More than 3,000 sailors and marines are gearing up for a three-month training deployment to the Mediterranean - this year's key workout of the UK's high-readiness task force.
The deployment, known as Cougar 12, will see Royal Navy warships, Royal Marines commandos and naval airpower, which make up the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), train with French and Albanian maritime forces.
The RFTG was created under the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and is a rapid reaction force that deals with unexpected world events that require military intervention.
Cougar 12 will start with a beach assault by the Royal Marines in the UK’s South West, from 1-9 October, before the entire Group meets up in the Mediterranean later in the month.
Four warships, one amphibious support ship, a giant transport ship, three commando units, and helicopters and personnel from eight Fleet Air Arm, RAF and Army Air Corps squadrons are committed to the three-month deployment - in all more than 3,000 sailors, Royal Marines, soldiers and airmen.
They will take part in two large-scale exercises, interspersed with various smaller exercises and training and goodwill visits - in some cases to places which rarely see the White Ensign.
The deployment will be the second test for the RFTG which was called upon last year to support operations off Libya: HMS Ocean launched repeated Apache gunship strikes from her flight deck while HMS Liverpool spent seven months enforcing the no-fly zone and preventing arms from reaching pro-Gaddafi forces by sea.
Twelve months on and Portsmouth-based HMS Illustrious will be taking HMS Ocean’s place as the helicopter carrier assigned to the task group.
Illustrious will be joined by the nation’s flagship, HMS Bulwark, from where Commodore Paddy McAlpine, Commander UK Task Group, and 3 Commando Brigade’s Brigadier Martin Smith will direct Cougar 12.
They will oversee two key exercises: Corsican Lion, working hand-in-hand with the French and, later this autumn, the Group will shift to the Adriatic to work with the Albanian military.
Corsican Lion, in the second half of October, will see the RFTG link up with France’s flagship, the aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle - the most powerful surface ship in western European waters.
Her flight deck will be the launchpad for Super Étendard and Rafale jets, offering a first real glimpse of how the RFTG should look at the end of the decade when the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier enters service with the Royal Navy.
In the nearer future, Corsican Lion is the most important strand of Cougar and a major step along the road towards forging a fully-operational Anglo-French force by 2016.
There will be planned exercises with the US and Algerian forces and visits to Algeria and Malta - particularly poignant for Illustrious as she has ties with the island going back to her predecessor and the dark days of the Second World War:
Cougar 12 provides us with a superb opportunity to rekindle our amphibious capability after a prolonged period when our focus has been on operations elsewhere,” said Cdre McAlpine.
His force stands at five days’ notice to deploy anywhere in the world should the Government require it; in theory the Task Group can poise off the coast of 147 nations - three out of four countries in the world.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said:
The UK’s Response Force Task Group is a major force forming part of our contingent capability, ready and able to respond to emerging events worldwide.
This deployment will see it work alongside our allies at a time when international co-operation and joint operations are more important than ever before. The same task force conducted a number of exercises and visits around the world last year and proved itself to be invaluable during the NATO campaign in Libya.
**Participants in Cougar 12 are:
** HMS Bulwark
RFA Mounts Bay
MV Hartland Point
Headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade
45 Commando (currently the UK’s on-call Royal Marines unit ready to respond to world events)
30 Commando IX Group
539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines
814 Naval Air Squadron (Merlins)
815 Naval Air Squadron (Lynx)
829 Naval Air Squadron (Merlins)
845 Naval Air Squadron (Commando-carrying Sea Kings)
846 Naval Air Squadron (Commando-carrying Sea Kings)
854 Naval Air Squadron (Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea Kings)
656 Squadron Army Air Corps (Apache gunships)
659 Squadron Army Air Corps (Lynx)
17 Port and Maritime Regiment Royal Logistic Corps