Eighteen F-35B Lightning II stealth jets, supported by military teams from Portsmouth, will be used in the operation to weed out the last remnants of the so-called Islamic State terror group.
Embarked on the Royal Navy’s new flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the jets will conduct airstrikes and surveillance missions on key IS positions.
The £3.2bn warship, carrying eight RAF F35B stealth fighter jets and 10 from the US Marine Corps, will depart tonight for Asia accompanied by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine, 14 naval helicopters and a company of Royal Marines.
Both the heads of the Royal Navy and the RAF have insisted the force was well prepared to destroy extremist hives and would be a ‘potent’ maritime force.
The comments came just hours before HMS Queen Elizabeth set off from Portsmouth to begin her maiden operational mission.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, head of the RAF, said the F-35 teams were ‘absolutely ready’ for the mission against IS.
‘They will be on live operations facing enemy threat systems and tackling violent extremists, supporting the government of Iraq,’ the Portsmouth-born officer formerly of Rowner said.
‘This campaign against Daesh and the violent extremists in the Middle East is one the Royal Air Force has been engaged in for seven years. It has been largely an air campaign which has taken the fight to the extremist in their sanctuaries.
‘To my mind, that has made the streets of the UK and our allies safer. So what the Lightnings from 617 will be doing is continuing that very strong and important contribution, by air power, to that campaign against violent extremism to the Middle East.’
The 28-week deployment will cover 26,000 nautical miles, with the carrier strike group travelling through the Mediterranean to the Red Sea then from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to the Philippine Sea.
About 3,700 military personnel from the Royal Navy, US Navy and Dutch Navy will be involved in the carrier strike group.
First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin said the deployment was one of the most ambitious carried out by Britain in more than a decade.
‘This is a big moment for the Royal Navy, a big moment for UK defence and – I would like to think – a big moment for the whole nation,’ Adm Radakin told The News.
‘This is the largest deployment we have had in a generation. These two new aircraft carriers, with the brand new F-35 jets, give us this amazing new opportunity.
‘That’s what we’re going out to prove – and we’re doing it in a big way, by going to the other side of the world, operating with our Nato friends in the Mediterranean and north Atlantic, then operating with our allies in the Indian Ocean before then operating at a multi-carrier level, with other carrier battlegroups in the Indo-Pacific.
‘This is exciting, it’s big and something that is very special to be part of. This is about us being a global navy supporting global Britain.’
Adm Radakin added the mission could see Queen Elizabeth and her embarked squadron of F-35s supporting the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The carrier strike group will carry out visits to 40 countries including India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore with more than 70 engagements including sailing alongside the French carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Mediterranean.
The deployment will be backed by Portsmouth-based Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, as well as frigates HMS Kent and Richmond.
On top of the UK military units involved in the mission, HMS Queen Elizabeth will also be accompanied by the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen.
The deployment is expected to take the task group to the South China Sea. The mission has already drawn criticism from political leaders in Beijing.
But Adm Radakin insisted the mission was ‘not confrontational’ but was a chance to ‘work with allies and partners in the region’ and promote the UK government’s ‘trade agenda’.
‘What the Chinese will see is a significant new capability,’ added the First Sea Lord. ‘They will see modern aircraft carriers and they will see the best jets in the world. I hope that they see a confident but not a confrontational deployment.’
Defence secretary Ben Wallace, who visited the ship with prime minister Boris Johnson on Friday, insisted the mission was a milestone moment for Britain.
‘The UK’s carrier strike group sets sail to write Britain’s name in the next chapter of history – a truly global Britain that steps forward to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, working hand-in-hand with our friends to defend our shared values and uphold the rules-based international order,’ he said.
‘This deployment shows that we are strong on our own, but even stronger with our allies. I want to join the nation in wishing the crews across the Carrier Strike Group every success as they depart on this truly historic endeavour.’