HMS Illustrious is on stand-by to go to war in Libya, The News can reveal.
The Portsmouth-based warship, which only came out of a £40m refit last month, could be sent to relieve HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean in the next six months.
Illustrious, which was out of action for 18 months while she was transformed into a helicopter carrier, began conducting serious night and day training exercises with army Apache attack helicopters in the English Channel off Weymouth yesterday.
The helicopters are the same as those flying bombing raids over Libya from HMS Ocean, which has been at sea since March and was meant to return home in June.
It is understood Illustrious was not meant to be ready for front-line operations until April 2012, but her post-refit trials are being sped up so she can relieve Ocean if the stalemate continues between rebel forces and Colonel Gaddafi’s troops.
Illustrious’ commanding officer, Captain Jerry Kyd, said: ‘It’s exceptionally important we work this ship up quickly and efficiently because as we’ve seen in Libya we cannot predict future events.’
He added: ‘We can not predict what armed forces will be required in Libya or if operations will still be going on, that’s for the United Nations to decide.
‘But we are progressing very well and we will be ready to go wherever we are needed.’
Apache attack helicopters are operating from Illustrious’ flight deck for the first time in the ship’s 30-year history.
The two weeks of flying missions off the south coast are meant to simulate the conditions pilots are facing off Libya.
Around 90 airmen and pilots from 664 squadron of Army Air Corps 4 regiment are living on the ship, training in challenging conditions ahead of relieving their sister squadron, 656, which is currently on HMS Ocean.
One pilot, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said: ‘It’s going well.
‘It’s very strange and different landing on a ship.
‘I normally want to stay away from big metal objects not land on them but it’s great fun.’
Armed with Hellfire missiles, rocket launchers and a 30mm machine gun, Apaches are seen as a good replacement for the Royal Navy’s Harrier jump jets which were axed in last year’s defence cuts.
Leading naval airmen James Batley said: ‘The Apaches bring a more aggressive role to the Royal Navy.
‘It’s a lot more difficult for the pilots and ground crews than working with jets but it’s good to bring everyone together so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.’