Huge US aircraft carrier anchors ahead of joint training exercise

Updated: 

A super sized American aircraft carrier used in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has anchored in British waters ahead of a joint US and UK training exercise.

The USS George HW Bush, a 97,000-tonne and 1,092ft Nimitz class aircraft carrier, one of 10 in the American Naval fleet, is too large to enter Portsmouth Harbour and so had to drop its anchor in the Solent's Stokes Bay on Thursday.

The carrier and its crew have been deployed for seven months in the Gulf and the Mediterranean - launching airstrikes as part of the 72-member international coalition, committed to eradicating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

They are now gearing up for the next part of their mission - Exercise Saxon Warrior, one of the largest war games co-hosted by the UK and US - which begins on Monday and will also involve Nato partners.

Speaking on board the warship, Commodore Andrew Betton, commander of the Royal Navy's carrier strike group said the imminent exercise is "multinational", and will be run around the British Isles for the next two weeks.

"With the Nato task group and the George HW Bush task group, we are going to be exercising anti-submarine, anti-air and land attack capabilities over the next couple of weeks," he said.

Commissioned at the beginning of 2009, the USS George HW Bush carries up to 80 aircraft on its four-and-a-half acre flight deck, as well as 5,000 Navy personnel and aircrew.

Rear Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, commander of the US Navy's carrier strike group 2, said following on from their involvement in Operation Inherent Resolve, they have now moved on to their next mission which has been to work with the UK carrier strike group for the past two-and-a-half weeks.

Cmdr Betton said the placement of British carrier strike group battle staff on board the USS George HW Bush for the past week in preparation for the exercise has been a "fantastic training opportunity".

"We have already prepared for this exercise (Saxon Warrior), which starts in earnest on Monday, we are going to be embarking with 60 UK, largely Navy but Navy, Air Force and Army personnel, to command this exercise on behalf of Admiral Whitesell," he said.

"It is his task group, but he is letting me run the show for two weeks, in preparation for running our own Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in a couple of years time."

The £3 billion behemoth, HMS Queen Elizabeth, a 280-metre and 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier, is the most powerful warship built by Britain.

Set to be the nation's future flagship, the vessel is currently undertaking sea trials off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea.

The ship is expected to enter Portsmouth, its home based in the next couple of months and be accepted by the Royal Navy towards the end of the year.

Cmdr Betton said working with the USS George HW Bush prior to and during Exercise Saxon Warrior gives them the opportunity to "build up their expertise", and fundamentally the chance to build their experience of commanding such a "diverse and extremely powerful piece of military infrastructure".

Talking to the Press Association he added: "We have been out of carrier strike operations for several years, so the opportunity to learn from our American cousins is extremely welcome, and has been really important in enabling us to accelerate that programme.

"So that we, as the formation commanders, are ready to support the introduction to service of HMS Queen Elizabeth."

Over the last six months, Cmdr Betton said small groups of British personnel have been embedded on USS George HW Bush to "learn and build their individual and ultimately collective skill sets", adding that it has been a "key building block" ahead of HMS Queen Elizabeth's arrival.

Pressed on how important he thinks warships such as HMS Queen Elizabeth are, he said: "Aircraft carriers are a fantastically versatile symbol of a nation's defence capability, able to reassure partners and deter potential aggressors.

"The ability to sustain and exert influence from the high seas, the ability to manoeuvre without a sustained foot print ashore, or indeed without any footprint ashore, gives us a unique advantage."

He said having an aircraft carrier and its supporting strike group puts a country such as the UK "at the top table" in terms of influence and the ability to react to potential threats.

Asked if HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a key player, he said the warship is "absolutely at the cutting edge of technology", which is ready to support up to 36 F35-B strike jets.