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E J Smith on the bridge. In these waters? In this weather? Luckily it’s Lieutenant, rather than Captain, Smith. And there’s no sign of an iceberg.

HEY’RE obviously not su- perstitious aboard Britain’s fl agship.

In fact there’s no sign of anything. From the bridge of HMS Ark Royal you can just about see the Phalanx on the forecastle, writes Richard Hargreaves. At regular intervals the ship’s horn bellows across Halifax Harbour. “Everyone needs to be on the lookout

for a fi shing boat,” Lt Smith says fi rmly. “Can’t even see the fo’c’s’le,” a rating mutters under his breath. There’s fog 160 days of the year in Canada’s great east coast port. It was like this yesterday too. A case of déjà vu. Or rather déjà non vu. Ark’s Commander, Cdr Rob

wrecked compartment – one of numerous rescue teams transferred around the fl eet to save the day, while 14 ‘casualties’ were moved to Ark for treatment in her sick bay. Pretty standard fare. Or rather not. “I’ve never done this in my career – not as a task group,” says Cdr Carroll. “It’s fantastic to do, really pushing ourselves to the limit.

Ark was a building site in Portsmouth Naval Base coming to the end of a multi- million pound overhaul. HMS Liverpool too.

“The objective of the task group is to deliver decisive force from land, sea and air, take any retaliation on the chin and continue to fi ght and win.” The damage control day taught some big lessons… and some little ones. “Sutherland’s hit. Barry comes to the

Bellfi eld, makes a ‘breast stroke’ gesture, as if he were pushing curtains apart. If only it were that simple. Or maybe it is that simple. For a couple of hours later, the mist has parted. It reveals a fi ne day on North America’s Eastern Seaboard and a shoreline akin to Cornwall or Devon. Within an hour, Harrier GR9s are racing

up Ark’s ski ramp. Auriga 2010 can resume in earnest.

IN A few days Britain’s fl agship deployment of the year – led,

appropriately by her fl agship Ark Royal, plus escorts Sutherland, Liverpool and USS Barry, supported by RFA Fort George – will reach its climax. Ark’s battle group converges with HMS

Albion’s amphibious force and a task group focused around USS Kearsarge (a combination of Ark/Albion/Ocean... but twice the size of Britain’s largest warship) for a super-sized (could it be anything else this side of the Atlantic?) Joint Warrior-esque exercise spread over three weeks.

Everything so far on this four-and- a-half-month deployment has worked: Auriga has been a succession of exercises – typically ten days in duration. The emphasis has been on strike from the sea, courtesy of the Harriers arranged on Ark Royal’s fl ight deck. But pretty much everything else you can expect to encounter in war at sea – submarine hunting, air defence, fi ghting off fast attack craft, replenishing, rescuing – has been thrown into the Auriga mix. And there are things you don’t do every

day. Host a dozen US Marine Corps AV8B Harriers. Or try to sink the entire carrier strike group. The force decided it would play out a Falklands scenario. Air attack. Heavy damage. Missiles exploding. Strafi ng. Fires. Flood. Basically, “a bad day at Black Rock” in the words of the carrier group’s senior marine engineer Cdr Paul Carroll.

rescue,” Cdr Carroll explains. “Except that when they get across to Sutherland, the Barry rescue teams realise that their equipment runs on different voltage – they need to bring their generators across as well.” But it’s these little things which might be the difference between life and death. “You cannot just sail across

the Atlantic and ‘plug in’,” stresses Liverpool’s CO Cdr Ollie Hutchinson. “Task group operations with our allies need investment, you need ships to go away for a fairly extended period to iron out the wrinkles and fi ne-tune the machine.”

d r

Some things take a bit of getting used to. Language, mainly. Take something breaking

aboard a ship. A piece of kit out of order.

“This time last year, we were in dry dock,” says ‘wings’ – Commander Air – Cdr Rocky Salmon. “Twelve months later, Ark Royal’s gone through a quantum leap.” It’s not just the fact that a year ago Ark was a building site, it’s the fact that she spent most of the Noughties as a helicopter carrier.

thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s a delight to take my sailors on a great deployment,” Cdr Hutchinson adds.

Her sailors joined Illustrious to observe the way Lusty worked with jets and helicopters to pick up tips; Ark will return the favour when her sister emerges from refi t.

Through the autumn of 2009 and spring of 2010 – volcanic ash clouds, abortive rescues of stranded holidaymakers from the continent notwithstanding – Ark Royal’s been working towards this day. “Auriga’s the culmination of everything we’ve been aiming towards, the icing on the cake,” says Cdr Salmon.

The arrival of the US Marine Corps was particularly tasty.

C d f

In RN terminology it’s an OpDef – operational defect. To Americans it’s a casualty. After an

afternoon of gunnery practice, the USS Barry proudly reported ‘no casualties’. “No casualties? I should think not,” says Lt Cdr Simon Chapman of the Carrier Strike Group staff, picturing some form of carnage in the gun bay on the American destroyer. They meant, of course, that nothing was broken.

