HMS Queen Elizabeth – a large and convenient media target

“Navy’s new £3.1Bn aircraft carrier is leaking” screams the front-page headline in today’s Sun newspaper, The Daily Express then helpfully adds to the hysteria by claiming “the ship is sinking”. The simple facts of this rather routine occurrence is that a leaking stern seal on one of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s propeller shafts was discovered during sea trials and is allowing small amounts of water into the ship.

Stern seals are one of the more challenging aspects of marine engineering. There are two opposing requirements when designing the seal, the propeller shaft must exit the hull and be free to rotate with minimal friction but sealed sufficiently tight to keep out the pressure of seawater. Modern mechanical seals use a series of spring-loaded rings that require lubrication by oil and seawater and are complex assemblies that often cause problems. One very experienced naval officer commented today, “on every ship I served on we experienced issues with the stern seals at some point”.

All ships are designed with bilges where water and oil tends to collect from small leaks. The bilges are equipped with powerful pumps that can discharge this water and, if necessary much larger volumes of water in the event of a serious breach of the hull. To get some perspective on how insignificant this leak is, the 200 litres per hour that is leaking into the 65,000 ton HMS Queen Elizabeth is about the same as 2 bathtubs full of water and can easily be removed by pumps with a vastly greater capacity. The ship is also sub-divided into many watertight compartments, even in the highly unlikely event the stern seals failed completely, it would not sink the ship as it would be contained within a compartment. Aside from the ships ME (Marine Engineering) department on board QE, the rest of ships company were not even aware of this issue.

The ship went through a series of rigorous inspections before she was accepted off contract by the RN, almost unnoticed amongst the ceremonial hoopla of the commissioning day on 7th December. The Sun article even claims the ACA had “mugged off” the RN by getting the ship accepted before this issue was discovered. The RN has hundreds of years of accumulated experience in managing complex warship programmes and did not just blithely sign on the dotted line. In fact, the leak came to light during sea trials, only by subjecting the propeller shafts to the forces experienced at sea and during manoeuvring can the seals be properly tested. Furthermore, the ship remains under warranty and the cost of this repair and other snagging issues will not be borne by the taxpayer. ACA engineers are expected to be on board completing further snagging issues for the next six months or so. The media perspective seems to be we have paid £3.1Bn for this ship so why is everything not working perfectly? The whole point of the trials process of a ship that is a prototype, first of her kind is to expose any problems and remedy them. There is not a single major engineering project in history that did not encounter snags along the way that were overcome. With diver support, the seal problem is going to be repaired alongside in Portsmouth and it will not delay her departure planned for late in January 2018.

The fourth rate fourth estate

By midday, the BBC website and more serious news outlets were leading on this story and the general public, having been continuously drip-fed negative news on HMS Queen Elizabeth might be forgiven for thinking we have a leaky aircraft carrier with no aircraft. Journalists insist this routine occurrence is a big “story” and doubtless, their editors are very happy with them. It is a story because they have made it so, taking a small fact out of context and magnifying its significance is how one of the less reputable aspects of journalism works. There are several very good defence journalists who have been helpful to the navy’s cause, particularly in the recent current defence funding crisis, but in this instance, the media is making something out of nothing and misleading the public.

We predicted back in 2014, long before QE was completed, that the size of the carrier project would make it an irresistible target for media criticism. In the last year, the progress of HMS QE has been covered extensively by media worldwide and we have endured overblown stories about, paint peeling off the hull, paint peeling off the deck, being stuck in port due to bad weather, breaking down at sea and now sinking alongside in Portsmouth. It is just so easy to write simplistic news articles or draw silly cartoons about “aircraft carriers with no aircraft”, ignoring the timescale and complexity involved in delivery a project like this. It does not sell papers or get clicks on your website to talk about what a triumph of British engineering the QEC represents. While many naval projects all over the world continue to experience horrendous technical problems at the outset, HMS Queen Elizabeth has passed her initial sea trails with relatively few issues, none of which have proved to be a show stopper.

It would be wrong to suggest there is a concerted conspiracy by the media to knock the carriers, this is just part of the cynical news cycle. Last week the Sun was loudly proclaiming our “brave boys and girls” and trumpeting the achievements of sailors and the armed forces at their Millies Awards, this week the Navy is a bunch of bungling amateurs with a sinking ship. A brief media frenzy over this leak has ensued which will soon pass away, although it all adds up to further incremental damage done to the public perception of the Navy and the carrier project. Putting aside the damage to the service’s image, the RN’s biggest concern is over the source of a leak to the press, rather than a routine, repairable leak on a ship.

Getting on with the job

While the media circus surrounding the ship continues, the RN is getting on with delivering the carrier strike programme. Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) team is now aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth making their assessments and writing a training syllabus for a brand new class of ship. Safety will be the focus of the FOST period that will be conducted when the ship sails in late January for the South West Approaches and Eastern Atlantic. Once completed, the formal Merlin helicopter first of type acceptance trials will be conducted, allowing full clearance to operate the type under a relevant SHOL (Ship Helicopter Operating Limits) essential to the QE’s overall capability.

Meanwhile, the planned float-out of HMS Prince of Wales was delayed slightly, not because of any technical problems but because the ACA has decided it was easier and more efficient to work on her there, rather than afloat in the basin.

Last week the 14th British F-35B (ZM148 BK-14) was delivered by Lockheed Martin to the British Joint Lightning Force training contingent at USMCAS Beaufort in the US. The 5 aircraft based a Beaufort (which will eventually number 12) will be allocated to 207 Squadron, Operational Conversion Unit which will officially stand up in July 2018 and provide training for UK F-35 pilots before they join the operational squadrons.