The 65,000-tonne leviathan – the largest ever built for the Royal Navy – stepped up to her new role today, which will see her spearheading the alliance’s front-line maritime task force in the Arctic, Baltic and Mediterranean for the next year.
Setting sail from Portsmouth tomorrow as part of a three-week warm-up ahead of her new job, it will be Prince of Wales’s first major mission since the £3.2bn vessel entered naval service.
The 920ft warship’s tasking comes amid simmering tensions between Moscow and the West, following Russia’s huge build-up of military forces on the Ukrainian border, with 100,000 troops now massed near the country.
Crisis talks between US and Russian officials have already been held in the Swiss city of Geneva, as fears continue to mount that President Vladimir Putin could be preparing to invade the former Soviet bloc country.
The Kremlin has denied any invasion plan and has instead blamed Nato for what it says are aggressive behaviour.
The deepening political deadlock is something HMS Prince of Wales’s skipper, Captain Steve Higham, was all too aware of.
The top officer insisted his crew ‘absolutely recognised the challenge posed by Russia’ and insisted they were ready to act, if needed.
Speaking to The News from the mighty behemoth’s bridge, Capt Higham said: ‘We have got our orders loud and clear - we’ve got to be ready to respond and we will be.
‘The great advantage for us is that we will be working with partners and allies from across the Nato alliance and that strength in depth is what gives us the real edge.’
He added: ‘This is the start of HMS Prince of Wales’s 50-year life. And to start right at the heart of Nato, as the Nato flagship, is really important.
‘It sends a very clear and important message to our partners and allies that we’re really serious about security in the Euro-Atlantic area.’
Top brass from across Nato visited the ship at Portsmouth Naval Base to mark her prestigious new mission with the alliance.
The 700-strong crew of Prince of Wales all joined a ceremony inside the ship’s hangar, where the Nato flag was raised, marking the formal start of the ship’s one-year tenureship.
The multi-national force will be directed by the most senior sea-going command in the Royal Navy, the commander UK strike force, led by Rear Admiral Mike Utley.
Speaking to his crew, Capt Higham said the carrier’s new Nato role was a ‘clear statement of intent’ by Britain to provide security and peace in the Euro-Atlantic.
He added: ‘It is an uncertain time in an uncertain world but I know as the commanding officer of this ship that everyone here is committed to doing their very best to deliver for the navy, for the nation and for Nato.’
The mission will see HMS Prince Wales working with military teams from across the alliance, with top battle staff officers being based on the ship.
Among them is Lieutenant Commander Mike Schelcher, from the US Navy, who said he is eager to ‘interact and grow the capabilities’ of the UK strike force.
He added: ‘The carrier is a huge force multiplier. The capabilities that a carrier brings anywhere in the world is key to being that force for good, whether it’s deterrent, humanitarian assistance – the capabilities of a carrier are limitless… A carrier is an awesome capability and something that has to be respected.’
Crew on Portsmouth-based Prince of Wales said they are excited to be taking part in the ship’s maiden operational mission.
It will be the first experience of operational military life for Sub-Lieutenant Dylan Shaw-Pritchard, who joined the ship in November.
The 22-year-old from Devon said he was blown away to be part of the venture and added: ‘Coming back from Christmas leave, there’s been a buzz all around the ship; it doesn’t matter who you talk to, whether the staff on the gangway or chefs on the galley, everyone is excited.’
HMS Prince of Wales is the second of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
Costing a total of £6.4bn, the pair of ships are the largest and most advanced warships ever built for the Senior Service.