The United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group 21 is a British-led naval force that is currently deployed on Operation Fortis between May and December of 2021. The Carrier Strike Group is seen as the beginning of the British Government’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region in terms of defence and foreign policy, that had been announced in March through the Integrated Review. It is the first strike group deployment for the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, and the first operational deployment of the UK Carrier Strike Group since 2011. The deployment is the largest single deployment of F-35 fighter aircraft since the programme started in 2006, and the largest fifth-generation fighter carrier air wing in the world. Furthermore, HMS Queen Elizabeth sees the largest number of personnel embarked since she entered service, and the group will contain the largest number of Royal Navy maritime helicopters deployed in over 10 years.
The United Kingdom had been without a wholly-British deployable carrier strike group in almost 40 years; and without a deployable aircraft carrier altogether since 2014, when the final Invincible-class light aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was decommissioned – three years ahead of the two replacement carriers.
The UK Carrier Strike Group re-formed in February 2015, with Commodore Jerry Kyd appointed as Commander United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group;[only the next year however, Commodore Andrew Betton succeeded him as commander, as Kyd became the first sea-going captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth. HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned on 7th December 2017, and subsequently began the process of operational sea trials and training – including fixed-wing flying trials off the coast of the US. Subsequently, the UK Carrier Strike Group assembled for the first time in September 2019, when the Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dragon; Type 23 frigate, HMS Northumberland; and the Tide-class replenishment tanker, RFA Tideforce, came together to partake in NATO’s Exercise Cutlass Fury, off the coast of Canada. This exercise also marked the first time that British F-35s (from No. 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron of the Royal Air Force) had landed on the Queen Elizabeth ‘s deck.
In September 2020, as part of NATO’s Exercise Joint Warrior 2020-2, the full carrier strike group of nine surface vessels and accompanying air wing assembled for the first time in the North Sea, under the command of Commodore Steve Moorhouse. While the carrier strike group disbanded and the ships returned to their respective ports, the F-35Bs undertook further exercises from their base at RAF Marham, including partaking in Exercise Crimson Warrior, in preparation for the group’s initial operating capability which was declared on 4th January 2021.
HMS Queen Elizabeth departed HMNB Portsmouth on 1st March 2021, in order to conduct a period of working-up before deployment. She operated both in the English Channel and the Irish Sea to prepare the members of the ship’s company, alongside this she conducted helicopter exercises with the Royal Air Force and the British Army’s Army Air Corps to maintain the aircrew for carrier operations. Once finished, the carrier sailed up the British coast to Loch Long in order to embark munitions at the Northern Ammunition Jetty of Defence Munitions Glen Douglas, which had recently been extended by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation in order to accommodate the vessel. The ship was berthed there for five days between 15th and 20th March, before returning to Portsmouth. During her time in Scotland, the vessel also held a memorial service onboard for the Second World War escort carrier HMS Dasher, which suffered a major internal explosion and sank off Ardrossan in March 1943.
In the middle of April, the Royal Navy began the process of administering Covid-19 vaccines to members of the carrier strike group in preparation for the deployment. The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace announced on 26th April that every sailor within the strike group would have received two vaccines prior to their departure.
USS The Sullivans departed Naval Station Mayport on 19th April, bound for the United Kingdom in order to join the carrier strike group for deployment. Between the 26th and 28th April, the 10 F-35B jets of the United States Marine Corps’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) that contribute to the air group, arrived at RAF Lakenheath; the pilots that will operate with the strike group had already started a 14-day isolation period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On 2nd May, the first F-35B fighters belonging to VMFA-211 flew from RAF Lakenheath, and joined HMS Queen Elizabeth.
820 Naval Air Squadron spent the week before departure to Exercise Strike Warrior, on conducting dummy launch trials for the Sting Ray torpedo in Falmouth Bay; before its three Crowsnest airborne surveillance and control (ASaC), and four anti-submarine Merlin Mk2 helicopters embarked on the Queen Elizabeth on 27 April. The strike group’s four Lynx Wildcat helicopters of 815 Naval Air Squadron left their base at RNAS Yeovilton on 1st May, and embarked on each of the four Royal Navy escorts. No. 617 Squadron RAF and their 8 F-35B fighters started to fly out of RAF Marham and embark on HMS Queen Elizabeth, on 3rd May; before the final British aircraft to join the strike group, three Merlin Mk4s from 845 Naval Air Squadron, departed RNAS Yeovilton and joined RFA Fort Victoria later that day.
