Special Relationship: U.S. Marines Flying from a UK Warship

The “special relationship” with America is central to Britain’s national security and America also counts heavily on British diplomatic and military support. In an era of budget “austerity” in Britain and sequestration in America, there is great benefit for both countries when it comes to joint military operations and platforms procurement. The combination of budgetary factors, procurement costs and issues, and the continuing need for air and sea power is why the relationship between the U.S. and UK is so “special” that Britain’s next aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will likely be home to U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs American fighters flying from a British warship.

Twenty years ago the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF, now F-35) program came into being. The overall concept held much promise. It was a full-fledged restart of a failed concept of earlier years the F-111 program.   Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the idea emerged that a common airframe could be created that would meet the requirements of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  All of the benefits of a common airframe, including commonality of parts support, especially for expensive avionics, would reduce per-unit cost while giving both the Air Force and the naval services variants that could meet everyone’s needs, whether landing smoothly on runways in Europe or performing arrested landings on ships at sea.

But the Marines eventually opted out and went the route of the Sea Harrier and proven fixed-wing performers like the F-4 and A-6. The F-111 concept did come to fruition and a variable-geometry strike-fighter was created with nuclear dash capability at supersonic speeds, but it failed its aircraft carrier suitability tests, thus becoming an Air Force-only platform. It seems the F-111 experience was forgotten by designers and program managers of the current JSF/F-35 program. This time, however, it was not just the Navy and Air Force, but also the British and the U.S. Marines who were affected by the high hopes about per-unit cost, commonality, and the answer to everyone’s problems.

Prior to 9/11, a debate emerged inside British defense circles about the next generation of the Royal Navy’s fleet, and it seemed the best template had already proven itself in spades in the post-Cold War world the aircraft carrier-centric U.S. Navy.  America had much success with catapult and arresting gear—“cat and trap”—aircraft variants. Broadly, this is a system that “catapults” an aircraft forward at high speed and, combined with the aircraft’s own power, allows it to take off at much shorter distances. Upon landing, an arresting system, or “trap,” slows the aircraft, allowing it to stop at much shorter distances.

The relationship between the U.S. and UK is so “special” that Britain’s next aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will likely be home to U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs until it fields its own.

America was quite successful in projecting power using “cat and trap” equipped aircraft carriers in operations ranging from Desert Storm (Iraq) to Allied Force (Kosovo). The Royal Navy had been deploying smaller, more-limited “jump jet” carriers.  The Royal Navy wanted to pursue “cat and trap” systems in their next generation fleet. However, due largely to anti-nuclear politics, these new carriers would not include one of the most useful technologies that had made U.S. carriers so flexible and independent their nuclear propulsion system.

Optimistic plans were made in London to take advantage of the promising American JSF program and outfit Britain’s newest carriers with the United States’ latest tactical aircraft.  Next generation carriers would combine with next-generation aircraft.  However, this original conception was changed, given that the U.S. Marines were going with a short-take off and vertical landing variant of the JSF the F-35B. This was more agreeable to HM Treasury, which had already balked at the cost of two new carriers and new fighters to outfit them, and would save the cost of developing and installing expensive arresting gear and catapult technology in their new carriers.  The Royal Navy went with the F-35B as well.

It was estimated that initial operational capability for both the new carriers and the new fighters would be 2008 or 2009.  However, deployment of the first of the new carriers, Queen Elizabeth, now will not happen until 2019 or 2020. One of the primary problems for the British has been the JSF program itself and this is a reflection of the American weapons program pathology that no program is good enough that does not encompass every expensive “bell and whistle” in the book.  When one designs a “jack of all trades” fighter, one must make all the trades happy – Air Force, Navy, Marines, and (lastly) the British. The JSF program reflects the problems of Congressional squabbling and the Military-Industrial Complex at its worst.

The Royal Navy was faced with the problem of having two new conventional aircraft carriers with no airplanes since the U.S. Marines bought up all the Sea Harrier Rolls-Royce engines to get a few more years out of their Harrier fleet as insurance against the delays in the F-35B variant. When delays developed (predictably) in the short-takeoff, vertical-landing F-35B, the Royal Navy decided to switch back to the initial idea, and go with the more expensive, “cat and trap approach” for the first carrier of the two, Queen Elizabeth.  By 2010, the UK had considerable sunken costs in the program and they plodded on in what seemed to be an unhappy path toward a return to British Sea Power.

