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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Carrier heads for the Middle East
HMS Illustrious
Operation Saif Sareea 2 will cost nearly 100m
The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious has sailed from Portsmouth to lead the biggest Royal Navy and Royal Marine deployment since the Falklands.

HMS Illustrious is the flagship of three groups of warships travelling to the Middle East to take part in exercise "Saif Sareea 2".

More than 24 surface ships from Britain, plus two nuclear submarines, will be completing the 13,000 mile round trip.

The operation, costing nearly 100m, will end with a major excercise before Christmas that will also involve the Army, Royal Air Force and Armed Forces of Oman.

HMS Illustrious
The cost has been put at nearly 100m
The strike force has been put together to take part in a conflict between the fictional forces of the so-called state of 'Alawham' and those of Oman.

British military planners want to see if they can muster the kind of rapid reaction force outlined in the defence review which took place in 1998.

Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent CBE, Commander of the UK Maritime Forces, is heading the group.

He said: "This is a significant display of maritime power, we are sending 8,500 sailors, airmen, and Royal Marines to the Gulf Region.

"In total the Argonaut task group consists of 40 separate commands, brought together into an integrated, self-sustaining joint fighting force." The deployment will include the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, the assault ship HMS Fearless, destroyers, frigates and mine countermeasures vessels.

Maritime power

Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships will also be taking part in the exercise.

Royal Marines from 3 Commando Brigade will be involved in amphibious landings on the coast of Oman.

Speaking to BBC Radio Solent, Rear Admiral Burnell-Nugent said: "One of the advantages that a naval task group brings is that it carries all of its logistics with it, a full range of capabilities from cruise missiles to laser-guided bombs to Royal Marine Commandos."

He said he was aware that his forces, which include 23,000 British military personnel from all three services, could be redeployed at any moment.

"I'm not aware of any plans to do so, but there's a capability there which the government can draw on," he said.

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