Flagship's return ends British carrier strike capability
The Royal Navy's flagship HMS Ark Royal returned to base for the final time on Friday, leaving Britain without an aircraft carrier capable of launching jets for the next decade.
Britain, which has always prided itself on its sea power, will have no carrier strike capability until two new, bigger Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers come into service.
Crowds with balloons lined the waterfront as the battleship-grey vessel, with snow on its flight deck, sailed through freezing fog into Portsmouth harbour on the south coast after a farewell tour around the country.
Britain's biggest active warship was axed as part of eight percent defence spending cuts introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government as it tries to get Britain's record deficit under control.
Commanding officer Captain Jerry Kyd said it was a great honour to skipper the final tour, though it was tinged with sadness.
"It is also an opportunity for us to celebrate the silver jubilee of this fine ship and for us to show her off once more," he added.
"She has played a very important role throughout her history.
"This famous ship and her iconic name mean so much to so many, but although Ark Royal will be decommissioned, the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are vastly more capable and provide the Royal Navy with an exciting future."
Cameron's government decided to decommission the Ark Royal three years early and also retire the fleet of Harrier jets deployed on board.
Last month, Queen Elizabeth II made a farewell visit to the "Mighty Ark" to celebrate its 25 years in service.
It will be 2020 before the two new aircraft carriers -- ordered in part because it would be more expensive to scrap pre-agreed contracts -- enter service.
The government feels it can bridge the 10-year gap by using foreign bases and overfly rights if required.
Earlier this month, a group of former commanders warned that axing Ark Royal and the Harriers left the Falkland Islands open to another invasion by Argentina.
The Ark Royal is set to be formally decommissioned next month with a farewell parade in Portsmouth, the home of the British fleet.
There have been five ships called Ark Royal, all of which were aircraft-carriers except the first, a wooden sailing ship that saw battle in 1588 in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The latest saw active service in the Balkans and the war in Iraq.
Some reports have suggested Ark Royal could be turned into a museum. The Ministry of Defence has said all options are on the table, including selling it, scrapping it or recycling it.
© 2010 AFP