(and vice versa, naturally) goes far beyond language, of course. It’s the ability to share information, data, between different ships of different nationalities, different classes, different equipment. It’s the ability of Merlin A to prosecute a submarine contact using data collected by Aircraft B, passed to USS C and sent to the helicopter in real time. “If there’s anyone in the world we need to be able to ‘plug and play’ with, it’s the USA,” says Commander UK Carrier Strike Group Cdre Simon Ancona. “We need to be able to fi ght with our friends when and where we need to.”

Ark Royal ended up saving Liverpool, towing the Type 42, while the Barry crew were sent across to Sutherland to clear a

When Auriga began in April, Cdre Ancona talked of a trip to the gym – America’s east coast is “the gym of choice for working out your carrier”. And the Americans know how to work out carriers. They have 22 of various types. We have three. “All around there are US carriers pumping iron,” the commodore says. “We’re in good company.” Now rewind the clock 12 months.

“Carrier aviation isn’t just about a few aircraft on the fl ight deck,” he adds. “It’s about the people we’ve trained. The aircrew. The ground crew. The guys on the fl ight deck. The engineers. The people in the galley. Carrier aviation involves everybody.”

everything shining.” Cdr Salmon nods.

The ability to understand the Americans NOW it’s easy to be bedazzled by the capital ships (hence the rather unfl at-

tering ‘fl attop news’ tag with which our publication is occasionally saddled). So what have the other vessels in the Auriga force been up to? Well, we’re glad you asked… Rarely out of Ark Royal’s sight is her trusty guardian HMS Liverpool. “You’re always in the same body of water as Ark Royal,” says Lt Jamie Weller, the destroyer’s deputy weapons engineer offi cer, “and she’s always within our protective bubble.”

For Liverpool, which has shared aerial defensive duties with the USS Barry – “our air defending brother” in the words of her CO Cdr Ollie Hutchinson – the deployment has been the fi rst chance to fl ex her muscles since emerging from refi t last year. Technology means that Liverpool (designed in the late 60s, built in the late 70s) can share combat information “instantly and seamlessly” with the Barry (designed in the late 80s, built in the early 90s…).

“Auriga’s challenging, but it’s also

“My chief’s been in 25 years,” says Ark’s fl ight deck offi cer Lt Paul ‘Mo’ Morris. “He’s been waiting all his career for a chance like that. That’s how much it means to the guys. They’ve come through

r e

As befi ts their reputation, the Corps like to live on the edge and do things with a bang, like refuelling four jets simultaneously on Ark’s fl ight deck.

“I want them to take home memories which will last a lifetime – for some this is their fi rst visit to the USA or Canada.” But before you think this is a jolly to North America, let me stop you there. “I don’t think anyone perhaps gauged the tempo we’d be working at,” says Lt Cdr Stu Lear, Liverpool’s logistics offi cer. “But then you need to operate as if it’s real.” That’s something reinforced by his commanding offi cer. “It’s very nice to be part of a fl eet review in Canada,” says Cdr Ollie Hutchinson. “But you have a constant feeling that someone, somewhere is fi ghting – and dying – for their country, especially in Afghanistan.”

WHILE Liverpool has largely been tied

to Ark on a leash, HMS Sutherland has enjoyed a rather freer rein. Before heading off on Auriga she loosed 28 (count ’em) Seawolf missiles to test the upgrade to the air defence system (Sutherland’s the fi rst to get it), knocking out targets racing over the waves at just 20ft – just as the upgrade demanded. That boost, plus Sonar 2087 and a 30mm automated gun makes the ship “Britain’s top-end 23” her weapons engineer offi cer Lt Cdr Paul O’Shaughnessy says proudly.

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Carroll, responsible for overseeing the material state of the entire carrier strike group. “We have to be self-sustainable as much as possible, relying on our own resources.” One of Ark’s aircraft lifts broke. Oddly,

are ordered and are ready to roll when we arrive,” says Cdr Paul

Although the Type 23 has been doing her own thing occasionally, it’s only to a limited extent. A key part of Auriga is to test the logistics chain of a task group to see how best to sustain a large naval force 3,000 miles from home. “The whole point of sea power is that we can go anywhere we

there’s not an aircraft lift-esque Kwik Fit in the mid-Atlantic. Ark’s engineers fashioned replacement parts. Lift’s working. Job’s a good ’un. “Not one hour’s fl ying was lost,” Cdr Carroll adds with pride.

LOGISTICS are perhaps not considered sexy – certainly not as sexy as

dropping torpedoes or top bombing from Harriers.

Or maybe they are. By the time she returns to Devonport in mid-August, Sutherland will have RAS- ed roughly twice a week, far more than usual.

Things typical have been replenished: food, fuel. And not so typical things: ammunition – the 23 hasn’t topped up on weaponry at sea in a long time. Plus a stern RAS. And then there was towing the Barry.

“It’s something not done very often and something which demands the efforts of the whole ship’s company,” says deputy logistics offi cer Lt Vivienne Masson.

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