RN aircraft carrier build-up for massive NATO exercise starts

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The Royal Navy (RN) flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) exited her Portsmouth home port yesterday (Sunday, 4 February) en route to the largest NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) exercise since the Cold War ended in 1991.

The aircraft carrier, according to a RN statement, will be at the heart of combined exercises involving alliance forces in the build-up to Exercise Steadfast Defender. This will reportedly be “a huge demonstration of NATO’s resolve, unity and capability” and will involve over 20 000 UK (United Kingdom) military personnel deployed across Scandinavia and northern Europe.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, commissioned in June 2017 and taken into service in 2020, will lead a carrier strike group of eight ships – four British, including frigate HMS Somerset (F82) and two Tide Class tankers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – supported by US (United States), Spanish and Danish vessels.

They form a naval force for the exercise – an allied fleet of 40 vessels, from more than two dozen nations, is committed to the seagoing element of Steadfast Defender, off Norway’s Arctic coast in March.

Britain’s flagship brings the capability of her F-35B Lightning stealth fighters from 617 “Dambusters” Squadron at RAF (Royal Air Force [base]) Marham, submarine hunting and airborne early warning Merlin Mk2 helicopters from RNAS (Royal Navy Air Base) Culdrose and battlefield Wildcat helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron from RNAS Yeovilton.

Before heading for Norwegian waters and the High North, the Carrier Strike Group will hone its collective skills in northern Scotland courtesy of the UK’s regular Joint Warrior exercise.

From there the force moves to the High North and Exercise Nordic Response – the maritime element of Steadfast Defender – with the emphasis on protecting northern Norway, Sweden and Finland in defending the Nordic nations from “attack”.

“Steadfast Defender demonstrates the unity of the alliance, our commitment to it – and that the UK continues to play a leading role in NATO,” said Commodore James Blackmore, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, in overall charge of HMS Queen Elizabeth, her air power and escorts.

“The exercise allows us to train with our neighbours in a challenging environment, especially at this time of year – that is why we have to operate up there; weather cannot put us off.”

For the UK flagship and many of her 780 crew (the number will rise to 1 350 when her F-35s and helicopters join) this is a return to the same waters sailed a few months ago on her autumn deployment.

“These are going to be 40-plus intense days for my ship’s company, there’s a lot of excitement on board and people are ready to go,” said Captain Will King, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer.

“Many people focus on the kit and capability of HMS Queen Elizabeth, but the human element is a key factor. For those out on deck, conditions will be extremely harsh at times: strong winds, wind chill of minus 20 or more, heavy seas and a deck moving around, sleet, snow. Then add in darkness for operations at night. We do our utmost to protect our people on deck, while maintaining operations.”