USS Roosevelt makes rare visit to British coast
NAPLES, Italy — The USS Theodore Roosevelt steamed off the British coast on Sunday, a rare visit to the region by an American aircraft carrier.
Defense ministers from the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland visited the Roosevelt on Sunday to observe flight operations off the coast near Portsmouth, according to a news release from the Navy 6th Fleet, which commands American ships in European waters. Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, greeted each minister aboard the carrier.
U.S. carriers have spent limited time in Europe in recent years, mostly moving through the region on their way to or from operations in the Middle East.
The Roosevelt and four other warships belonging to its strike group are also bound for the Middle East, where they are expected to replace the USS Carl Vinson strike group in conducting airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The visit to the English Channel coincides with an uptick in U.S. military exercises and deployments to Europe in response to recent Russian military activity in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. Russian aircraft, ships and submarines have become more active in Europe during the past year, according to U.S. and NATO defense officials.
The visit also comes as the U.K. debates defense spending and cuts to its defense budget before a general election in May. The current Conservative government is expected to allow defense funding to fall below 2 percent of gross domestic product, meaning the U.K. would fail to meet the spending target reaffirmed by NATO allies at a September summit in Wales.
The U.K. cut defense spending in 2010, scrapping its only fixed-wing aircraft carrier along with other military programs. It is now building two new carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, neither of which is expected to be operational before 2020.
Portsmouth, the traditional home of the Royal Navy, has been a symbol of British sea power for centuries.
The U.K. is participating in airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq with Royal Air Force Tornado strike aircraft out of Cyprus. It is also operating drones for surveillance and targeting and tankers for refueling.
The Roosevelt heads a carrier strike group that comprises five ships and more than 6,000 sailors and Marines. The group left the East Coast last week for an anticipated eight-month deployment. The Roosevelt will end its tour in its new home station of San Diego, part of a three-carrier shift to bring the USS George Washington back from the Pacific for nuclear refueling.