F-35B Jets From HMS Queen Elizabeth Have Joined The Fight Against Daesh

F-35B Shader
One of the F-35B embarked aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Image credit: Crown Copyright)

UK Carrier Strike Group launching F-35B missions in support of Operation Shader from the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

On her maiden operational deployment, HMS Queen Elizabeth, with F-35B jets belonging to both the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps VMFA-211 Wake Island Avengers, based at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, is heading to the Indo-Pacific region as the flagship of the largest naval and air task force under British command since the Falklands war.

“This will be the first time UK fighter aircraft are embarked on an operational aircraft carrier deployment since 2010, and will be the largest number of F-35Bs ever to sail the seas,” says the UK MOD in a public statement, referring to the fact that during the 28-week deployment – dubbed CSG21 (Carrier Strike Group 2021), 10x VMFA-211 F-35Bs and 8x RAF 617 Sqn F-35Bs will operate from the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The naval line-up includes Type 45 destroyers, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s logistics ships Fort Victoria and Tidespring; along with an Astute-class nuclear submarine will accompany the British aircraft carrier along with U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans and a Dutch frigate, HNLMS Evertse.

F-35B Shader
RAF F-35B.

As planned, before reaching the troubled waters of the South China Sea, the British aircraft carrier will be quite busy: it has already taken part in Exercise Joint Warrior/Strike Warrior off Scotland; then have joined drills with NATO partners, including Falcon Strike 2021 in the Mediterranean Sea; and is now about to support counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria.

“F-35B Lightning fast jets will be the cutting edge of the Carrier Strike Group’s (CSG21) formidable power in the air.

These are next generation multi-role combat aircraft equipped with advanced sensors, mission systems and stealth technology, enabling them to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

The renowned 617 Squadron RAF (‘The Dambusters’) will operate the jets to provide tangible and impactful support to counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria.”

Although this will be the first time they launch from a British aircraft carrier, RAF F-35Bs have already grown experience in the air war against Daesh: 617 Sqn’s Lightning, deployed to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, as part of Operation Lightning Dawn, flew their first operational sorties in support of Operation Shader on Sunday Jun. 16, 2019.

F-35B Pantelleria
British F-35B performing a short landing at Pantelleria AB during Falcon Strike 2021 exercise (Author).

Photos of the aircraft released by the UK MOD after the first F-35B returned from the armed patrol over Syria showed Paveway IV bombs being loaded and the AIM-120 AMRAAM carried inside the internal weapons bay. Moreover, the aircraft featured their RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers (also known as radar reflectors/Luneberg lenses).

“Lightning Dawn was our first Proof of Concept deployment away from the UK. We had lots of different objectives we wanted to achieve and we met all of them,” told us RAF 617 Squadron Wing Commander John Butcher at the end of the deployment. “We performed armed overwatch of our forces on the ground in support of Operation Shader. We flew just with F-35s. We worked alongside the Typhoon detachment, they gave a lot of briefs on the airspace, issues they had seen in operating in those airspaces. So we took their lessons, applied them to ourselves and then we went off”.

The type of missions the F-35B are going to fly in the next weeks is probably quite similar. It’s still not clear whether the USMC F-35Bs will support OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve) too, although it seems quite likely. VMFA-211 is a Marine squadron with significant combat experience with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the F-35: on September 27, 2018, U.S. Marine Corps F-35B with VMFA-211, launched the first-ever combat mission by a U.S. military F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The long-range strikes that struck insurgent targets in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, took off from the U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on station in the Persian Gulf. The aircraft flew that first raid with the gun pod and GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) in the internal weapon bays but bomb markings applied to some of the aircraft’s front landing gear door showed two different types of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions): the GBU-12 500-lb LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and GBU-32 JDAMs.

According to our sources, the F-35Bs have already started flying sorties in support of Shader flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth on Jun. 20, 2021. Some interesting flying activity, likely related to the Lightning sorties, was tracked online on Jun. 21, when both a British E-3D AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft and an RC-135W Airseeker operated off Syria.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.