The Army's Apache attack helicopters are providing the cutting edge to the Royal Navy's high-readiness task force.
Apaches from 656 Squadron, 4 Regiment Army Air Corps have set sail on HMS Illustrious for Exercise Cougar 12, a test of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG).
The three-month long exercise will see the Apaches, based at Wattisham in Suffolk, provide an aviation strike capability for the flotilla of warships and embarked Royal Marines. Training with French and Albanian forces in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas is planned, including linking up with the French aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle and carrying out large-scale amphibious landings.
After landing on HMS Illustrious last week, the Apaches have flown top cover for Royal Marines practising beach landings in Cornwall before the task force heads south for the main exercise.
Apaches have been a permanent presence in the hot, high and dusty conditions of Afghanistan since 2006, but operating the helicopter from the confined spaces of HMS Illustrious in wet and salty sea air provides a very different challenge.
Major Piers Lewis, officer commanding 656 Sqn, said: "Working alongside the Royal Navy and Royal Marines is an excellent opportunity to develop the capabilities of the Army's Apache attack helicopters.
"Flying and maintaining the Apache from ships is a complex task that asks a lot of both pilots and ground crew. This is the third time since 2010 that 656 Sqn has been on board Royal Navy ships, and our techniques and tactics are maturing with each deployment."
The training builds on the partnership between 16 Air Assault Brigade's Apaches and the Royal Navy forged on operations over Libya. In summer 2011, Apaches from 656 Sqn flew missions from HMS Ocean as part of NATO's Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR. On 22 missions, the Apaches hit more than 100 targets, firing 99 Hellfire missiles and 4,800 30mm cannon rounds.