HMS Illustrious is primed to sail to war-torn Syria at just a moment’s notice, The News understands.
The 22,000-tonne aircraft carrier left Portsmouth yesterday heavily armed with helicopters on her rain-washed flight deck.
Army Apache attack helicopters and Chinooks also joined the warship off the south coast last night.
Lusty, which is a key part of the UK’s Response Force Task Group, is officially heading to the Mediterranean and Adriatic for a two-month training mission with French and Albanian forces.
But a contingency plan means she could be called into action off Syria if required – in the same way HMS Ocean was drafted in for Apache strikes over Libya last year.
Speaking ahead of yesterday’s departure, Lusty’s commanding officer, Captain Martin Connell, said: ‘We are fully armed, fully trained and fully ready, so yes if we are called upon to do something we are certainly ready.
‘There’s a real buzz around the ship. It’s good to see the hangar bursting at the seams.’
He added: ‘There’s a lot going on right now (in the world). My job is to make sure that if we are invited to take part in a live operation we are able to do so.’
More than 1,400 military personnel are on board Lusty – doubling her usual complement of 700 sailors. This includes seven air squadrons and 300-strong Royal Marine commando force.
The exercise in the Mediterranean with a French carrier is the ship’s first major deployment since a £40m refit in 2010.
Weapons engineer Peter Baker, 22, said: ‘It’s a big deal for us. Since we came out of refit, we’ve worked pretty much non-stop to get the ship in a ready state. Everything we’ve been doing has been working up to this.’
Able Seaman Roderick McKenzie, 26, said: ‘It will be nice to put everything we have learned into practice.’