WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United Kingdom would welcome the chance to place a squadron of its F-35B Joint Strike Fighters aboard an American amphibious ship, the U.K. secretary of state for defense told reporters on Tuesday.
After bringing a U.S. Marine Corps squadron of F-35Bs aboard the U.K. Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) for the aircraft carrier’s first deployment, the United Kingdom is prepared to put its fighter jets on U.S. big deck amphibious ships.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens with our F-35Bs and whether we find ourselves on a U.S. . . . ship in the future. But hopefully, we will,” Ben Wallace told reporters during a press briefing in Washington, DC.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities for it. And we shouldn’t be anchored to one type or the other. The French have used the Charles de Gaulle often to do strikes against Islamist targets in Africa. And it is a floating airfield, as well as a floating intelligence collection capability, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability and protection, as well as a convener,” he added, referring to France’s aircraft carrier, FS Charles de Gaulle (R91).
Asked by USNI News whether placing British F-35s on an American big deck amphibious ship is under discussion, Wallace said he’d “be delighted to send” the aircraft.
“I mean, if the U.S. Marine Corps wants us to return the favor, I would be delighted to deploy a squadron,” Wallace said.
The number of nations that can field F-35Bs at sea is growing and there are more opportunities for countries to cross deck aircraft. In 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Defense requested the U.S. consider flying Marine F-35s from its Izumo-class of helicopter destroyers. South Korea is building its own F-35B-capable LPX-II carrier. Italy will also field F-35Bs on its own carrier.
Queen Elizabeth has a blended air wing that includes the “Wake Island Avengers” of U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 and the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” for a deployment meant to hone interoperability between the two countries.
The idea is that the U.K. could continue cross-decking with other countries that also have F-35s, like Italy. Wallace said he recently met with his Italian counterpart and that Italy is eager to attain its F-35 certifications.
“The whole point of it is it’s a carrier that will interoperate very well with F-35Bs. And that’s what we’re working on together and the Italians are incredibly keen to sort of get certified, or verified – whatever the term is – to use it. I think that’s the plan is that first of all, for us, it’ll be as much a NATO asset,” he said.
“So during her first phase of her deployment, she was put under NATO availability for a certain period of time,” Wallace added, referring to Queen Elizabeth.
Wallace’s current swing through the United States comes as the carrier sails on its maiden deployment with the largest-ever F-35 deployment in the program’s history. Queen Elizabeth, which is currently sailing through the Indian Ocean, is anchoring a multi-national carrier strike group that includes several U.K. warships, a Dutch frigate and a U.S. Navy destroyer.
While the U.K. initially intended for the carrier’s first deployment to feature only British warships, Wallace said several countries asked to participate.
“I’ve sort of lost count of the number of countries . . . saying can we send a ship on the group,” he said.
“But you know, the Dutch were keen to come along and they’ve been a great asset and the Arleigh Burke – USS The Sullivans – adds another great layer to defense for her,” Wallace added. “So, I think, you know, all carrier groups are – they’re not just a military deployment, they are a political deployment. They’re a political statement. And they provide tremendous opportunity.”
The defense minister said the carrier’s recent COVID-19 outbreak began around the 4th of July and shouldn’t lead to any substantial alterations in plans.
“Our crew are double vaccinated, so you’ll be glad to know that there’s no serious effects on any of the crew. And we’ll manage it and keep in touch. I will offer support to the captain to make [a] decision on what’s right for his ship. I will fully support whatever decision he makes,” Wallace said.
“But look, this is not like the early days of the problems with COVID. It’s understood. We know how to deal with it,” he added. “We’ve got people that are double vaccinated and we’ve got lots of contingencies in place. And we’ll absolutely make sure that any host port is protected if there is any risk of danger. But we test people coming on and test people coming off.”
Ahead of the deployment, the U.K. defense ministry emphasized the deployment’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region, where the carrier is now operating.
Asked about HMS Diamond, one of the U.K.’s Type 45 destroyers that reportedly peeled off from the carrier strike group due to propulsion issues, Wallace said the destroyer should be able to return to the CSG once it’s repaired.
“It’s a long-established problem with the gas turbines. So, HMS Diamond didn’t sort of break down. She sailed alongside and is going to be fixed where she is. I won’t say where she’s going to be fixed, but she’s going to be fixed where she is,” he said. “It’s not a crippling thing that will – it’ll delay her a bit. But I think she’ll be back on track in a few weeks to carry on supporting the task group.”