in Defence

UK Minister for the Armed Forces reaffirms US defence ties

Posted 10 November 2023

The Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey, visited the US this week for talks with key officials and political leaders to reaffirm the UK’s deep defence and security relationship with the US – one of the closest such partnerships between any two nations in the world.

Above: Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, visited the United States Military Academy West Point.
Courtesy MoD

Minister for the Armed Forces, Rt Hon James Heappey MP, said: "The UK’s defence and security relationship with the USA is uniquely close, and the sight of British and American aircraft landing on a British aircraft carrier stationed off America’s coastline is the perfect demonstration of the depth of that alliance.

"I have held productive discussions with senior administration officials and military chiefs to discuss the future of this relationship in the context of serious conflicts both in Ukraine, and now in the Middle East."

His visit began at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where he met the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, for discussions on the UN’s peacekeeping reforms and how the UK can contribute to them.

He then visited the US Military Academy, West Point, to meet senior leaders and cadets to understand what the UK armed forces could learn from the US Army’s approach to training the next generation of leaders.

In Washington DC, the minister held talks with senior officials, discussing areas for further strengthening the UK-US defence relationship.

Above: Flight deck workers watch on as an F-35 arrives on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales.
Courtesy Royal Navy

His visit to the US coincided with that of the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales – the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy – which has been conducting trials with US armed forces off the east coast to test the future of naval aviation. Visiting the ship off the coast of Virginia with the US Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, the minister had the chance to speak to the ship’s company about their work and see first-hand the ability of British and American forces to operate alongside one another. While in Norfolk, he also met senior NATO commanders to discuss UK-NATO collaboration and had a chance to meet the more than 100 UK personnel stationed there – just some of the thousands of British personnel based in the US.

HMS Prince of Wales is on her autumn deployment – her longest yet – pushing the limits of aircraft carrier operations with fifth-generation F-35B Lightning stealth fighters, tilt-rotors, drones and helicopters. The carrier is on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA to revolutionise the way the Royal Navy operates Carrier Strike Groups and by the time she returns home shortly before Christmas, the ship will have:

  • operated advanced drone technologies, demonstrating the delivery of vital supplies without the need to use helicopters
  • landed and launched F-35 Lightning stealth fighters in more ways, more quickly and in the harshest of sea conditions to increase the strike carrier’s firepower
  • increased the range and conditions in which the US Marine Corps’ impressive MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft can operate

By the time aviation experts, pilots and scientists have analysed all the data gathered during the four weeks of extensive trials of the F-35 stealth fighters, the UK’s two aircraft carriers should be able to launch more sorties by more-heavily-armed stealth fighters faster in more extreme weather conditions – increasingly the striking power of the nation’s most powerful warships.

HMS Prince of Wales chases bad weather and heavy seas while the jets themselves take-off and land with various weapons and fuel loads, experiment returning from ‘missions’ still carrying missiles/bombs – rather than ditching them in the ocean – and practise landing by rolling to a stop on the flight deck rather than touching down vertically.

Test pilots from the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23), Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland, joined the carrier off the Eastern Seaboard of the US for the trials, known as Developmental Test phase 3 (DT-3).

Image courtesy Royal Navy

The Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier sailed from Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base, having embarked the equipment and personnel – a 200-strong test team from the Pax River F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) specifically for the trials.

Image courtesy Royal Navy

F-35B test pilot Major Paul Gucwa USMC, the ITF test team project officer is one of three experienced Lightning pilots flying special test variants of the F-35B – packed with sensors and instrumentation – on and off the deck of Britain’s biggest warship. He said: “Our team has trained extensively to prepare for this day and I was honoured to bring the capabilities of the F-35B back out to the Prince of Wales. Our planning, training, and preparations were focused on conducting a successful sea trial and ultimately contributing to the carrier continually developing to keep it at the cutting edge.”

Watching from the bridge, Captain Richard Hewitt, HMS Prince of Wales’ Commanding Officer, witnessed the approach and vertical landings of the stealth jets. “This is why we are here,” he said. “Over the next few weeks we will work together with the F-35 programme to increase the capability of the world’s most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter alongside the UK’s fifth-generation aircraft carrier.

“During this phase of our deployment we will see the jet develop advanced landing and take-off techniques, allowing it to recover heavier, turn around faster and launch with more weapons.”

With the pilots and jets on board 'the carrier of today and tomorrow', the embarked ITF team execute a comprehensive test plan and collect data that will ultimately lead to expanding the operating limits of the F-35B Lightning for the Royal Navy.

“We are excited to be under way with the crew of Prince of Wales and honoured to contribute to the aircraft carrier’s trials of pushing the boundaries of 21st century carrier operations,’” said Andrew Maack, Pax River F-35 ITF chief test engineer and site director. "The embarked team comprises members who have the engineering and test pilot expertise and experience to conduct F-35B envelope expansion flight test. “We look forward to a brilliantly successful shipboard detachment.”

The carrier’s stint Stateside also aims at expanding the US Marine Corps’ unique tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys operating limits. The Ospreys are used to transport troops and kit into battle. Expanding the ship’s operating limits for all of these aircraft over the deployment will allow even greater capacity for joint operations in the future, culminating in HMS Prince of Wales’ global deployment in 2025.

Above: HMS Queen Elizabeth flying the NATO flag.
Courtesy Royal Navy

The trials come as both of the UK’s carriers are at sea with UK flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth operating in northern European waters and due to visit Sweden this weekend before resuming her autumn deployment working with NATO and Joint Expeditionary Force allies.

The UK’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently under NATO’s command for the first time. Control of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the UK Carrier Strike Group (UKCSG) comprised of frigate HMS Kent, destroyer HMS Diamond, aircraft, including F-35B Lightning jets, Wildcat and Merlin helicopters and support ships was transferred to NATO to create a potent task group able to operate across a vast area from the length and breadth of the Mediterranean and north to the Baltic Sea.

Warships from 21 nations are deployed on the activity– codenamed Neptune Strike – and are under the command and control of NATO’s Naval and Striking Support Forces, a battle staff under the Supreme Allied Commander Europe tasked with rapidly planning and executing operations wherever needed.

When any Royal Navy ship and its crew is under NATO command it is carrying out duties of vital importance to the alliance for a set period as part of the nation’s staunch commitment to the security of its allies and partners. Once that operation is complete – or when UK requirements demand – the ships returns to RN control for further tasking.

Commodore James Blackmore, Commander of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group, said: “Deterrence and defence of the Euro Atlantic is at the heart of NATO and our enhanced vigilance activity with Neptune Strike is a clear demonstration of that.

“This is the first time a UK Carrier Strike Group has been commanded by NATO in my memory, so this is momentous for the UK and the alliance.

“I look forward to a full week of activity ahead and much more in the future. We are stronger together.”




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