UK and US ‘shoulder to shoulder’ against Iran-backed militants, says Shapps

HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth would be likely to operate with both American and British fighter jets if it is called upon to travel to the region - Royal Nay photographer/BBC
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Britain and the US stand “shoulder to shoulder” against Iran-backed groups, Grants Shapps told his US counterpart on Wednesday, with the Royal Navy poised to send an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea.

The Defence Secretary assured Lloyd Austin that the UK would step in “to ensure there is a line that cannot be crossed” after weeks of attacks by Houthis and other groups across the Middle East.

On a visit to the Pentagon, Mr Shapps described the Houthis as “pirates and thugs” and sent his condolences to the US after the deaths of three American troops in a drone strike on Sunday.

“We are once again standing shoulder to shoulder to ensure that there is a line that cannot be crossed,” he said.

It is understood that Admiral Sir Ben Key, the First Sea Lord, provided “expert military advice” to Mr Shapps as they attended separate meetings to discuss the UK’s strategy in the Red Sea.

A Navy source had said the meetings were “likely [to] include a discussion on the carrier”, which could be deployed to replace USS Dwight D Eisenhower in the Red Sea later this year.

Mr Shapps met senior Biden administration officials in Washington including Mr Austin, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser.

A Downing Street spokesman said the meetings included discussions on “the situation in the Middle East and our wider defence cooperation”.

Speaking at the same meeting, Mr Austin said the relationship between the US and UK was “as strong as ever” and praised Britain for its support for Ukraine. He added: “The US and UK are deeply committed to the rules-based international order.”

On Wednesday night, US officials said retaliatory attacks against Iran-backed militants would be a “campaign” that could last “weeks”. They are expected to include Iranian targets outside Iran and involve both strikes and cyber operations.

It comes after The Telegraph revealed that Britain is poised to send one of its aircraft carriers to the region to counter drone and missile strikes by the Iran-backed Houthis.

HMS Queen Elizabeth would be likely to operate with both American and British fighter jets if it is called upon to travel to the region.

The warship previously saw combat as part of Operation Shader against Islamic State in 2021, when it hosted F35B stealth fighter jets of the United States Marine Corps. It is being prepared to deploy on Sunday as part of Operation Steadfast Defender.

The exercise is explicitly designed to prepare the alliance for a Russian invasion, with Britain having committed around 20,000 soldiers, as well as tanks, artillery and fighter jets to the drills.

However, The Telegraph understands that HMS Queen Elizabeth could be diverted and sent to the Red Sea if requested.

The Royal Navy is preparing to step in when USS Dwight D Eisenhower returns to America. The carrier deployed from Norfolk, Virginia in October and is expected to go back to the US in May.

It currently has 70 aircraft on board, of which around 50 are F18 Super Hornet strike fighters.

However, Prof Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), warned that if HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed to the region it “could not generate the same embarked air wing capacity as the Eisenhower, even with US Marine Corps F-35Bs embarked”.

He added: “The UK has not bought enough F-35Bs to regularly generate more than 12 deployed jets on a sustained basis. Even that many permanently deployed would be essentially the whole capacity of the current force.”

Prof Bronk said the UK’s original requirement had been to have 138 F-35Bs that would enable 36 jets to be deployed on a more or less permanent rotation on whichever of the two aircraft carriers was at sea. He added: “The current F-35 force is a fraction of that size, so can only deliver a fraction of that capability.”

A Royal Navy source stressed the “interoperability” the UK and US have demonstrated over the years.

Asked whether Britain had enough fighter jets to put on an aircraft carrier in the event of it being deployed to the Red Sea, they said: “Everything we do is with our allies. HMS Prince of Wales practised with US Marine Corps in the autumn last year, showing out interoperability.”

Mitchell Reiss, a fellow at RUSI, said: “I don’t think there is any country where we have greater ‘interop’ than the US and the UK, and that starts with intelligence-sharing. I think it’s a testimony to the strength of the alliance that the UK is stepping up in this way to help the US and the West to keep this maritime stretch open.”

It comes after weeks of calls for the UK to deploy one of its carriers.

Lord West, a former First Sea Lord, said it was “extraordinary” that the carrier had not been sent to the region, and subsequently accused the RAF of not having given “sufficient priority” to providing F35 aircraft, adding that the force considers the fighter jets to be employed for “shore-based use”.

RAF sources said the carrier would be deployed as and when needed. They said the number of F35s, of which the UK has 33, was nothing to do with the fact the carrier was still in port at Portsmouth.

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