Portsmouth Naval Base – ready to support two aircraft carriers

This week HMS Queen Elizabeth returned home from the Westlant 19 deployment to the US. She joined her sister HMS Prince of Wales alongside in Portsmouth together for the first time. Here we look at the new facilities that will support both aircraft carriers.

The arrival QEC carriers has driven investment of around £100 Million at Portsmouth Naval Base to create the Queen Elizabeth Class Centre of Specialisation. This is the single most complex infrastructure project to support the new vessels and was managed by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) in partnership with the main contractor, BAE Systems. More than 3 times the size of the Invincible class CVS they replace, the QEC make considerable demands on the naval base when alongside. Modern facilities were needed to supply electricity, water, waste disposal and sewage services as well as meet modern security, personnel accommodation and health & safety standards.

  • HMS Prince of Wales alongside on the newly refurbished Victory Jetty, December 2019. Spectacular contrast between old and new – HMS Victory and HMS M.33 in the foreground. (Photo: Andy Amor)

  • HMS Prince of Wales preparing for her commissioning ceremony which will be held on 10 Dec 2019 (Photo: Andy Amor).

  • The almost completed Queen Elizabeth Class Centre of Specialisation, July 2019. It is evident how much car parking space is needed for contractors and the ship’s company and this is with just one carrier alongside. The helipad (top left) provides useful overflow car park. (Photo: Andy Amor)

  • Princess Royal Jetty Portsmouth

    March 2019. Note the “gate guardian”, a retired Sea Harrier FA2 on display – centre-right of the photo.  (Photo: Andy Amor)

  • Princess Royal Jetty Portsmouth

    HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside on the Princess Royal Jetty, July 2019 (Photo: Andy Amor)

  • Victory Jetty

    Victory Jetty extension under construction, early 2019.

  • Princess Royal Jetty

    Princess Royal Jetty – no one home.

  • The towers in the harbour approaches are used by the aircraft carrier’s bridge team on departure. The powerful lights are solar and battery-powered and can be seen up to 20 nautical miles away in good visibility. They are normally turned off but can be remotely activated by the Queen’s Harbour Master in Semaphore Tower when needed.

More than 60 meters longer and three times the displacement of their predecessors, the QEC carriers needed longer and stronger jetties, and able to cope with heavy loadings generated if the ships are subject to hurricane-force winds. The Princess Royal Jetty (PRJ) has been built to replace the old Sheer and Middle Slip jetties. 3000m² of jetty had to be reconstructed and extended over the old foundations which mostly dated back to the 1920s. PRJ was completed in March 2017 well ahead of the (slightly delayed) first arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth and will be the primary berth for delivering panned maintenance periods. A second £30M project to extend the existing Victory and the former King Stairs Jetty was completed in October 2019. This provides another berth which will usually be used by the carrier at the higher state of readiness.

The 11-metre draught of the carriers necessitated major dredging work in the approach channel, inner harbour area and at the berths to make them deep and wide enough. 3 million cubic metres of clay, sand and gravel were excavated and more than 2,000 items were found in the process including sea mines, torpedoes, WWII bombs, 36 anchors and items of archaeological interest dating back centuries.

Fourteen 22-tonne steel towers which rise 30 metres from the seabed to provide a platform new navigational aids to mark the deep-water channel have been installed. The inbound lights are at the head of Portsmouth harbour and the outbound lights are in the harbour approaches off Southsea. Seen from the carrier, lights on the towers indicate if the ship is lined up in the channel, white is correct while too far to port shows red, too far to starboard shows green.

Portsmouth-QEC-aircraft-carriers-centre-of-Specialisation

The QEC Centre of Specialisation covers 70,000 square meters and includes not just new jetties but several new buildings. The Illustrious Complex has amenities for the BAE Systems and sub-contractor engineering workforce with domestic, catering and recreational facilities. The centre has a 500-seat cafe and employee amenities such as lockers and showers.

Typical aircraft carrier maintenance periods can involve more than 1,000 personnel including an industrial workforce that can number up to 500 onboard the ships each day, sometimes working around the clock in shifts. During 2019, over 250,000 man-hours of work was completed on HMS Queen Elizabeth to fit 29 separate new capabilities to the ship as well as many other small maintenance and engineering tasks. Another 50 new capabilities are scheduled to be added to the two carriers in 2020 including everything from washing machines to flight deck landing aids. Administration of contractors is a complex job and BAE Systems has developed a mobile working system with each employee and contractor issued with dedicated phones or tablets to access work information and manage task lists.

The Forward Support Centre is the main logistics hub and includes a 7,000 square metre warehouse able to hold 15,000 pallets of medical, mail and naval stores under one roof. New water tanks hold 45,000 litres of drinking water available to supply the carriers before they sail. Situated on the north corner of PRJ, The Ark Royal Building is designed to accommodate up to 200 personnel awaiting transfer to the ship when at anchor or joining the ship alongside prior to deployment. There is also a conference room, exhibition space and rooms for visitors, VIPs and media.

As the carriers are such a high profile national asset, the site is especially well protected. To get access to the ships requires passing through the main naval base security and then through another checkpoint to get onto the PRJ or Victory Jetty. Armed MoD police patrol the area as well as the standard naval duty sentry on the gangways. When a carrier is alongside, at least two MoD police boats patrol the harbour adjacent to the ships. There is a network of CCTV cameras and probably other less obvious security measures are in place.

A new £12M Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facility has been constructed on the site of the existing boiler house on the east side of the dockyard. Three 4.5MW gas-powered generators will help meet the increased need for electrical power and supplement the supply from the National Grid. This highly efficient CHP plant should save the MoD around £4M per year in energy costs and cope with spikes in demand. The National Grid still supplies much of the power and a new 2.6 miles of cable has been installed between in Old Portsmouth and the jetty. Ships electrical systems operate on a frequency of 60Hz while the Grid runs at 50Hz. A new substation on the jetty has been built to house 50-60hz frequency converters and other elements of high voltage supply such as transformers and switchgear.

  • QEC Fender Spacer Unit

    The Fender Spacer Units (FSU) absorb loads through hydraulic arms that slot into the new jetty and move with rising and falling tides. They keep the QEC hull about 20 metres away from the jetty to accommodate the overhang and protect the QEC hull structure from impacts.

  • QEC Fender Spacer Unit

    The FSUs in place as HMS Prince of Wales makes her first arrival in Portsmouth at Princess Royal Jetty on 16th November 2019.

  • Shoreside power supply boom

    The telescopic hydraulic shoreside power supply boom in use. Such a large cable is unable to support its own weigh over the 20 metres between ship and shore. The boom adjusts automatically to compensate for the rise and fall of the tide.

  • Shoreside power supply boom

    Shoreside power supply boom retracted when not in use. Since this is in a fixed position, the carrier needs to be aligned quite precisely fore and aft with the jetty so the cable aligns with the access point on the ship.

  • Brow

    The forward brow in place for personnel access to the ship. Looking north up the Princess Royal Jetty, the Ark Royal building is top right.

The complex issue of where the carriers will be dry-docked remains to be resolved but otherwise, the new centre of specialisation in Portsmouth is amongst the finest naval support facilities in the world. The project is a big vote of confidence in HMNB Portsmouth which was supposedly being considered for closure as recently as 2010. The base can look forward to an assured future and continuity of employment for a long time to come. Sensible investment in a spacious high-quality facility will allow the site to be developed further to meet the needs of the ships over their intended 50-year life span.