Not since the Second World War have British and American fighter aircraft been launched from a foreign aircraft carrier on combat missions.
According to the British Ministry of Defense, it was back in 1943 US when they flew from HMS Victorious in the South Pacific conflict.
The British Royal Navy’s flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, has launched its first combat missions, as part of the coalition fighting ISIS in the Middle East, The War Zone reported.
British and American F-35B Lightning stealth jets operating from its deck in the eastern Mediterranean have flown operational sorties over Iraq during the warship’s first operational cruise as part of Carrier Strike Group 21, or CSG21.
Official confirmation of the F-35B combat sorties came from the Royal Navy, although some sources reported that HMS Queen Elizabeth and its embarked air wing actually began flying missions against ISIS in Iraq on June 18.
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph stated that the jets first went into combat from the carrier last Sunday, June 20.
Either way, the last time that fixed-wing jets from a British carrier actually struck enemy targets was during the crisis in the Balkans in the mid-1990s when Harriers were involved.
Eight of the F-35Bs on the carrier are provided by the RAF’s No 617 Squadron, the “Dambusters,” while another 10 are from the US Marines Corps’ Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, the “Wake Island Avengers,” home-based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, but currently under British command.
The new 65,000-tonne vessel is also housing 250 US Marines as part of its 1,700-strong crew.
As for the rest of CSG21, as well as HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy elements of the strike group consist of the Type 45 destroyers HMS Diamond and HMS Defender, the Type 23 class frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, the replenishment tanker RFA Tidespring, the stores ship and fleet tanker RFA Fort Victoria, and an undisclosed Royal Navy Astute class nuclear attack submarine, War Zone reported.
They are also accompanied by the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS The Sullivans, and the Dutch De Zeven Provinciën class frigate HNLMS Evertsen.
US-designed F-35Bs are state-of-the-art stealth aircraft that can land vertically, enabling them to deploy on smaller warships than the massive 100,000-ton Nimitz-class aircraft carriers that are the backbone of the US Navy’s fleet.
Unconfirmed flight-tracking data suggested that the F-35Bs were also conducting these missions with support from both Royal Air Force E-3D Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft operating from the RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, War Zone reported.
At least two RAF Voyager tankers were apparently available to provide aerial refueling to the F-35Bs, as well. These assets will have enabled the F-35Bs to remain on station longer, addressing a long-standing criticism over their range on internal fuel.
“At the moment, we’re taking on the lion’s share of that operation over Iraq, which is a fantastic […] feather in our cap. But an achievement that ‘A’, we’re trusted and ‘B’, that we’re able to do that,” Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, told reporters.
Commodore Moorhouse’s statement has been taken by some sources to indicate that the UK is currently bearing the brunt of the anti-ISIS mission in Iraq, while the US military meanwhile focuses on its continuing withdrawal from Afghanistan.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the first F-35B combat mission last Sunday saw two jets tasked against ISIS, while another two were scrambled to investigate Russian aircraft.
“We’re rubbing up against Russian activity, not in […] a dangerous or aggressive manner, but you’ve just got other people out here playing in what is a fixed piece of water and airspace,” Moorhouse added, describing the eastern Mediterranean as more “congested and contested” as a result of the Russian presence in Syria.
Meanwhile, British and Russian pilots have come within “visual distance” of each other, according to Captain James Blackmore, commander of the Carrier Air Wing aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“It’s that cat-and-mouse posturing, it’s what we expect in this region of the world. And as you can imagine, it’s the first time for F-35s into the eastern Mediterranean,” Blackmore explained. “So, of course, Russia wants to look at what they’re like, they want to look at what our carriers are like.”
CSG21 will next be joined by French flagship aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle for a period of dual-carrier operations before the carrier transits the Suez canal and visit Oman, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore to strengthen Britain’s security relationships.
Sources: The War Zone, CNN, USNI News, The Telegraph, National Interest