The Royal Navy’s £3 billion aircraft carrier is to set sail for the US where British fighter jets will take off from its flight deck for the first time.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will depart from its home port of Portsmouth Naval Base on Friday for the deployment to the eastern coast of the US where the crew will work with the US Navy for operational testing of British F35B Lightning jets.
The carrier will sail along with the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland to form a small carrier strike group as it rehearses ahead of its first fully operational deployment planned for 2021.
The navy’s largest-ever warship will have a ship’s company of just under 800 for the Westlant 19 deployment which follows a previous trip to the US in 2018 when US F35 jets tested the capability of the carrier’s flightdeck.
Commodore Mike Utley, commander of the UK maritime strike group, said: “This is a hugely exciting point in the carrier strike programme.
“It’s a massive enterprise of thousands of people that will deploy on this next deployment who will take the next step from being able to operate Lightning aircraft from this ship and put that all together with the broader capability set.”
Captain James Blackmore, Commander Air Group, said that up to seven British jets would take part in the exercises along with up to four US jets.
He said: “We know we can safely fly the aircraft to and from the aircraft carrier, now it’s about making sure we can be mission effective.
“It’s huge, it’s the next step to regaining our carrier strike capability.
“In 2010 I had the privilege of launching in the last harrier from Ark Royal, we are nearly 10 years on and we are just getting back into having a carrier strike capability in the UK, one of very few nations that have it, what’s not exciting about that?”
Captain Steve Moorhouse, the carrier’s commanding officer, said: “From the captain down to the youngest sailor, it’s about getting the people ready to do what they would ultimately do should we be called upon to do so.”
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, minister for defence procurement, said: “With British F35B Lightning jets embarking for the very first time, this magnificent vessel is moving ever closer to her first operational deployment.
“This will put the ship, the jets and all supporting units through realistic war-fighting scenarios to ready them for operational deployment ensuring they can fight together as one formidable unit.”
The carrier group will deploy with nine helicopters including the Merlin anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Merlin lift helicopter and the Wildcat attack helicopter which will be exercised using the carrier’s 900ft flightdeck at the same time as the F35B jets.
The ship will also undergo warm weather sea trials to ensure it is ready for a deployment to the Mediterranean, Gulf and Pacific next year followed by its first operational deployment in 2021 which will include the embarkation of both a UK and a US squadron of marines with further support provided by a second destroyer, frigate and nuclear submarine.