The two RAF AWACS airborne early warning planes, codenamed “Nato 30” and “Nato 31”, were launched last week from RAF Waddington to ensure a radar “ring of steel” around the 60,000 tonne carrier and its escorts. The news emerges as Royal Naval commanders braced themselves for more harassment by Vladimir Putin today after Russia deployed fighter aircraft and bombers in Syria to coincide with the Carrier Strike Group’’s transit through the Eastern Mediterranean. A hastily-arranged maritime exercise to “defend” the Syrian port in Syria has seen MiG-31K interceptor fighter jets, armed with the Kinzhal ship-killing missile, sent to the Khmeimim airbase in Syria.
Controlled by Russia since 2015, the Khmeimim Air Base is now home to Russia’s largest foreign electronic eavesdropping facility.
In a new move for Russian forces in Syria, they were accompanied with three upgraded Backfire Tu-22M3 bombers which can each carry two long-range ultrahigh-speed missiles with anti-ship capability.
According to a statement from Moscow, they will support the Russian cruiser Moskva as well as the Admiral Essen, Admiral Makarov and the frigates Stary Oslo, Rostov on Don and three submarines in war-games.
But last night British military sources warned: “There is an expectation that Moscow is seeking to make a statement and will attempt to get fighters close to the carrier.”
Diplomatic tensions between Moscow and London flared last week after reports by Russia that it had fired “warning shots and dropped bombs” in the path of HMS Defender, a Type-45 destroyer that entered the Black Sea and deliberately sailed in Crimean waters to show that the UK does not recognise Russia’s illegal annexation.
The claims were dismissed as “deliberate disinformation”, with the MoD stating that the shots had merely been part of a planned Russian gunnery exercise.
PM Boris Johnson added: “The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea; this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
However, the vessel was overflown by 20 Russian MiG father jets – four more than the Defender’s Sea Viper anti-aircraft missile system is designed to target simultaneously.
And this was not the only example of pressure being placed on Russia.
On Tuesday, the day before the Defender incident, HMS Queen Elizabeth took part in its first combat mission when its British and American F-35B fighter jets attacked insurgent positions in Syria in an operation which also “denied airspace” to Russian aircraft flying in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
A senior Royal Navy source said: “Since that first incident with HMS Defender last week, the ship has been buzzed constantly by Russian war planes. There is an expectation that Moscow is seeking to make a statement and will attempt to get fighters close to our carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, as it transits the Eastern Mediterranean on its way to the Suez Canal.
“The Carrier Strike Group is very capable, and there are a range of resources in that part of the world that could be deployed if we need to counter any attempt by the Russian forces to get too close to our warships”
He confirmed that two AWACS planes, now based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, will provide “round the clock” vigilance throughout the Carrier Strike Group’s 28-week mission.
Last night Russian expert Dr Jade McGlynn, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, said: “Not only were claims that it had fired warning shots at HMS Defender classic disinformation, Russia went so far as to change GPS status of HMS Defender and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen to make it look like they sailed to Sevastopol when, in fact, they were still in Odessa.
“This is all about Vladimir Putin delivering a simple message to his domestic audience: that only he can defend Russia.
“Putin knows that Crimean waters are not internationally recognised as belonging to Russia, and he needs to defend his claim.”
She added: “This voyage sends the important message that Britain means what it says, that we back up our own rhetoric regarding the importance of respecting international law by putting some force behind it.”
And China is also paying close attention to events, warned James Rogers of the Council of GeoStrategy.
The Carrier Strike Group, the largest naval flotilla commanded by Britain since the Falklands, will cover 26,000 nautical miles travelling through the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, then from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to the Philippine Sea.
And though, officially, the UK does not use the term Freedom of Navigation Operations – because it implies that contested waters are already controlled by hostile powers – ensuring that the Black Sea and South China Sea are not controlled by hostile nations lies at the heart of its mission.
“We have put Russia on the back foot, and they didn’t like this,” said Rogers.
“It’s a test for when the CSG reaches the Indo-Pacific.
“Last week’s actions have shown China that we’re prepared to back up our policies in very volatile areas such as the Black Sea, and you can be sure that Beijing is paying close attention.”