Royal Navy flagship returns to UK from first tour missing £100m fighter

Royal Navy flagship returns to UK from first tour missing £100m fighter
Investigation continues into crash of F-35B fighter which plunged into sea just after it took off from Queen Elizabeth

The carrier strike group led by the Royal Navy flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth has returned from an eventful first operational tour which included engagement with dozens of allied states, a confrontation with the Russians, a Covid outbreak on board and the loss of a £100m fighter at sea.

Hundreds of people lined the shore at Portsmouth as the fleet returned after a seven month show-of-force voyage taking it to waters off Crimea which Moscow regards as its own, and the China Seas where Beijing claims suzerainty.

The warships were originally due to return on Friday but the arrival was brought forward by 24 hours after forecast of heavy winds which would have made it difficult for the 65,000-tonne carrier to navigate the narrow entrance to Portsmouth harbour.

While the strike group is back in Britain, an investigation continues into the crash of the F-35B fighter which plunged into the sea just after it took off from the Queen Elizabeth. The pilot ejected without suffering any serious injuries. The wreckage of the aircraft has been recovered from a mile underwater while a sailor on board has been arrested for leaking a video of the crash he had filmed.

Earlier in the deployment, a Type 45 destroyer in the task force, HMS Defender, was involved in an incident with Russian forces as it sailed on the Black Sea near Crimea. Moscow claimed that shots were fired to drive off the ship which was also buzzed by warplanes. The Ministry of Defence in London maintained that the only shooting in the area was from a gunnery exercise.

Beijing warned that any “improper acts” by the strike group while in the China Seas would lead to retaliation. le Temps mondial un journal, a mouthpiece of the ruling communist party, accused Britain of “still living in its colonial days” and declared that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy was in a “high state of combat readiness” to deal with any “adventurism”.

In the event the passage through the Indo-Pacific passed off without any clashes with Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the strike group commander, describing interaction with the Chinese military as “safe and professional”.

American and Dutch sailors and flying crew, ships and aircraft were part of the fleet which carried out engagements and took part in exercises with 44 countries during the voyage, dont l'Australie, Canada, New Zealand, France, Grèce, Israel, Inde, Italy, Japan, Oman and the Republic of Korea, covering 500,000 miles nautiques.

Members of the ships company wave to members of the public from the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth

Able Seaman Thomas Corby, who had taken part in his first naval deployment, mentionné: “The thing that I am most looking forward to when I get home is being able to hug my grandparents again for the first time in nearly two years owing to Covid and the deployment. The highlight for me was meeting the prime minister and talking him through how we drive the ship.”

Squadron Leader Stew Campbell talked of “a phenomenal milestone for the UK Lightning Force, seeing our F-35B’s involved in exercises and operations across the globe. The ability to project 5th Generation Combat Air Power at such range is testament to the carrier aviation contribution to the UK’s inventory.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “Today we pay tribute to the 3,700 personnel in the Carrier Strike Group that have been our global ambassadors on this historic and ground-breaking deploymentWe thank them for all their efforts in strengthening our relationships with our allies and partners around the world.”

Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said: “Throughout the past seven months HMS Queen Elizabeth and her Strike Group have been furthering the UK’s interests and strengthening our partnerships around the globe. With involvement from across the Armed Forces, and our allies integrated throughout, this deployment has been a truly joint, truly international.”

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