When HMS Illustrious recently embarked US Harriers and played an equal role with the biggest ships in the US Navy, the crew were learning how to run the supercarriers of the future.
Steaming through the choppy seas off the eastern seaboard of the United States in the company of the US Navy's gargantuan carriers 'Dwight D Eisenhower', or 'Ike', and 'Harry S Truman', HMS Illustrious looked downright tiny. But notwithstanding the difference in deadweight - 20,000 tonnes compared to the Ike's 100,000-plus tonnes - Britain's compact little strike carrier was holding her head up at a jaunty angle and playing happily with the big boys.
Leading a flotilla of five US cruisers and destroyers in the Americans' annual shakedown exercise for major ships, Illustrious was hosting 14 US Marine Corps AV-8A Harriers, with some 200 aircrew and support staff. The ship was commanding one flank of the fleet while coordinating theoretical shipping controls and air strikes. It was a very significant role, and important to both sides, a fact which the Ike and the Truman acknowledged as they tipped their hats to the British by manoeuvring into line a thousand yards or so astern of Illustrious for a gargantuan game of follow-my-leader.
So who did Illustrious think she was? A supercarrier? Well, actually, in a way, yes. Many of the key personnel aboard this 1970s vintage mini-flat-top had been tasked to rehearse the role of the future British supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, ships that now seem to be more of a promise than a possibility.
Illustrious can do this because since being re-classed from her original air protection and anti-submarine role to that of a strike carrier supporting land operations, she is doing the job which will eventually be that of the supercarriers.
The lessons of big carrier operations being learned on this exercise, and fed into teams at Fleet HQ and MOD, will be invaluable to the men and women who are preparing for the arrival of the supercarriers seven to ten years from now.
The learning curve is, however, not only about thinking big. The post Cold War and post 9/11 British doctrine of expeditionary warfare depends as much on versatility and understanding how coalition partners - principally the Americans - think and communicate, as it does on kit. Future naval and air operations maybe interwoven to such an extent that foreign aircraft will conduct operations from British decks, and vice versa.
It all amounts to the biggest sea change in naval operations for generations, and Illustrious is in the vanguard. Sitting in his plush accommodation at the stern of his flag ship, Commodore Allan Richards, the commander of the UK carrier strike group (which included several American cruisers and destroyers), appreciated this:
"We know what the challenges are," said the Commodore. "We are working very closely with the US Navy and the US Marine Corps to ensure that our people are learning big carrier operations. We have exchanges of posts with the big carrier groups so that our people can get a feel for those decks.
"We've set up the staff early so we can train a generation in the way of thinking about projecting force from the air. And we have already looked at how we are going to staff the big ships."
On the bridge, Illustrious's Commanding Officer, Captain Tim Fraser, seemed to be rather enjoying the challenge of accommodating 200 American Marines and their 14 Harriers:
"This is a great opportunity for us to cooperate as a proper strike group," he said, exhibiting a broad grin. "We are operating with another nation which uses different procedures. But that is OK because we need to stretch ourselves if we are going to operate to the right tempo in times of conflict."
The US Marine Corps pilots are as gung-ho as Hollywood would have you believe. Illustrious's deck crews and traffic controllers had sweated over 76 landings and take-offs in one day; a number that was not exceeded even when sister ship HMS Invincible went to war in the Falklands.
The deck crews had to get used to refuelling Harriers while their engines were still running, which is not standard British procedure. And both sides had to make sure that flight deck safety was not jeopardised by that 'common language'.
"Across the whole spectrum - equipment, personnel, sustainability and training - we are making a significant contribution to a new way of working," said Captain Fraser. "If we carried on using our aircraft carriers the way we were, we would, undoubtedly, fall on our backsides when the big carriers arrive."
And that would be more than embarrassing. Commander Henry Mitchell, a senior Harrier pilot who bears the official title 'Wings' and presided over all flight deck operations, was unequivocal:
"The UK has declared itself as having an expeditionary ambition. My view is that if we do not get the new carriers, we will have to re-write the country's entire foreign policy. Ninety per cent of your kit goes to a theatre by sea. Who would protect it for you? And you can't have an amphibious capability without air power."
But such concerns were not to be dwelt on. The Marines continued to fling themselves off the deck with indecent haste, and 'Wings' was enjoying it:
"We have said for years that in the future we expect to do things as a coalition, and we have taken the process a step further on," he said. "We are now operating not just as a coalition of ships, but as a coalition within a ship. This is where the rubber hits the road."