FOUR F35 Joint Strike Fighters fended off an air attack against the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier battle group as destroyer HMS Dauntless and ‘eye in the sky’ Sea Kings helped form an aerial shield around the flagship.
For the first time aircrew, operations room teams, scientists and technicians tested how the technology of today’s and tomorrow’s Royal Navy will work together on the battlefield.
They used simulators to link up the Type 45 destroyer, a Sea King, the 65,000-tonne leviathan, and a quartet of the stealth fighters to see how they can share information to defend the Fleet and to direct the F35s on to incoming targets.
Fleet Air Arm, RAF and US Navy pilots ‘flew’ F35s from simulators at BAE’s site in Samlesbury in Lancashire, while two ‘bagger’ aircrew in Culdrose simulated a mission in an Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea King.
On the Isle of Wight, air warfare officers from HMS Duncan were at the controls of the Queen Elizabeth carrier lab, while on Portsdown Hill their counterparts, and fighter controllers, from sister ship HMS Dauntless were doing the same in the Type 45 lab.
The idea was to see whether the reams of data and information the Sea King, Type 45, carrier and four fighters could be passed from helicopter to F35 to ship in real time so decisions could be made and threats eliminated – exactly as would be expected were the Queen Elizabeth battle group on front-line operations.
“Not only does this help the UK customer get their heads around how the F-35 will integrate into operations, but it can also save a lot of time and money,” explained Tony Hall, the BAE F35 programme manager overseeing the trials. “We can identify issues early and fix things at this stage far easier than when the aircraft are built and in operation.”
The simulated link-up was, said Lt Cdr Mark Humphries of the RAF Air Warfare Centre at Waddington, “something we have never been able to do before” and it proved to be “extremely valuable”.
Lt Cdr Jim Blythe, air warfare officer on HMS Dauntless, said the link-up with the other ships and aircraft had really tested the Type 45’s combat system and given the destroyer’s fighter controllers much better understanding of directing the jets; it’s the job of fighter controllers to help guide an aircraft on to a target. “We are in a far better place for working with the F35 when it comes into service,” he said.
Three real F35 evaluation models are currently in UK hands and are being tested in the USA right now. The front-line versions aren’t due to begin trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is launched next year, until 2018.
The jump jet – also known as the Lightning II – is the world’s first fifth-generation fighter jet (the Harrier, which it replaces, was third generation) and gives the pilot unparalleled understanding of the world around them.
As for the Type 45s, they can track aircraft up to 250 miles away – one parked in Portsmouth can watch aircraft landing and taking off from Charles de Gaulle, Manchester, or on final approach at Schiphol in Amsterdam. And courtesy of its Sea Viper missile it can take out incoming enemy aircraft or missiles up to 70 miles away.
And the baggers can track targets in the air or on the ground – as they’ve demonstrated over the past decade first in Iraq and today over Afghanistan, where the helicopters of 857 Naval Air Squadron continue to fly daily.