Mongoose off Iceland, HMS Duncan is about to assume leadership of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 which will enter the Black Sea. HMS Enterprise will deploy to the Mediterranean as the flagship of Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Group 2. A Wildcat helicopter from HMS Monmouth working with RFA Cardigan Bay, operating in the Indian Ocean saved the life of a sailor from a sinking oil tanker. The second MARS tanker, RFA Tiderace was accepted off-contract from the builders in South Korea while the first ship RFA Tidespring has left dry dock in Falmouth as she progresses towards becoming operational next year. Finally, the order for the first three Type 26 Frigates was officially announced on 2nd July and steel will be cut in August.

The story of QE’s first week at sea is best told using the stunning official video and images of this mighty ship, in her natural element at last…

Leaving the basin

Monday 26th. 16.00 A fine demonstration of seamanship and teamwork. Eleven tugs took this ship out of the basin and through a very narrow lock with inches to spare. Not even a scratch on the paintwork.

Under the bridges

Monday 26th 23.40. Low tide at midnight meant the ship had to pass under the Forth bridges in the dark. As had been carefully calculated, she cleared the bridges with just a couple of meters of headroom. From a media perspective, the timing made a live broadcast of the spectacle a non-starter. Darkness made getting the “money shot” of the ship going under the bridges technically difficult. Her planned return to Rosyth, at some point halfway through her trials period, may provide another better photo opportunity.

At sea

Overall media coverage of QE going to sea was pretty muted. Her arrival in Portsmouth sometime in September or October will make a more compelling story as the ship comes into her home port where thousands are expected to be watching. Despite the great photos, it should be remembered that in some ways QE is akin to a newborn. Apart from light machine guns she is unarmed, is still owned by the builders and will not be an operational warship until 2020. Just one week into her trials programme she has not ventured far into the North Sea and returned to anchor at times. She has conducted short passages and racetrack courses testing ship handling and gradually building up to higher speeds, reportedly going above 26 knots.

This view of the two islands on her starboard side gives a real sense of scale. Note the communications mast in the lowered position ready to pass under the bridges.

Flying the blue ensign, at anchor in the Firth of Forth.

Looking purposeful and assured

The Queen joined by two Dukes. HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke arrived to escort her for a couple of days.

Urban myths abound

The empty flight deck of QE on trials has inspired the further repetition of the urban myth that she is “aircraft carrier with no aircraft”. This is not the case and F-35s will fly from her next year. Although the F-35 programme is delivering more slowly than everyone would like, the UK will own around 20 of the aircraft by the time HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves initial operating capability in 2020. Even if there were squadrons of aircraft ready to go, the ship would not be embarking them on initial sea trials. The first aircraft to land on the ship was a Merlin helicopter on a simple sortie to deliver a few supplies and exchange personnel.

Some in the media became overly-alarmed that Russian naval units and aircraft are likely to conduct surveillance on QE. Obtaining acoustic and electromagnetic signatures of naval vessels is a routine task conducted by most militaries on each other. From now, and for most of her sea-going life QE is likely to be escorted by RN units, possibly with an RN SSN nearby to ward off other submarines that may attempt to shadow her. So far QE has been operating in shallow and noisy coastal waters where submarines would struggle to glean anything very useful.

Laughably the Mail on Sunday warned that, HMS Queen Elizabeth transmitting on AIS during her trials posed a security risk and would “allow Putin to track her with a smartphone app”. (AIS is a statutory navigational safety requirement, even for warships in coastal waters for reasons of safety and common sense. Obviously, it can be turned off when needing to be covert, but a ship conducting trials is not attempting to hide).

Many media outlets continue to repeat the total falsehood that computers aboard QE use the insecure and outdated consumer Operating System Windows XP, supposedly leaving her vulnerable to cyber attacks. Most of the RN surface fleet currently uses Windows for Warships, a much modified and more secure OS, based on Windows 2000 with little in common with Microsoft’s consumer offerings. However, QE does not have any Microsoft software on board and uses a completely new system called Shared Infrastructure. UK Defence Journal has investigated this matter in detail.

A fine day to be at sea. So far trials have been conducted in mostly benign weather conditions and calm seas

4.5 acres of flight deck

Friendly fire from an Army-centric press

Journalist Max Hastings, was the self-proclaimed “first man into Port Stanley” after the liberation of the Falklands, a victory only made possible by aircraft carriers. Frothing at the mouth in the Daily Mail, Hastings demanded the QE “be scuttled”. Almost every line of his anti-carrier rhetoric is false or a distortion of the truth. The Times, which should know better, ran an editorial probably delivered straight from Marlborough Lines, rehearsing old complaints that aircraft carriers are too expensive and the Army’s dire state is their fault. The Guardian was a slightly kinder in a rambling piece about past naval glories, trying to cast the carriers as an outdated throwback and concluding they are “ugly”. It was, of course, the same media who were (rightly) castigating David Cameron back in 2011 that we had no aircraft carriers during the Libyan campaign.

Back in 2014 we wrote an antidote to the all the partisan and ill-informed criticism we predicted the carriers project would receive as they progressed.

Another milestone reached. The first aircraft pictured taking off after making the first deck landing on the ship. A Merlin Mk2 of 820 Naval Air Squadron had the honour

Mine’s better than yours…

The Defence Scretary, Michael Fallon rather unwisely taunted the Russians by saying “When you saw that old, dilapidated Kuznetsov sailing through the Channel, a few months ago, I think the Russians will look at this ship [QE] with a little bit of envy”. Although it is true that QE will eventually be far in advance of the ancient Kuznetsov, it should be pointed out that she will be unable to properly conduct combat operations before 2021. The Kuznetsov’s air group is unimpressive but she carries a battery of potent anti-ship missiles while, in part thanks to Fallon, the RN will have no heavyweight anti-ship missiles at all by next year. The Russian surface fleet is mostly old and they have not managed to build a new major surface combatant since the Soviet era. However, the Russian Navy is still very much more powerful than the hollowed-out Royal Navy by any measure. Their surface fleet may be semi-obsolete but it is their submarines that are the real cause for concern.

Perhaps the most evocative image of the week. QE with her escorts foreshadows the future when the RN will be able to field a carrier battle group again.


All images and Video courtesy of The Aircraft Carrier Alliance, MoD and Royal Navy/HMS Queen Elizabeth

from Save the Royal Navy