Semantics I suppose, but it’s not technically accurate to say that the UK no longer has an aircraft carrier at its disposal.
Now referred to as a “helicopter assault ship” (a tag forced on the Royal Navy following the retirement of the UK’s last Harrier strike aircraft in 2010), HMS Illustrious is currently playing host to two Apache AH1s from the Army Air Corps’ (AAC) 656 Sqn (Crown Copyright image below).
The value of using the Apache from a maritime platform was highlighted during last year’s NATO-led operation over Libya, when AAC crews operating from the amphibious support ship HMS Ocean destroyed more than 100 targets using 99 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and over 4,000 30mm cannon rounds.
Involving three “AH” crews, the current activity is intended “to refresh their knowledge of operating the aircraft at sea”, according to the Ministry of Defence. This means that a valuable skill will not be allowed to fade while the army’s main focus remains on supporting operations in Afghanistan.
It’s a coincidence only, but at a time when tensions are running high between the UK and Argentina over the territorial rights of the Falkland Islands, the MoD notes that “HMS Illustrious is currently at a few days’ notice to sail anywhere in the world should the British Government require her services.”
In reality, the vessel’s next task will be to sail in the other direction and inside the Arctic Circle to support an eight-week cold weather training programme to culminate with its participation in the Norwegian-led NATO Exercise “Cold Response”. No Apaches this time, but Commando Helicopter Force Lynx and Sea King helicopters will be onboard.
Current plans call for the Royal Navy to decommission HMS Illustrious – aka “Lusty” – in 2014. The service will not introduce its first replacement Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier until at least 2020.