The British Royal Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have undertaken a unique joint operation aboard the new British carrier Queen Elizabeth. This carrier, the first of two, is currently undertaking its first operational cruise. This consists of seven months at sea, carrying out joint exercises with allied navies starting in the Atlantic, then the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Indian Ocean, South China Sea and finally the waters off Japan and South Korea. The joint exercises will involve French and American carriers as well as numerous other ship types from all participating countries.
The new British carriers are 65,000-ton vessels and the first one entered service in 2017, the second (Prince of Wales) in 2019. The Queen Elizabeth is the first operational British carrier, using jets, since the Ark Royal and the British Harrier jets were retired in 2011. The Queen Elizabeth has to train a new generation of carrier sailors with the help of a cadre of officers and petty officers that had served on the two Ark Royal class carriers but have had little opportunity to use their carrier skills for a while.
The Queen Elizabeth is also the first British carrier to use the American F-35B VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) aircraft. The F-35 replaces the Harrier in British and American service. Britain has 138 F-35Bs on order but only 21 have arrived and are in service. As a result of this only eight British F-35Bs were available for this operational cruise. The other major user of the F-35B is the U.S. Marines and they were experimenting with using lots of these on their amphibious ships, which look like small carriers but are built to carry up to a dozen or more F-35Bs. The American marines have handled much of the training for British F-35B pilots and maintainers, so it was not long before the marines offered one of their F-35B squadrons to fill out the F-35B complement on the Queen Elizabeth. The marine F-35B squadrons recently reduced their size from sixteen to ten aircraft and the marines wanted to see how this smaller squadron would perform. The British F-35B squadrons, like all British carrier aircraft, come from the Royal Air Force Fleet Air Arm, which contains aircraft and crews trained to operate from carriers. Britain has used this system for nearly a century. The first Fleet Air Army F-35B squadron only has eight aircraft because it will be another year or so before Britain has received enough F-35Bs to provide full strength (twelve aircraft) squadrons.
All the F-35B pilots have a lot in common but the marine aircraft maintainers have a lot to learn from their British counterparts. On American carriers, navy personnel handle a lot of the refueling and aircraft handling chores that are handled by Fleet Air Arm maintainers on British carriers. The marine maintainers do all that while operating the F-35Bs from land bases, but doing it on carriers was a novel experience that took some practice to master.
Another difference is bomb handling. Both American and British aircraft mainly use smart bombs and these require assembly (adding various types of guidance kits to an unguided bomb). On American carriers this assembly is done in the bomb storage space below decks and brought up as an assembled smart bomb. On British carriers the assembly is done in the hangar deck where it is loaded on the aircraft. The 160 marine maintainers learned all these new procedures in a short shakedown cruise the Queen Elizabeth underwent before forming up with its escorts to lead Carrier Strike Force 21 to the Pacific and back.
The marines also gain experience using the ski-jump take off system the Queen Elizabeth uses instead of the more expensive catapult. Since the British carriers only use the F-35B, the ski jump is effective enough to enable the F-35B to take off with nearly a full load. VTOL aircraft sacrifice payload when they take off vertically so many of them use a catapult of ski jump for takeoffs and use their VTOL capabilities to land on the carrier.
Having the marine squadron on board for seven months enables the Queen Elizabeth to operate at close to its peace time capacity of two F-35B squadrons (24 aircraft). In wartime 36 or 48 can be carried for short periods as well as two dozen support aircraft (surveillance plus helicopter transports and gunships). The marines also get their first extended carrier experience and one with F-35B users from another nation.