Royal Marine Lt Col Phil Kelly is the Strike Warfare Commander in the UK’s Carrier Strike Group battle staff which will be based in HMS Queen Elizabeth – his seventh aircraft carrier.
During the past few years the 44-year-old Irishman has spent time on the USS Ronald Reagan, Harry S Truman and George HW Bush as part of the long-lead specialist skills programme preparing the Royal Navy for the biggest warship it has ever had.
The former Harrier pilot, who served in HMS Ark Royal, HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious, has been flying F/A-18 Hornets and learning all about carrier strike.
“It was a brilliant experience. The US Navy provided incredible support to us. I also learned to drive the ship under Capt Andrew Loiselle,” he said.
His role as Strike Warfare Commander is to advise the Commander of the Carrier Strike Group on how to best fight the full range of aircraft and other strike assets in the task group – to both strike targets ashore and defend the ships at sea.
The Carrier Strike Group is a powerful operational formation, comprising an aircraft carrier, air wing, destroyers and frigates and likely a submarine ready and able to conduct a range of missions around the globe.
“I define how we are going to use the aircraft as part of a layered defence system with the aircraft and ships and how we project power as carrier strike,” said Lt Col Kelly, who joined the Royal Marines 21 years ago.
“All of the embedded squadrons have a role, supporting all warfare areas. The embarked Lightning Force is there to project air power from the sea, striking targets deep inland identified within the Joint Campaign, while also offering wider utility in the protection of the CSG from air, surface and sub-surface threats.
“Our role will be to bring it all together. We are all looking forward to Queen Elizabeth coming into Portsmouth and I am looking forward to filling the flight deck with squadrons of all types and to instil a carrier strike team ethos that will see every aircraft type used in the most efficient way.
“The US Navy has been good enough to maintain our carrier strike skills and take them to the next level.”
Lt Col Kelly admits he was delighted to fly the F-18s.
“It’s every little boy’s dream, although it was a bit of a busman’s holiday for me as I got to understand how the US carrier strike worked.”
The pilot also had to get to grips with the cat-and-trap system of launch and recovery used on US carriers.
“Cat-and-traps flying is highly exhilarating but highly dangerous. Going from zero to 180mph in 1.5 seconds from the catapult makes a great fairground ride, but everyone would need a medical! Then you come back, sometimes at night, slowing from 150mph to zero in 177ft, with the significant G-force.
“Landing at night with limited visibility, with cloud and rain, a rolling and pitching deck, is the most challenging thing we do. We really earn our flying pay.”
The F-35Bs to be flown by combined Royal Navy and RAF squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, are STOVL – short take-off, vertical landing – variants, a system which provides higher launch and recovery rates.
“I see this as a real opportunity to bring together my competency as a commando on land with my competency as a strike fighter pilot,” said Lt Col Kelly.
“My role as Strike Warfare Commander will provide the UK with a global strategic reach for strike fighter operations for the first time and be able to deal with more difficult threat environments.
“It is our moment to show that the Royal Navy is leading UK defence with the global reach to deliver effective and credible combat power wherever it is needed.
“Our co-operation with the US and France in regenerating carrier strike will allow us to be effective very early in the delivery of the ship.”
During his time with the US Navy, Lt Col Kelly – who made his first visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth last month – was attached to Carrier Air Wing Eight, part of Carrier Strike Group Two, as deputy operations officer and spent time as deputy air wing commander.
Hundreds of RN personnel are being trained aboard US warships and the French Carrier Strike Group as part of the long lead skills programme.
Royal Navy personnel have been serving with the assault ship USS Kearsarge and numerous US aircraft carriers, including the USS Dwight D Eisenhower and George HW Bush.
Lt Col Kelly is one of only two Royal Marines jet pilots and revealed he was earmarked as a pilot at his selection board.
“I always wanted to be a commando and a pilot so got the difficult one out of the way first. The discipline instilled as a commando allowed me to handle flying training and be effective in combat.
“I am happy to now be in a role that utilises my life’s work.
“My role allows me to help anyone who has ambition and aspirations as I know what it is like to do some of these roles. The challenges are not insignificant but they are well worth the effort.
“Our position as a carrier strike team is to let people know we are here and formed up and to articulate how we will work.
“I also look after the equity of the Royal Marines in CSG and how we operate. I hope I am a great example of what you can do in the Services. A Royal Marine can do anything – if you are aiming high join the Royal Marines.”
The new UKCSG, under the command of Cdre Jerry Kyd, who will captain Queen Elizabeth, is currently based in HMNB Portsmouth but will move to the carrier in Rosyth next year. COMUKCSG has stood up and is forming rapidly as experienced officers with the right competencies join the team.
With a target for this new Battle Staff to achieve operational certification at the same time as the White Ensign is hoisted in Queen Elizabeth in 2017, the challenge is tough and the generation timelines racy.
Image Sourced: Royal Navy