ARLINGTON, Virginia — In 2021 Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 joined the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth on a historic deployment years in the making ― one that showcased the F-35B.
During the ship’s nearly eight months at sea, Marines and British pilots with the Joint Squadron 617 flew sorties over Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and trained with more than 40 nations in around the Mediterranean Sea, Middle East and Pacific.
But while training in the Mediterranean Sea with the vertical lift F-35B, the well-publicized deployment drew some unwanted Russian visitors, a British defense official told reporters.
“We were not surprised,” the British official said.
“Our friends wanted to come and exercise with us, we shouldn’t be surprised that others want to come and have a look as well,” the official said.
Fighter jets from NATO nations running to intercept Russian aircraft encroaching on allied airspace or operations is nothing new.
In 2021 NATO announced that it conducted 290 such missions over Europe.
But for Marine Brig. Gen. Simon Doran, the U.S. senior national representative to Carrier Strike Group 21, the number of intercept operations was on a scale he had not seen in his six prior deployments on aircraft carriers.
Doran said the pilots on the Queen Elizabeth had to run more intercept and escort missions against Russian jets operating near the carrier strike group than he had seen in his entire career.
“It was really interesting to see if we could demonstrate the unmatched capability of the F-35 against some of the Russian aircraft,” Doran told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon. “And we’re quite fortunate in that we got the interception escort, I think more Russian aircraft and many other deployments.”
The Russian observers gave the entire carrier strike group the opportunity to operate around a force that was using submarines, surface ships and aircraft — adding a dimension of realism to the exercise, the British defense official added.
The deployment was meant as a proof of concept, showing that Marines with F-35Bs were able to operate off of any U.S. or allied ship that had enough space on its deck to hold them.
“The U.S. forces started this journey with planning teams over a decade ago,” Doran said.
British Rear Adm. Steve Moorehouse, the former commander of Carrier Strike Group 21, which the Marines deployed with, said, “As a commander I was blind to the tailfin of that aircraft it really didn’t matter if it was a Marine Corps or U.K. jet, it was just an F-35 as far as I was concerned.”
The increased flexibility and unpredictably will be an asset in future near-peer fights.
But with the greater opportunities came greater risk of a small tactical misunderstanding leading to an international incident.
“For us it was all about a willingness not to respond, but we would not be bullied or pushed out of there,” the British defense official said.
“It was really busy. It was really dynamic.”