However, in switching back to the F-35C and “cat and trap”, which now seemed less problematic than the F-35B, the British faced the problem and expense of fielding a new generation of catapult and arresting gear technology. It turned into another expensive program trajectory and two more years were wasted.  Then, just when the matter seemed settled, the troubled F-35B (short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant) was suddenly not so troubled anymore, its technological problems apparently overcome. However, it came with an expansion of the per-unit cost, of course.  Sea power comes at a price. But because the U.S. Marines have priority of delivery on the F-35B, the British will not get theirs until 2023, creating a “fighter gap” of several years.

But the Royal Navy must have an air-wing composed of more than just anti-submarine warfare helicopters.  This brings us back to the “special relationship.” In the spirit of cooperation between the U.S. and UK and their militaries that has continued since WWII (and because both nations have tied themselves to the troublesome JSF program), America and Britain appear to have found a joint solution. Thus, we have the interesting situation of potentially seeing U.S. Marine Corps aircraft deploying on the HMS Queen Elizabeth from 2018. U.S. Marines flying from a British warship that certainly is special.

[Photo: Flickr CC: Marines; F-35B Lightning II prepares to vertically land at sea, first time]



  1. terry woods 28 April, 2015 at 13:07 Reply

    Think in the future this should be extend to other items of equipment including Submarines and Future Bomber, not just from an operation point but by working fully together with joint ownership of the assets, joint personnel operating these assets to joint basing in each country.

  2. Jiesheng 28 April, 2015 at 14:11 Reply

    The RAF dominates the airpower spectrum in the UK and controlled the carrier strike aircraft decision from the start, not the Royal Navy. Thus the wavering over the C and B version.

  3. Bill 28 April, 2015 at 22:42 Reply

    We should do this with the Israelis, Australians, Canadians, and other very friendly countries that share our values and are also close to us in military capabilities, too. Everybody saves money, everyone generates closer cross-military relationships, and global interests of all involved countries are served, too. I’m ALL FOR this!

    • Adam 4 May, 2015 at 22:36 Reply

      We should help offset the cost of medium-deck carriers for the Aussies and Canadians. Both had carriers into the 1960s. If the UK truly believes they don’t need a “cat & trap” carrier, more power to them . . . but both Canada and Australia have been flying the Hornet for 30 years. Give them an affordable carrier and a year or so of training on carrier trap landings and we’ve just added a couple of aircraft carriers to the fleet.

  4. James B. 29 April, 2015 at 06:56 Reply

    I have worked with the British and the Australians; they are very capable professionals, and further integration is a mutually beneficial idea.

  5. michael R 29 April, 2015 at 10:05 Reply

    One point in regards to the above article. The UK has at the moment ordered a first batch of 14 aircraft, the first squadron is due to form at RAF Marham in the UK in 2018. This will be 617 Squadron the famous ‘Dambusters’ Squadron of WW2.
    The ‘Queen Elizabeth’ is due to commence builders sea trials in 2016, then if all goes well it will be commissioned into the RN in 2017. It will then conduct lengthy trials and workup as an RN vessel. It is then planned that onboard training with the F35B will commence in 2018.
    The date given in the article of 2023 is somewhat inaccurate.
    Apart from which I think the UK, and particularly the RN would welcome the US Marine aircraft onboard. It would benefit both our countries enormously.

  6. michael R 30 April, 2015 at 07:42 Reply

    To add to the above by Chris Miller.
    Although these carriers were originally designed as VTOL ships, they were supposed to have in their design the capability to be relatively easely converted to cat and trap.
    When it came to make the decision to convert them during the latter stages of the QE’s build, it was found that it was going to be prohibitively expensive to do so, under the current financial constraints.
    The choice was that we could have had one converted, at the cost of not getting the second carrier commissioned into the RN, it would have been mothballed or sold.
    So by keeping them to the original design we can now have both carriers, working on a rotational basis.
    Perhaps not the best solution, but we in the UK are used to compromise and seem to make the best of it.

    • Chris Miller 30 April, 2015 at 11:12 Reply

      Plus, there are national elections in the UK today and whoever ends up at No. 10 Downing Street could change some, most, or all of this once again. An evolving situation. But I like the spirit of cooperation here to meet joint defense challenges in any case.

      • michael R 30 April, 2015 at 13:20 Reply

        National elections today ?? You are a week ahead of everybody else old chap, it’s next Thursday the 7th

        • Chris Miller 3 May, 2015 at 16:13 Reply

          Yeah, my mistake. It was just wishful thinking it would be over sooner rather than later.

  7. Mort Walker 2 May, 2015 at 16:41 Reply

    What if Miliband makes turns it into UKistan? The number of hard core Sunni radical terrorists in the Pak-Englandistan is very disturbing and may soon convert the whole of the British Isles. The future queen of England may well indeed wear a hijab and her armies and navies posses advanced weapons like the F-35.

    I am worried about the future of delicious English bacon.

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