BRITAIN’S only remaining aircraft carrier is ready to rejoin the Royal Navy after a £40m refit.
HMS Illustrious was due to leave Rosyth dockyard in Fife, Scotland, this morning following a 16-month upgrade.
The warship – which has been reclassified as a helicopter carrier after the navy’s Harrier jump jets were axed – will undergo sea trials in UK waters before returning home to Portsmouth on July 8.
Illustrious is the only Invincible-class carrier still in service with the Royal Navy.
But she too will be decommissioned by 2014, following the fate of sister ships HMS Invincible, which is being scrapped in a Turkey, and HMS Ark Royal, which is up for sale following last year’s defence cuts.
Her emergence from refit comes after the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, sparked a row this week over fears his depleted fleet will become overstretched if the war in Libya continues beyond the summer.
But the Ministry of Defence ruled out Illustrious being sent to Libya soon.
A spokesman said: ‘She will have vigorous trials and training before taking over from HMS Ocean as the on-call helicopter carrier from next summer, 2012.’
Illustrious’ flight deck has been adapted to take Apache, Chinook, Merlin, Sea King and Lynx helicopters; her hull is glistening following 540,000 litres of paint and her communications systems are new.
But one thing remains exactly the same as before – the ‘ski ramp’ on the flight deck used to launch fast jets.
Around 60 Harriers are currently for sale.
The MoD dismissed the suggestion that a small number could be retained to fly from Illustrious in the future. ‘There’s no way we’re bringing the Harriers back,’ a spokesman said, adding that the only reason Illustrious still has a ski ramp is because it would have cost more money to remove it.
The government has been urged to rethink the decision to cut the Harrier jets, leaving the navy without any planes until two new carriers arrive in 10 years’ time.
Naval warfare expert Dr Lee Willett from the RUSI think-tank said: ‘There’s still life in the Harriers and we should save some so we don’t lose the skill set of taking off and landing at sea.
‘The problem is any suggestion of Harriers on Illustrious would be politically difficult.’