Exercise Virtual Warrior
During February 2021, the carrier strike group’s warfare staff partook in Exercise Virtual Warrior, a command and control exercise which tested how the ship’s crew would react in the event of a crisis on the maiden deployment. The exercise picked right back up from when the group disbanded the previous autumn, and took place at the Maritime Warfare School, at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, utilising the base’s combined simulation training suite.
Exercise Strike Warrior
The strike group departed from their respective ports on 1 May: HMS Diamond, HMS Defender, HMS Kent, and HMS Queen Elizabeth from HMNB Portsmouth; HMS Richmond from HMNB Devonport; RFA Fort Victoria, and an Astute class submarine from HMNB Clyde; and RFA Tidespring from Portland Harbour. The vessels then made their way to Scotland to partake in the final exercise before their deployment – the maritime element of NATO’s UK-led Exercise Joint Warrior 2021-1, known as Exercise Strike Warrior, which saw the carrier strike group building on and enhancing the scenarios that were tested in the previously held Exercise Virtual Warrior. Taking place between 8th and 19th May, a total of 31 ships, 3 submarines, 150 aircraft, and 13,400 personnel from 10 nations took part in the exercise. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, port visits were restricted to only those needed for operational and logistical reasons, and all personnel were required to isolate for 14 days before embarking onto their respective ships. The over 150 aircraft that were involved in the exercise were based at RAF Lossiemouth, HMS Gannet, and Stornoway Airport. The exercise saw two MV-22B Osprey from the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 stationed onboard the USS Iwo Jima land on HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time, along with the first launch of a Crowsnest radar-equipped Merlin helicopter from a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, and the first Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missiles being fired from a British F-35 fighter – the first missile firings from a British jet at sea for 15 years. Nearing the end of Exercise Strike Warrior the Carrier Strike Group met up with the vessels of Exercise Ragnar Viking that had been taking place off the Norwegian coast, which included the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, the Royal Navy’s Littoral Repsonse Group (North), along with the FS Normandie, HDMS Esbern Snare, and HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen; the 15 vessels together conducted a show of force Photo Exercise (PHOTEX).
Upon the culmination of Exercise Strike Warrior, the ships of the Carrier Strike Group each returned to port in order to embark the necessary fuel and stores. On the 19th May, on her way back to port, HMS Queen Elizabeth met up with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, which is currently undertaking Fleet Operational Sea Training, and sailed together for the first time before taking part in a PHOTEX, and finally parting ways. Orginally, the Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to anchor in The Solent in order to maintain a COVID-secure state, however due to forecasted heavy winds, she instead docked alongside at HMNB Portsmouth with personnel remaining onboard. On 21st May 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited HMS Queen Elizabeth in order to tour the ship and speak to the crew before their departure; followed by Queen Elizabeth II the next day, who also received a tour and spent time talking to crew members.
HNLMS Evertsen departed from Nieuwe Haven Naval Base in the Netherlands, on 22nd May; along with HMS Defender and HMS Kent, which both sailed from Devonport also on 22nd May. HMS Queen Elizabeth was originally planned to depart Portsmouth on 23rd May, however in order to avoid the strong winds that had been forecasted, she instead left port in the evening of the 22nd May, along with USS The Sullivans. On 23rd May, HMS Diamond, RFA Fort Victoria, and RFA Tidespring departed from Devonport, Portland, and Loch Striven respectively; The final ship, HMS Richmond, left Portsmouth on 24th May. Once the Carrier Strike Group departed from the UK, operational command of the group passed from the Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd, over to the Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral Ben Key.
Overall the 28 week deployment will see the carrier strike group cover 26,000 nautical miles, and conduct over 70 engagements in 40 different countries.
On 1st May 2021, it was announced that the documentary film maker Chris Terrill will be onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth for the duration of the deployment, in order to produce a documentary series for the BBC in succession to his two previous series about life on the carrier.
Exercise Steadfast Defender and Exercise Atlantic Trident
Initially after leaving Portsmouth on the 22nd May, the group straight away entered into another major NATO exercise – Exercise Steadfast Defender. Currently taking place between 20th and 28th May in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal, the maritime element of the exercise includes 18 vessels from 11 different nations, and is being directed from the newly raised Joint Force Command Norfolk based onboard the USS Mount Whitney. The exercise includes the HMS Queen Elizabeth strike group, and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, along with both Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 and 2.
