British and American F-35B Stealth jets took part in attacks on insurgent positions in Syria and Iraq in an operation which, it is claimed, also “denied airspace” to Russian aircraft flying in an area in support of Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus regime.
A number of positions were targeted in the attack although the details of the damage inflicted by fighters from the 617 Squadron RAF (The Dambusters) and the US Marine Corps remain unclear. Defence officials held that the overall aims were achieved.
The deployment, which will take the fleet to the Far East, and into waters disputed by China and a number of neighbouring states, is part of a post-Brexit tilt outside Europe in defence and foreign policies announced by Boris Johnson’s government.
The raids took place under Operation Shader, the British contribution to the international counter-Isis mission. They came amid warnings that the Islamist group is once again regrouping and growing in strength since the fall of its caliphate.
Kurdish leaders have spoken about increasing numbers of attacks in recent months, during which more than 20 Iraqi and Kurdish security force members have been killed, while in January Baghdad suffered its deadliest suicide bombing in three years, with more than 30 people killed in a market.
Lahur Talabany, the co-president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said last month: “It seems like the Islamic State has re-organised. They were never completely eliminated and we are seeing evidence of them organising attacks.”
Florence Parly, the French armed forces minister, stated: “France considers Daesh (Isis) is still present, we could even say that there is a resurgence of Isis in Syria and Iraq.”
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group, said: “We’re rubbing up against Russian activity, not in a dangerous or aggressive manner, but you’ve just got other people out here playing in what is a fixed piece of water and airspace.”
Russian, British and US pilots had a “healthy respect for one another” and their conduct had been “absolutely professional” since the aircraft carrier started anti-Isis operations on 18 June, said Cdre Moorhouse. He added that a Russian warship had come within 10 kilometres of the carrier, and that the Eastern Mediterranean had become more “congested and contested” because of Russia’s military presence in Syria.
Following the air strikes from the £3.5bn HMS Queen Elizabeth, Ben Wallace, the British defence secretary, said: “The ability to operate from the sea with the most advanced fighter jets ever created is a significant moment in our history, offering reassurance to our allies and demonstrating the UK’s formidable air power to our adversaries... the Carrier Strike Group is a physical embodiment of Global Britain and a show of international military strength that will deter anyone who seeks to undermine global security”.
Commodore Moorhouse said: “HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first missions against Daesh will be remembered as a significant moment in the 50-year lifespan of this ship. It also marks a new phase of our current deployment... now we are ready to deliver the hard punch of maritime-based air power against a shared enemy.”
Captain James Blackmore, Commander of the Carrier Air Wing, said: “The Lightning Force is once again in action against Daesh, this time flying from an aircraft carrier at sea, which marks the Royal Navy’s return to maritime strike operations for the first time since the Libya campaign a decade ago.”
Following missions in the Middle East, the Strike Group will carry out engagements with the navies of India and Japan, who have been in confrontation over land and sea borders respectively with Beijing, as well as the navies of South Korea and Singapore.
All four countries being visited are considered the West’s allies in countering what is seen as China’s expansionist strategy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The deployment has drawn criticism from some former senior officers.
Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, who was chief of defence staff from 2010 to 2013, had said that the UK should concentrate on Europe and Nato.
Lord Houghton of Richmond, who was chief of defence staff between 2014 and 2016, said it would be “foolish to turn China into an enemy” and described it as a “beast you’ve got to accommodate, not declare war on”.
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