Protecting the defenders on the high seas

USS Nimitz  with the USNS Rainier and USS Princeton ''Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins
USS Nimitz with the USNS Rainier and USS Princeton ''Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins
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She is the very definition of US military might.

At more than 100,000 tonnes, USS Nimitz is almost 13 times the size of Portsmouth-based Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon, and she carries around 20 times as many sailors.

As reported in The News, HMS Dragon is patrolling the waters of the Gulf to provide security and stability in one of the world’s most vital arteries for oil, gas, and goods.

USS Nimitz is also operating in the region, sending off dozens of jets a day on bombing runs over Afghanistan and providing a deterrent force against criminal activity in the Gulf.

Someone needs to protect this mighty carrier from air attack — and on a few occasions that role has fallen to HMS Dragon.

It is highly unusual for the US Navy to hand over such a crucial job to a foreign navy, which says a lot about the capability of the UK’s new destroyers.

It’s also exactly what Dragon and her five sister ships have been designed to do, and will need to do well in a few years time when the Royal Navy’s new carriers enter service.

Dragon’s crew are proud to say they have stepped up to the challenge – and their work has earned them high praise indeed.

Rear-Admiral Mike White is the commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group.

He told The News: ‘I have been amazed and very impressed with the capability of the Type 45s’ air defence role, and what they are bringing to this area.

‘It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with the Royal Navy here.

‘It has especially been great to work with HMS Kent and HMS Dragon.’

In a bid to maintain the skills needed to operate an aircraft carrier, the Royal Navy is stationing people on board US carriers.

Where USS Nimitz is concerned, Lt Cdr Tom Corbett is the liaison officer — and therefore the only Royal Navy sailor on board a mammoth carrier filled with 5,000 Americans.

‘Initially being on board was quite shocking,’ says Lt Cdr Corbett, 43, from Portsmouth.

‘I have never been in an environment where I have been the only person surrounded exclusively by people from another nation.

‘I am the only Royal Navy guy on board, but everyone I have met here has been friendly and welcoming.

’They like the British and they have lots of questions about being in the Royal Navy.’

Undaunted by his task, Lt Cdr Corbett has set about gaining an understanding of how the USS Nimitz operates, and will report back to the Royal Navy about the lessons learned.

He says: ‘If we’re going to get bigger carriers we need to create understanding of how bigger carriers work.

‘We can look at how Dragon works with the US Navy so we can go away and say “this is how Dragon works with a big carrier”, and the Americans can go away saying “these Type 45s are really good at this and we want them to come and play.”

‘I would like to see the carriers get up and running as soon as possible so we can have this capability.’

HMS Dragon might be kitted out with some of the most sophisticated sensors and weapons systems in the world, but another, more simple, part of her arsenal has also proved a vital asset to the Americans — her lights.

When night falls, HMS Dragon follows a few thousand yards astern of the Nimitz and sets her mast to glow in a special lighting configuration.

It gives the returning jet pilots a reference point to help guide them back to their floating base.

With an almighty roar, up to 30 jets pass straight over the top of Dragon as they come in for a high-speed landing.

It’s another opportunity for the Royal Navy warship’s crew to gain valuable experience in operating with an aircraft carrier, skills which will be vital if the return of fast jet carrier operations to the navy is to be a success.

Commander Nicholie Bufkin, from the USS Nimitz, said: ‘HMS Dragon has been able to do a lot for us, and the sailors on board have definitely proved themselves to be capable.

‘We know they have been making huge strides.

‘With Dragon out here now we are easily able to integrate because she becomes a part of our group.

‘The British have always proven very able to integrate with us.’

HMS Dragon working alongside an American supercarrier is an important step towards the arrival of the Royal Navy’s next-generation warships.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are under construction at shipyards around the country.

The first of the two ships is structurally completed after being pieced together from parts built at naval yards in the UK, including the BAE Systems site in Portsmouth.

Both of the new 65,000-tonne carriers will be based in the city, and the first is due to arrive later this decade.

The premature axing of HMS Ark Royal in the 2010 Strategic Defence Review and the sale of the Royal Navy’s Harrier jets brought about the start of a lengthy gap in UK carrier strike operations.

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance, the consortium of defence organisations which is building the two new carriers, has pledged to see jets flying HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018, once sea trials have been completed.

Meanwhile, work continues in Portsmouth to prepare the naval base for their arrival, including the strengthening of jetties and dredging of the harbour entrance.

The carriers will be the biggest and most powerful surface warships ever built for the Royal Navy, providing eight acres of steely real estate which can be deployed around the world.

HMS Dragon and her five sister ships have been designed and built with air defence in mind.

The anti-air warfare destroyers exist to protect against all known airborne threats and her weapons and sensors are setting the benchmark worldwide.

Billed as the most advanced warships the nation has ever built, the Type 45 destroyers carry Sea Viper missiles, which can knock targets out of the sky up to 70 miles away.

For those on board the new destroyers as they enter service, much of this is new technology — and they have been more than keen to prove its worth in the global arena.

Captain Iain Lower, the commanding officer of HMS Dragon, says: ‘These ships are putting us back in the Premier League of air defence.

‘We are bringing a real capability to the party out here.

‘These ships are designed to take on air defence capabilities for large areas, and we have done that.

‘As HMS Diamond did before us, we have done very well in this area, and we now seamlessly integrate into the US carrier battle group.’

Across the Royal Navy, sailors are being deployed to regain the specialist skills needed for working on board or alongside aircraft carriers operating with jets on board.

As reported in The News, one British sailor recently became the first to qualify as an aircraft director on board USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, trained to co-ordinate a continuous stream of aircraft.

And now in the Gulf, HMS Dragon is working alongside USS Nimitz to hone her ability to protect a large patch of airspace.

Capt Lower adds: ‘The people who do best at carrier strike in the world are the US Navy, so why not look at the way the US Navy does it?

‘We have already got navy lads flying F18s and ground crews and going over to the Americans, so we’re learning a lot about how to integrate with the Queen Elizabeth-class.

‘The experience we are getting operating with the Nimitz and the Dwight D. Eisenhower before her is crucial to the capability that we’re going to be able to provide in the future with the Queen Elizabeth carriers.

‘It’s not that far away, and it’s very exciting.’

With a deafening roar and a sudden burst of heat, an F18 fighter jet is flung into the air from the deck of the USS Nimitz.

It’s one of the most exhilarating and dangerous work environments in the world, not to mention one of the loudest. There are jet blasts coming from all around, and aircraft landing and taking

off, with barely a gap in between.

USS Nimitz differs from the two carriers being built for the Royal Navy in one major way.

Aircraft taking off and landing on the Americans’ flight deck use catapults and arrester gear to help them on their way.

The carrier has four catapults, which get the aircraft up to high speeds in a short distance, enough for them to continue under their own power.

To land on the carrier, each aircraft needs a tail hook, which snags one of four arresting wires stretched across the flight deck.

When the hook snatches the wire, a hydraulic system below deck brings the speeding aircraft to a stop.

Pilots aim for the third wire, as it’s the safest target, and are graded on how safe their landings are.

The two new carriers being built for the Royal Navy will operate with F35 fighter jets on board, using a variant which does not require the catapults and arrester equipment.