The Royal Navy (RN) aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has sailed from Portsmouth to undertake operational trials off the East Coast of the USA.
Known as WESTLANT 19, the deployment will see the carrier conduct operational testing with UK F-35B Lightning aircraft. WESTLANT 19 will also 'operationalise' the UK Carrier Strike Group construct ahead of a first deployment planned for 2021.
Building on the success of last year's WESTLANT 18 deployment, during which Queen Elizabeth completed initial testing with the F-35B, OT-1 will see the carrier conduct five weeks of testing with F-35B aircraft and pilots from No 17(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron, and the Lightning Force at RAF Marham (No 207 Squadron and No 617 Squadron).
Commodore Mike Utley, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, said: ''The success of last year's deployment, during which we embarked and operated the F-35B for the very first time, put us ahead of the curve in terms of developmental testing between the jets and ship. We have a significant switch in focus this year, towards operationalising this national defence capability; turning this ship, the jets for which it has been built, and all supporting units into a cohesive, agile, efficient force.''
Operational testing puts the jets, ship and supporting units through their paces, allowing equipment and crew to operate under realistic warfighting scenarios to ready them for their first operational deployment. This end-to-end process extends from planning campaigns, briefing pilots, and preparing and arming the jets, to flying and sustaining the aircraft on their 'mission'.
Queen Elizabeth is being escorted by the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and the Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland, with the Tide-class fleet tanker RFA Tideforce providing tanker support to the strike group. Lima Company, 42 Command Royal Marines, and a Role 2 Medical Team afloat are also embarked in the carrier.
''This is not just about operating jets from the carrier,'' said Utley. ''This is about starting to realise the capability we will get from a fifth-generation carrier and a fifth-generation aircraft. And it's about how we will develop the wider capability afforded by the Carrier Strike Group in all its constituent parts.''
The WESTLANT 19 strike group will return to the UK at the end of 2019. Queen Elizabeth's sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is completing test and commissioning at Rosyth and is expected to commence sea trials in the coming weeks.