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Big Lizzie prepares for show of force to China

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Thousands of well-wishers waved off the Royal Navy's flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth as it set sail for exercises and its first operational deployment to the Far East.

The £3billion aircraft carrier - nicknamed 'Big Lizzie' - sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour in Hampshire to cheers from the crowds who filled the walls and the beaches.

There were few signs of social distancing among those who brandished Union Flags and held banners saying farewell to their loved ones who will be at sea for about seven months.

A flotilla of small boats also lined up to view the huge carrier as it sailed off into the Solent.

The crew of the 65,000-tonne warship lined the flight deck while a piper played at the top of the 'ski ramp at the front of the vessel.

Earlier on Saturday, two destroyers, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, and a frigate, HMS Kent, which also form part of the nine-ship Carrier Strike Group (CSG), also set off from Portsmouth. 

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The CSG will take part in Exercise Strike Warrior off Scotland before heading to the Indo-Pacific region.

The exercises, which mirror a broad range of crisis and conflict situations, will include 1,500 ground troops at military ranges across the country and maritime exercise areas off the west and north coasts.

Australia will join Nato nations the UK, the US, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland in taking part with 34 naval units.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and the CSG will deploy shortly after the completion of Strike Warrior.

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The carrier, with eight RAF and 10 US Marine Corps F35B stealth fighter jets on board, will depart for Asia accompanied by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine, 14 naval helicopters, and a company of Royal Marines.

The CSG, which will carry out visits to India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, will include the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen.

A total of 3,700 sailors, aviators, and marines are involved in the deployment which will cover 25,000 nautical miles.

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In 2019 China warned Britain against sailing anywhere near them, claiming it would be a 'hostile' move.

President Xi has ordered ships to keep a distance from the contested Spratly Islands - especially the US Navy - with China's Ambassador to the UK saying previously Britain 'should not do this dirty job for somebody else'. 

Spratly is at the heart of an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. 

But the Royal Navy will avoid the Taiwan Strait as Big Lizzie sails towards South Korea and Japan in the final leg of the trip to avoid provoking China further.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's fleet flagship at the centre of the CSG, will depart the UK for the Mediterranean on May 24.

The warship, with eight RAF and 10 US Marine Corps F35B stealth fighter jets on board, will be accompanied to Asia by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine, 14 naval helicopters, and a company of Royal Marines. 

The CSG, which will carry out visits to India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, will include the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen. 

Part of the CSG - not the Queen Elizabeth - will head to the Black Sea to support Nato maritime security operations at a time when tensions are rising tensions in Russia and Ukraine.   

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Accompanying HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a surface fleet made up of Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary's RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring.

The Royal Navy Astute-class submarine will also be deployed, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

As well as the stealth fighters, four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters, and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters will be embarked - the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single UK Task Group in a decade.  

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A squadron of 10 US Marine Corps F35B Lightning II jets will also be embarked on the carrier in what the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is describing as the 'largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who will reveal details of the deployment to Parliament, said: 'When our Carrier Strike Group sets sail next month, it will be flying the flag for Global Britain - projecting our influence, signalling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow.

'The entire nation can be proud of the dedicated men and women who for more than six months will demonstrate to the world that the UK is not stepping back but sailing forth to play an active role in shaping the international system of the 21st century.'

During the 28-week deployment, ships from the Carrier Strike Group are expected to visit more than 40 countries and undertake more than 70 engagements, including sailing alongside the French carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Mediterranean.

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The deployment has been organised as part of the 'UK's tilt to the Indo-Pacific region in a bid to 'bolster deep defence partnerships' as well as to take part in an exercise to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Commodore Stephen Moorhouse said: 'This is an amazing capability and pulling that all together with our international partners is a real statement that the Royal Navy is very much in the Premier League.

'The deployment takes us through the Mediterranean, the Middle East then operating with key partners in the Indo-Pacific just shows the Royal Navy has the ambition to be active on the global stage and operate wherever our politicians may feel fit.'

Colonel Simon Doran, the senior US representative in the CSG, said the deployment had been in planning for more than 10 years.

'It sends a message to potential adversaries but also to our allies to reinforce should they ever be needed, we will be there, we generally always fight together so to deploy together really helps strengthen our relationship,' he said. 

 

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