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Ark Royal to lead UK taskforce

By CNN's Mike Harrison

royal
An armed military security officer guards the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.

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The Ark Royal is the Royal Navy's biggest battleship and the service's flagship aircraft carrier.

At 20,000 tonnes and 210 metres long, she is larger than sister ships HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious.

HMS Ark Royal is the fifth Royal Navy vessel to bear the name.

Its carrier flight deck has been strengthened to take the new Merlin anti-submarine helicopters.

She can also carry Sea Harriers capable of air defence or ground attack, RAF Harrier GR7 surface attack planes, and Sea King helicopters.

The ship is protected by a Phalanx anti-missile system, Goalkeeper defence system and 20mm close-range guns.

PORTSMOUTH, England (CNN) -- The largest deployment of British naval vessels for 20 years ago is preparing to set sail.

Led by the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the flotilla is ostensibly heading for long-planned military exercises in the Far East.

But the powerful task group is intended to underline the "clear and credible" threat of force facing Saddam Hussein if he refuses to give up his weapons of mass destruction, and could be diverted to operational status at a moment's notice.

The Ark Royal made its final preparations for sailing on Friday, and on Saturday will depart Portsmouth for what is initially expected to be a six-month tour.

It will first head to Scotland to collect ammunition, and will then sail to the Mediterranean to join up with the rest of Naval Task Group 03.

The force, carrying 3,000 Royal Marine commandos, will comprise 16 surface vessels -- including the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean -- and one nuclear-powered submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Task force commander Rear Admiral David Snelson said it was the largest British naval deployment since the Falklands war and represented "one part of the jigsaw of combat power."

He told a press conference on board the vessel: "It is a classic use of maritime power.

"Having ships like aircraft carriers permits you to deploy considerable combat power on the high seas without necessarily having to bother host nations."

He added: "There is no doubt that British forces are ready if they are needed."

CNN's Matthew Chance said the ships could spearhead a large scale British military deployment in any war with Iraq.

He said: "Military officials say this is the biggest naval task force assembled by Britain for 20 years -- and meant to pose a credible threat to Saddam.

"And while officials in Washington and London insist no decision on going to war has been taken, the deployment of this British force could be a significant step."

A soldier loads an all-terrain bike on the deck of the Ark Royal
A soldier loads an all-terrain bike on the deck of the Ark Royal

Part of the final preparations for the Ark Royal's departure included the loading of supplies for the vessel's crew of 1,000.

Stores loaded on Friday included one million cigarettes, 144,000 chocolate bars, 2,000 cases or 48,000 cans of soft drinks and 36,000 cans of beer.

The average age of the crew is just 24, but at 18 and 5ft 1in tall Angela Scales could be forgiven for being more nervous than most.

Scales, a radar maintainer, told reporters: "I am looking forward to it. Obviously, you are aware of what is going on but no-one knows what is really going to happen and we could be back home in a few months.

"It is my first time at sea but I am not nervous."

Leading operator maintainer, Chris Kent, 22, from Swindon, will miss one of the most important experiences of his life while at sea -- the birth of first child in May.

He said: "I am quite gutted to be honest that I will not be there, but I guess that's life."



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