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  • Writer's pictureMike Lintott-Danks

USMC Lightning Strike in Norfolk

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

The beginning of September saw another United States forces deployment to the UK with 10 United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs from VMFA-211 ‘Wake Island Avengers’, based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, arrive at RAF Marham, Norfolk.

Arriving in the midst of a global pandemic added an extra challenge to this deployment. After the USMC arrived VMFA-211 quarantined with 617 Squadron personnel to ensure that they were able to deploy aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. Both Squadrons spent the time up to the deployment to the carrier integrating during local mission flights in and around the U.K. They also took part in exercise Point Blank which is a high-end fight focused on fourth and fifth generation defensive counter air integration. This exercise was reported on in the article Bomber Task Force 20-4 ‘BUFFs are back’.

On the 22nd September the 14 F-35Bs, 10 x USMC and 4 x RAF, departed RAF Marham for the HMS Queen Elizabeth (QE) which was already under sail in the North Sea, readying for its participation in the maritime exercise Joint Warrior.

Before the start of JW the crews of the F-35Bs spent time gaining their carrier qualification in both flying day and night missions from aboard the QE. The next step in training for both 617 Sqn and VMFA-211 pilots was to drop 500lb Paveway IV high explosive bombs onto a dedicated range off the coast of the UK.

1st Lt. Zachary Bodner

Captain James Blackmore, Commander Air Group, said: “Working with British and American live weapons is a new experience for the Royal Navy, and the next step on the road toward full operational capability.

“Everyone needs to step up a gear to ensure we are ahead of the game as we move toward HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment next year, as from that moment onwards we need to be ready to do this for real.”

LPhot Belinda Alker

Commander Mark Sparrow Royal Navy, commanding officer of 617 Squadron, said: “The first week of GroupEx set the baseline for higher tempo deck operations on the Squadron.

“That was a springboard for the next phase, which was to load live weapons on the aircraft, which we had not done from HMS Queen Elizabeth before. It was an opportunity to end-to-end test all the systems within the ship and the squadron, from building and loading the weapons all the way through to successfully releasing them on target.

“It’s a fantastic achievement and hugely beneficial for junior pilots, both Royal Navy and RAF, to build the confidence that they can fly from the carrier, refuel, hit the target on a range and then return to slot back into a busy flying programme on-board.”

Joint Warrior 20-2 involved multiple assets from 11 nations (10 NATO and one non-NATO) and is designed to test a multitude of skills across land, sea and air units in joint operations. The naval forces are tested by threats form above and below the sea and the aerial assets are tested on their air defence and attack and their Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).

The Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group (CSG) was made up of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, three destroyers, Type 45s HMS Diamond, HMS Defender and US Navy Arleigh Burke-class USS The Sullivans, Frigates HMS Northumberland and HMS Kent and the Dutch Navy HMLMS Eversten. Supporting the CSG were two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships the RFA Tideforce and RFA Fort Victoria which provided fuel, spares, food and ammunition. In all the nine ships and 14 F-35Bs were joined by 11 helicopters and 3000 personnel from the UK, US and the Netherlands.

LPhot Belinda Alker/LPhot Mark Johnson/1st Lt. Zachary Bodner

Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, said: “The United Kingdom’s maritime renaissance has been unfolding over many years, as we introduced a new generation of ships, submarines and aircraft into service. But this marks the first time we have brought them together in a cohesive, potent, fighting force.

“HMS Queen Elizabeth will be operating with the largest air group of fifth generation fighters assembled anywhere in the world. Led by the Royal Navy, and backed by our closest allies, this new Carrier Strike Group puts real muscle back into NATO and sends a clear signal that the United Kingdom takes its global role seriously.”

VMFA-211s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Freshour USMC, said: “The Wake Island Avengers are ready in all respects to work with the British sailors and aircrew on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. We are looking forward to deploying alongside our British counterparts over the next few months, and we will work tirelessly as a part of this transatlantic naval force. We are proud to play such an important role in the generation of an allies’ carrier strike capability.”

Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, said “Protected by a ring of advanced destroyers, frigates, helicopters and submarines, and equipped with fifth generation fighters, HMS Queen Elizabeth is able to strike from the sea at a time and place of our choosing; and with our NATO allies at our side, we will be ready to fight and win in the most demanding circumstances.

“Carrier Strike offers Britain choice and flexibility on the global stage; it reassures our friends and allies and presents a powerful deterrent to would-be adversaries.”

Joint Warrior ended after 11 intense days and the F-35Bs returned to RAF Marham but this was not the end of the training for the USMC and RAF/RN aircraft. This was the beginning of the largest RAF exercise in the UK for over a decade, Exercise Crimson Warrior which ran from 19th October – 5th November.

Crimson Warrior is a development of the Cobra Warrior exercise, which is regarded to be one of the most challenging training for aircrew, involved a multitude of aircraft and forces. Additionally this exercise represented the conclusion of the RAFs Qualified Weapons Instructor Course (QWIC).

The USMC and RAF participated with the F-35Bs, US Air Force with the locally base 48th Fighter Wing F-15s, the RAF with Voyager KC.2/3, C-130J Hercules, Puma and Chinook, Army Air Corps Apache and Royal Navy with the Merlin HC.3. At the height of the exercise there were over 70 aircraft and helicopters participating.

The Exercise will develop and test the tactical leadership skills of aircrew and supporting personnel within highly complex training scenarios. The aim is to develop their abilities to devise, plan and practice tactics and procedures in a realistic environment against a capable simulated adversary.

Another aspect of the exercise was to test the Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR). RAF Regiment Gunners from 3 Force Protection Wing and 15 Squadron RAF Regiment acted as part of the ground extraction force. These personnel worked with Chinooks, Apaches, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and small Unmanned Air Systems in the JPR exercise. They were tested against the five phases of JPR, report, locate, support, recover and re-integrate. Aerial support was supplied by RAF/RN and F-35Bs. This part of the exercise was completed over range complex at Otterburn in Northumberland.

Exercise Director group captain Rob Barrett said: “Exercise Crimson Warrior is the UK’s premier live airborne tactical training event of the year and the directing staff from the Air and Space Warfare Centre’s 92 Squadron have taken great pride in delivering this extremely demanding and complex exercise.

“All the participants have gained valuable experience in the integration of Air and Space power roles. The QWIC students, who have met the exacting standards required during Exercise Crimson Warrior, have proved themselves in the most challenging of environments and are now qualified to join the ranks of the UK Services’ most able tactical leaders and instructors.”

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