When HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail on her maiden operational voyage, her crew expected Russia to keep a close eye on the warship. However, the sheer extent of Russian surveillance already seen has gone far beyond what the military expected.
As crew on board the £3 billion warship set about preparing two F-35B fighter jets on Sunday morning to take part in their first ever combat operation against Islamic State (IS), a further two jets had to be deployed at short notice to investigate Russian aircraft overhead.
Captain James Blackmore, Commander of the Airgroup, confirmed they had seen a "mixture" of Russian Sukhois and Migs and that they were in "visual range of the pilots".
He said that in the three days that they had been stationed off the coast of Cyprus, the pilots had seen the Russian jets every day that they had flown.
Ready for takeoff: crew on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth prepare F-35B fighter jets to take part in their first ever combat operation
Defence sources told The Telegraph that Russian activity had been "busy", with the Russians in all domains.
A Grigorovich-class frigate has been spotted on the surface, while submarines are also tracking the movements of Britain’s flagship fleet.
Speaking from on board the aircraft carrier after jets had been scrambled as part of the Quick Reaction Alert to survey the unplanned Russian activity, Captain Blackmore said: "It’s cat-and-mouse posturing. It is the first time you put F-35s into the eastern Mediterranean, so of course Russia wants to come and look over those, they want to look at the carriers, they want to understand the way we do business in the same way that I want to understand the way they do business."
The Carrier Strike Group
Captain Blackmore said that he "has to believe that there will always be a Russian aircraft that might want to come and look at us" while the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) is deployed on its voyage that will cover 26,000 nautical miles.
With so many Russian eyes on the group, Captain Blackmore said it was imperative that they "demonstrate our capability and our intent in the eastern Mediterranean as well", which doesn’t just mean using the fifth generation multi-role aircraft.
"I’ll be using helicopters as well against any of their surface units that might come near us, or their helicopters.”
Coalition against IS
As well as keeping the Russians at bay, the nine ships, 32 aircraft, and 3,700 personnel that make up CSG will also be taking on "the lion’s share" of Operation Shader, the UK’s commitment to the global coalition against IS.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander of CSG, said: "The main focus for us at the moment is taking on the mantle of the UK support to Operation Shader."
Although routinely undertaken by The Royal Air Force Typhoons in Cyprus, for the period that HMS Queen Elizabeth is near Cyprus, she will continue to take the lead.
"We’re taking on the lion’s share of that operation over Iraq, which is a fantastic feather in our cap," Commodore Moorhouse added.
The Carrier Strike Group operation route
As part of that effort, stealth jets of the renowned 617 Squadron RAF (The Dambusters) and the US Marine Corps fought IS earlier this week in their first combat missions from HMS Queen Elizabeth.
On the flight deck there are 10 US Marine Corps and eight British F-35s.
Together, some of the jets carried out operational sorties, which is understood to mark a change in emphasis.
Naval and air power
The Ministry of Defence said CSG was now delivering its full might of naval and air power.
From early morning to after midnight, jets come and go from the flight deck, launching to go into Iraq and working with coalition partners to support that mission.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said: “The ability to operate from the sea with the most advanced fighter jets ever created is a significant moment in our history, offering reassurance to our allies and demonstrating the UK’s formidable air power to our adversaries.”
Vertical: One of the 10 US jets stationed with HMS Queen Elizabeth
Credit: Peter Jordan
The new vessel is taking part in the first ever combat operation against Islamic State, with air strikes up until now coordinated from Cyprus
Credit: Peter Jordan
The crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth engaged in operations in the Mediterranean sea
Credit: Peter Jordan
Mr Wallace added that the CSG was a "physical embodiment of Global Britain and a show of international military strength that will deter anyone who seeks to undermine global security".
Meanwhile, Commodore Moorhouse added that when he joined the Royal Navy the eastern Mediterranean was like the UK’s "back garden", where they would train before going through the Suez Canal for proceeding operations.
UK ready and on its guard
"It’s much more contested now, and congested over the last five to 10 years, and particularly with the relatively new Russian footprint in Syria," he said, adding that a lot of the group’s operations involved "rubbing up against Russian activity", as well as the UK "demonstrating we are ready and we are on our guard".
"I think there is a reality when you buy yourself a fifth generation aircraft carrier and you take it around the world, people are interested in it," he added.
"We see it when we are in the North Atlantic with activity, we are seeing it here, we see it in the Black Sea and I suspect when we go further east we will also see it as well."
However, Commodore Moorhouse stressed that what they were seeing with Moscow was not a "Top Gun scenario where we are flying over the top of one another".
After Cyprus, the strike group will sail through the Suez Canal, through the Indian Ocean and on to the Philippine Sea and will make a number of stops in Oman, Singapore, South Korea and Japan along the way.
It will also sail through the South China Sea, which Boris Johnson previously said would enable HMS Queen Elizabeth to show "our friends in China" the UK’s belief in the international law of the sea.
The Prime Minister said: "One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea, and in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point."