HMS Queen Elizabeth’s arrival in Portsmouth will be well worth celebrating

The largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth will arrive in Portsmouth in early 2017. It will be a very significant day for the Royal Navy and the First Sea Lord has called on Portsmouth the make it “a day to remember”.

As she passes a crowded Southsea shoreline and a packed Round Tower, people can reflect with some pride on a great British industrial success. To design and build a 65,000 tonne carrier is a major engineering achievement. Factories and shipyards from all over the UK have contributed thousands of components. Although the Labour government deliberately delayed the project which added costs, construction has mostly proceeded smoothly and HMS Prince of Wales is now ahead of schedule. The media embarked for the occasion will undoubtedly continue to focus on her size, cost and industrial benefits but that is not the real story. Fixed-wing flying is finally being restored to the RN after nearly 10 years. The F-35 Lightning, despite its many development problems will be a quantum leap in capability over the Harrier. Aircraft carriers give the government of the day a foreign policy ‘big stick’, but also provide an unmistakable symbol of UK prestige. US Marine Corps F35-B aircraft are likely to be on board, foreshadowing the full operational capability of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her initial air group around 2020.

When the first of a new generation of aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible arrived in Portsmouth for the first time on a grey day in 1980, there were many doubters who derided this ‘pocket carrier’. Confounding the naysayers, in the subsequent 25 years the RN achieved a great deal with these modest carriers and they proved far more capable than people had ever imagined.

The scale of the Queen Elizabeth class makes them a particularly big target for casual critics, but that great size provides flexibility in operations and space for future upgrades. It will take longer than ideal but there will eventually be sufficient aircraft to form credible tailored air groups. Manpower resources are very stretched, but already QE’s crew is building up in Rosyth and she now has the largest ships company of any RN vessel. In the long-term, the RN is focussing renewed efforts on improved retention and recruitment.

This is just the beginning, with appropriate resources the potential of the QE class can be fully realised over the coming decades. Many future governments will be glad of these ships, sending them to protect UK interest worldwide.

This is not merely rehearsing ‘MoD propaganda’, many concerns about the carriers remain. Pressure must be maintained on this, and future governments to properly invest in the ships and their aircraft. When first operational, HMS Queen Elizabeth will have a ‘bare minimum’ capability to be sent safely into harms way. The air group must be keep at a continual state of readiness and worked up to the highest standard for safe and effective carrier operations. The F35s will also need upgrades and additions over time and future unmanned aircraft may require the retrofit of catapults and traps. As threats to surface ships diversify and increase, she and her sister will need far better self defence systems than the rather basic Phalanx and cannons fitted now. The operation of these mighty vessels will present a major challenge but there is every reason to expect the RN to succeed as it always has.