JFAC FORCE DEVELOPMENT VISIT TO HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH AND HMS VICTORY DIN
The UK Joint Force Air Component (UKJFAC) accompanied by some from the Air Battle Staff (ABS), travelled to Portsmouth to experience 300 years of the Royal Navy ruling the seas. The plan, to tour the brand-new HMS Queen Elizabeth (QE) and to enjoy one of its oldest ships, HMS Victory.
The HMS QE is Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, capable of projecting Air Power in every corner of the globe and strengthening the nation’s reputation as a player on a world stage.
She will soon carry the F-35B, the UK’s 5th generation multi-role stealth fighter, with the Royal Navy receiving a considerable quantity of the capability in addition to the RAF. With the jet shortly due to be in service, it is crucial to learn what the capability offers and how best to exploit synergies between the services.
‘An airfield in the sea’… Inside, it certainly doesn’t seem to come with the acres of open fields and blue sky. After some steep staircases and a few dozen corridors and junctions, we were taken into the ship’s main briefing room, seemingly in the bowels of this steel labyrinth. The HMS QE can carry up to 36 F-35Bs however will routinely carry 24, in order to cater for other supporting aircraft. At 280 metres long and with all elements of a flying station on board including engineering, weapon storage, accommodation and medical centre, the 65,000-ton vessel is enormous. It provides the UK floating sovereign territory, and with the ability to push some 500 miles beyond the shoreline via the air, it means the UK can influence virtually every inch of the globe. With the capability to resupply at sea, the ship is extraordinarily capable and infinitely flexible.
The F-35B and the HMS QE should not be thought of as 2 different entities from a Naval perspective. The ship is entirely designed around the former, as we see from standing in one of the two control towers. Looking down onto the deck shows the entire operation – the huge lift raising the aircraft from the hangar, the weapons loading bays and the ‘ski jump’ runway. Walking out on to it really demonstrates the scale and resilience of this fighting system.
After an impressive lunch in the Ship’s Wardroom, a tour of the hangar and the ship’s bridge, it’s time to vacate this impressive weapon in the Royal Navy’s inventory and move on to the next serial of the day.
Seeing the invasion plan for D-Day sprawled out on the wall is a sobering sight. A purpose-built map of the Southern UK and Northern France, cluttered with ship routes, landing sites and minefields, it spans from floor to ceiling. Southwick House, the current Officers’ Mess at MOD Southwick Park, was Eisenhower’s former HQ during WW2, where Senior Officers fought to co-ordinate 7000 vessels, 3 million troops and get them all to Normandy. A ‘Logistical nightmare’, as described by the Curator, the operation had to be kept secret from the Germans, meaning the mountains of supplies had to be hidden and decoy operations run in tandem to the main effort. Despite profound challenges and adversity in the face of a powerful enemy, the plan paid off and the war was won. The map room, now a museum in part of the main Officers’ Mess, serves as a relic to ingenuity and determination in adverse times.
A quick trip down to our Naval accommodation in Gosport and a change into Mess Dress. What followed was the grandest spectacle of the day; HMS Victory. Launched in 1765, an extensive operation has been underway for years to try and restore her to her former glory, however crouching into the hull, it seems to be in immaculate condition already. Once the team were informed of the myriad of means to bang their head, we embarked on a tour of the ship with the Officer of the Watch. And indeed, the ceilings were low; simply designed as such to fit an extra deck in. More real estate = more guns.
A subtle plaque marks the spot where Admiral Lord Nelson fell during the Battle of Trafalgar. The guns in place as would have been during the great battle, as were the methods of punishment for those taking more than their fair ration of 8 pints of beer (a day). Those sailors that did were made to fabricate their own ‘Cat of nine-tails’, a whip with the ends sharpened to a point and inspected by the Ship’s WO prior to administering a discrete quantity of lashings. Sure, the ship was made of wood but the men made of steel.
The Ship’s complement could fire and reload one cannon in around 60-90 seconds, far less than the 6 mins time from the French. A crucial lesson carried forward to today’s forces is that being prepared and proficient in your role means promise of victory in battle.
Settling down to an excellent dinner on board a 300-year-old Ship is a truly humbling experience none will forget lightly. Some warm leaving speeches followed Dinner and most importantly, the issuing of fines for various misdemeanours……
A marked contrast in technology and capability from HMS Victory to HMS QE, but one thing remains constant – the skill and steely determination of its people in adverse conditions. ‘Be ready and have a plan’ – it’s a lesson seen repeatedly through British history.
The F-35B will bring the UK a remarkable capability; able to conduct almost any mission anywhere in the world. The RAF will continue to adapt to the times and the technology and JFAC will remain flexible to maximise the opportunities that arise in this Joint Battlespace. As the UKJFAC take on NATO Readiness Force duties in 2020 it’s our people that will offer the most potent capability, no matter what the conditions.