Concurrently, the embarked F-35 fighters of 617 Squadron RAF are taking part in Exercise Atlantic Trident 2021 over the south west French coast. The exercise lasts from 17th to 28th May, with the French Air and Space Force, United States Air Force, and Royal Air Force all partaking in the French-led exercise, which is being directed from Mont-de-Marsan Air Base.
After finishing Exercise Steadfast Defender, the strike group will make its first port visit in Gibraltar. After leaving port, the group will enter the Mediterranean Sea, where it will once more conduct exercise with Mediterranean NATO allies, including a dual carrier operation with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, before entering port at Souda Bay for a logistic stop. Prior to this however, a Type 45 destroyer, a Type 23 frigate, and HNLMS Evertsen will detach from the group and enter the Black Sea – a visit that was already planned prior to the heightened Russian activity in the region. Whilst in the Mediterranean, the strike group and its air wing will, for a short while, join Operation Shader in the fight against Daesh; before continuing on through the Suez Canal and stopping at the British military port in Duqm, after which it will sail across the Arabian Sea to an, as yet unknown, Indian port. The group will then depart in order to conduct exercises with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, and then proceed for a brief stop at the British naval facility in Singapore, before entering the disputed South China Sea region to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the area. Subsequently, the group will take part in Exercise Bersama Lima 21 with the Royal Australian Navy, Royal New Zealand Navy, Royal Malaysian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements; before paying a visit to South Korea and then conducting exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and United States Navy around the islands of Japan. Whilst in the Indo-Pacific region HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, the Royal Navy’s newly established permanent presence in the region, will meet up with the strike group having just arrived in the area. The strike group will finally return to the United Kingdom, at the beginning of December.
Queen Elizabeth class
- HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08)
Type 45 (anti-aircraft warfare)
- HMS Diamond (D34)
- HMS Defender (D36)
Arleigh Burke class
- USS The Sullivans (DDG-68)
Type 23 (anti-submarine warfare)
- HMS Richmond (F239)
- HMS Kent (F78)
De Zeven Provinciën class
- HNLMS Evertsen (F805)
- RFA Tidespring (A136)
Fort Victoria-class replenishment oiler
- RFA Fort Victoria (A387)
Composition of carrier air wing
No. 617 Squadron RAF
- 8 x F-35B Lightning
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211
- 10 x F-35B Lightning
Airborne surveillance and control
820 Naval Air Squadron
- 3 x Merlin Mk2 Crowsnest
820 Naval Air Squadron
- 4 x Merlin Mk2 ASW
845 Naval Air Squadron
- 3 x Merlin Mk4
815 Naval Air Squadron – attached to Royal Navy escorts
- 4 x Wildcat
860 Squadron – attached to Royal Netherlands Navy escort
- 1 x NH90
Alongside the major units mentioned, the group also consist of a number of personnel drawn from other units, including:
- A company of Royal Marines from 42 Commando for forming boarding teams, force protection, and aircrew recovery.
- Elements of 1700 Naval Air Squadron, to provide aviation support.
Carrier air wing
820 Naval Air Squadron
820 Naval Air Squadron (820 NAS) of the Royal Navy, composed of around 190 personnel and seven Merlin Mk2 (including 3 equipped with Crowsnest radar), provide airborne surveillance and control, and airborne anti-submarine capabilities. The anti-submarine aircraft can either be equipped with depth-charges or Sting Ray torpedoes, in order to protect the strike group from both submarines and threats above the water; whilst the Crowsnest-equipped aircraft provide long-range, early-warning capability and can also be used to direct F-35B fighters on to their target.
Ten of the air wing’s eighteen fighters will be from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) of the United States Marine Corps,nicknamed the “Wake Island Avengers”. The strike group will be the single largest deployment of the F-35 fighter since the beginning of the programme in 2006, and will also be the first time the USMC has deployed a full F-35 squadron of 10 aircraft; USMC squadrons had 16 aircraft until reforms by General David Berger that are intended to transition the USMC to a lighter, more agile force. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew D’Ambrogi, the commanding officer of VMFA-211, said that the deployment was a chance to experiment with the downsized squadron and ensure that it is capable enough to meet the output that is required to execute the mission. The US contingent includes 180 U.S. Marines to maintain and handle the aircraft on the flight deck and a team of 18 United States Navy ordnance specialists who will handle the ordnance required by the Marine Corps fighters, as that is not a Marine activity and policy does not allow for another country to do so.
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