HMS Queen Elizabeth – her first week at sea

On the afternoon of 26th June HMS Queen Elizabeth put sea for the first time. This was a significant milestone in modern Royal Navy history. She is the first British aircraft carrier completed since 1985 and the first true aircraft carrier in the world designed to operate 5th generation fixed wing aircraft.

A good week for the RN…

The RN still has many long-term problems and challenges but can look back on the past week with great satisfaction. Besides the successful departure of HMS Queen Elizabeth, The RN now has 3 ships assigned to NATO duties. HMS Sutherland will join the latter part of NATO anti-submarine exercise Dynamic Mongoose off Iceland, HMS Duncan is about to assume leadership of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 which will enter the Black Sea. HMS Enterprise will deploy to the Mediterranean as the flagship of Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Group 2. A Wildcat helicopter from HMS Monmouth working with RFA Cardigan Bay, operating in the Indian Ocean saved the life of a sailor from a sinking oil tanker. The second MARS tanker, RFA Tiderace was accepted off-contract from the builders in South Korea while the first ship RFA Tidespring has left dry dock in Falmouth as she progresses towards becoming operational next year. Finally, the order for the first three Type 26 Frigates was officially announced on 2nd July and steel will be cut in August.

The story of QE’s first week at sea is best told using the stunning official video and images of this mighty ship, in her natural element at last…

Leaving the basin

Monday 26th. 16.00 A fine demonstration of seamanship and teamwork. Eleven tugs took this ship out of the basin and through a very narrow lock with inches to spare. Not even a scratch on the paintwork.

Under the bridges

Monday 26th 23.40. Low tide at midnight meant the ship had to pass under the Forth bridges in the dark. As had been carefully calculated, she cleared the bridges with just a couple of meters of headroom. From a media perspective, the timing made a live broadcast of the spectacle a non-starter. Darkness made getting the “money shot” of the ship going under the bridges technically difficult. Her planned return to Rosyth, at some point halfway through her trials period, may provide a better photo opportunity.

At sea

Overall media coverage of QE going to sea was pretty muted. Her arrival in Portsmouth sometime in September or October will make a more compelling story as the ship comes into her home port where thousands are expected to be watching. Despite the great photos, it should be remembered that in some ways QE is akin to a newborn. Apart from light machine guns she is unarmed, is still owned by the builders and will not be an operational warship until 2020. Just one week into her trials programme she has not ventured far into the North Sea and returned to anchor at times. She has conducted short passages and racetrack courses testing ship handling and gradually building up to higher speeds, reportedly going above 26 knots.

This view of the two islands on her starboard side gives a real sense of scale. Note the communications mast in the lowered position ready to pass under the bridges.

Flying the blue ensign, at anchor in the Firth of Forth.

Looking purposeful and assured

The Queen joined by two Dukes. HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke arrived to escort her for a couple of days.

Urban myths abound

The empty flight deck of QE on trials has inspired the further repetition of the urban myth that she is “an aircraft carrier with no aircraft”. This is not the case and F-35s will fly from her next year. Although the F-35 programme is delivering more slowly than everyone would like, the UK will own around 20 of the aircraft by the time HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves initial operating capability in 2020. Even if there were squadrons of aircraft ready to go, the ship would not be embarking them on initial sea trials. The first aircraft to land on the ship was a Merlin helicopter on a simple sortie to deliver a few supplies and exchange personnel.

Some in the media became overly-alarmed that Russian naval units and aircraft are likely to conduct surveillance on QE. Obtaining acoustic and electromagnetic signatures of naval vessels is a routine task conducted by most militaries on each other. From now, and for most of her sea-going life QE is likely to be escorted by RN units, possibly with an SSN nearby to ward off other submarines that may attempt to shadow her. So far QE has been operating in shallow and noisy coastal waters where submarines would struggle to glean anything very useful.

Laughably the Mail on Sunday warned that, QE transmitting on AIS during her trials posed a security risk and would “allow Putin to track her with a smartphone app”. (AIS is a statutory navigational safety requirement, even for warships in coastal waters for reasons of safety and common sense. Obviously, it can be turned off when needing to be covert, but a ship conducting trials is not attempting to hide).

Many media outlets continue to repeat the total falsehood that computers aboard QE use the insecure and outdated Operating System Windows XP, supposedly leaving her vulnerable to cyber attacks. Most of the RN surface fleet currently uses Windows for Warships, a much modified and more secure OS, based on Windows 2000 with little in common with Microsoft’s consumer offerings. However, QE does not have any Microsoft software on board and uses a completely new system called Shared Infrastructure. UK Defence Journal has investigated this matter in detail.

A fine day to be at sea. So far trials have been conducted in mostly benign weather conditions and calm seas

4.5 acres of flight deck

Friendly fire from an Army-centric press

Journalist Max Hastings, was the self-proclaimed “first man into Port Stanley” after the liberation of the Falklands, a victory only made possible by aircraft carriers. Frothing at the mouth in the Daily Mail, Hastings demanded the QE “be scuttled”. Almost every line of his anti-carrier rhetoric is false or a distortion of the truth. The Times, which should know better, ran an editorial probably delivered straight from Marlborough Lines, rehearsing old complaints that aircraft carriers are too expensive and the Army’s dire state is their fault. The Guardian was a slightly kinder in a rambling piece about past naval glories, trying to cast the carriers as an outdated throwback and concluding they are “ugly”. It was, of course, the same media who were (rightly) castigating David Cameron back in 2011 that we had no aircraft carriers during the Libyan campaign.

Back in 2014 we wrote an antidote to the all the partisan and ill-informed criticism we predicted the carrier project would receive as they progressed.

Another milestone reached. The first aircraft pictured taking off after making the first deck landing on the ship. A Merlin Mk2 of 820 Naval Air Squadron had the honour

Mine’s better than yours…

The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon rather unwisely taunted the Russians by saying “you saw that old, dilapidated Kuznetsov sailing through the Channel, a few months ago, I think the Russians will look at this ship [QE] with a little bit of envy”. Although it is true that QE will eventually be far in advance of the ancient Kuznetsov, it should be pointed out that she will be unable to properly conduct combat operations before 2021. The Kuznetsov’s air group is unimpressive but she carries a battery of potent anti-ship missiles while, in part thanks to Fallon, the RN will have no heavyweight anti-ship missiles at all by next year. The Russian surface fleet is mostly old and they have not managed to build a new major surface combatant since the Soviet era. However, the Russian Navy is still very much more powerful than the hollowed-out Royal Navy by any measure. Their surface fleet may be semi-obsolete but it is their submarines that are the real cause for concern.

Working up so

Working up some speed

Perhaps the most evocative image of the week. QE with her escorts foreshadows the future when the RN will be able to field a carrier battle group again.


All images and Video courtesy of The Aircraft Carrier Alliance, MoD and Royal Navy/HMS Queen Elizabeth