Britain’s Queen Elizabeth visited the country’s new aircraft carrier on Saturday, giving the UK’s biggest warship a royal sendoff before it leads a flotilla of British, US and Dutch ships to Asian waters on its maiden operational voyage.
The 95-year-old monarch stepped aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, seven years after she named the vessel alongside her late husband Prince Philip, who died last month.
The Queen spent her time aboard “meeting crew members and wishing them luck in what will be an unforgettable life experience by being part of naval history,” the UK Defense Ministry said in a statement.
A tweet from the royal family showed the crew giving the monarch a rousing salute as she prepared to leave the ship, with sailors shouting: “Three cheers for the Queen! Hip hip, hooray, hip hip hooray, hip hip, hooray!”
The 65,000-ton warship will carry eight British F-35B fighter jets and 10 US Marine Corps F-35s as well as 250 US Marines as part of a 1,700-strong crew.
It will lead the flotilla alongside two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships on its journey of 26,000 nautical miles over 28 weeks. The group will be joined by a US Navy destroyer and a frigate from the Dutch navy.
The Defense Ministry said the flotilla will be the largest concentration of maritime and air power to be deployed from the UK in a generation.
The group will sail through the contested South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by China and Southeast Asian countries, on its way to the Philippine Sea. The ships will also stop in India and Singapore.
The deployment will see the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group interact with more than 40 nations, more than one fifth of the countries on the planet, as it makes it way to Asia via the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the deployment will help to project British soft power such as a belief in democracy and the rule of law.
“The UK’s Carrier Strike Group sets sail to write Britain’s name in the next chapter of history — a truly global Britain that steps forward to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, working hand-in-hand with our friends to defend our shared values and uphold the rules-based international order,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.
The flotilla will take part in an exercise with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in the coming days before it heads into the Mediterranean, eventually helping out with NATO maritime security operations in the Black Sea, the UK Defense Ministry said.
It will also perform dual-carrier operations with France’s aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Med.
“As the Carrier Strike Group heads to sea, a new phase opens in Britain’s maritime renaissance,” said Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commander of the strike group.
“A year’s worth of exercises, and more than a decade of preparation, is over. HMS Queen Elizabeth, her escorts and her aircraft, will now begin the most important peacetime deployment in a generation,” Moorhouse said.