BRITAIN’S biggest ever warship is setting sail to America today as it steps up preparations to be ready for operational deployment in 2021 – with UK stealth jets taking off for the first time.
The £3bn aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will leave Portsmouth for the east coast of the US in good spirits despite the sacking of previous captain Commodore Nick Cooke-Priest in May and a high-profile water leak.
The Westlant 19 mission signals the beginning of the final journey of the aircraft carrier towards readiness for strike action with operational testing of UK F-35B fighting jets for the first time.
She will join a task group including Portsmouth-based Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and Devonport-based Type 23 HMS Northumberland, and will have a ship’s company of about 800.
They will be joined by nine helicopters – Merlin anti-submarine warfare aircraft and lift helicopter and the Wildcat attack helicopter. By 2021 there will be another destroyer, frigate and a nuclear submarine
READ MORE: 32 stunning pictures of HMS Queen Elizabeth
Commander of the UK Maritime Strike Group, Commodore Mike Utley said: ‘This is a hugely exciting point in the carrier strike programme.
‘We’ll hone our skills to launch proper operational missions, prepare and put weapons on the aircraft, launching the aircraft, as well as putting in all planned mission requirements specific to the F-35s.
‘During 2021 we will deploy to the eastern Mediterranean area, the Gulf and Pacific so we need to make sure from an engineering perspective the ship can operate in those warmer waters.’
It follows last year’s Westlant 18, during which the ship saw jets land on her deck for the first time.
New captain of QE, Steve Moorhouse, said: ‘It’s about increasing the scale from Westlant 18. We are not moving towards a new Cold War scenario but what we are doing is coalescing the navy around the aircraft carrier. What that offers our politicians is choice.’ Captain James Blackmore, Commander Air Group, said that up to seven
British jets would take part in the exercises along with up to four US jets.
He said: ‘We know we can safely fly the aircraft to and from the aircraft carrier, now it's about making sure we can be mission effective.
‘It's huge, it's the next step to regaining our carrier strike capability.
‘In 2010 I had the privilege of launching in the last harrier from Ark Royal, we are nearly 10 years on and we are just getting back into having a carrier strike capability in the UK, one of very few nations that have it, what's not exciting about that?’
Defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan added: ‘It’s great to see the ship is being taken into operational testing. This will put the ship, the jets and all supporting units through realistic fighting scenarios to ready them for operational deployment.’
The ship will also undergo warm weather sea trials to ensure it is ready for a deployment to the Mediterranean, Gulf and Pacific next year followed by its first operational deployment in 2021 which will include the embarkation of both a UK and a US squadron of marines with further support provided by a second destroyer, frigate and nuclear submarine.