The Royal Navy becomes a two-carrier navy – HMS Prince of Wales sails for the first time

Today the second of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales left the dockyard in Rosyth for the first time. The word “milestone” has been used excessively to describe important moments the carrier project but today is another big step forward for a ship that many expected never to see service with the RN.

Aided by nine tugs, in a very carefully choreographed procedure, PoW left the basin and is now at anchor off Rosyth for engine testing and various trials. She will await a low tide before passing under the Forth Bridges, probably on the Saturday 21st September. Her ship’s company currently numbers 600 but this will rise considerably over time. 320 civilian contractors will also be on board when she first goes to sea. The exact length of time she will spend on Part 1 sea trials is undetermined but could take around 8 weeks and she is likely to make her first entry in Portsmouth in late November. Captain Darren Houston is in command and is particularly well qualified to oversee the difficult evolution of getting the carrier to sea. He is the former Executive Officer (XO) of HMS Queen Elizabeth and was on board when she first sailed in June 2017 and also when QE returned to Rosyth for refit and departed again in May 2019.

Continuous carrier capability

Having two vessels is necessary to maintain a permanent and credible aircraft carrier capability. As the French will tell you, having a single carrier could mean getting caught with the ship in the middle of deep refit and unavailable at the precise moment it’s needed most. Three vessels would be ideal but would clearly unaffordable within the current defence budget. As all warships must rotate through a maintenance, training and operational cycle, two ships will allow the UK to have one carrier either at sea or kept at ‘high readiness’, able to deploy at reasonably short notice. It is unlikely the two carriers will operate together regularly, except perhaps in a crisis, possibly with one configured as the strike carrier and the other used as an amphibious platform. Either way, possessing two indigenously designed and constructed carriers makes quite a statement.

It is possible the two ships may briefly sail in company if the timing of PoW’s trials programme and QE’s return from the US coincide. The excitement around the first pictures of the sisters as sea together will probably generate more media attention than the arrival of PoW. (CGI: The Aircraft Carrier Alliance)

A born survivor

HMS Prince of Wales has already survived attempts to mothball or sell her (official policy between 2010 – 2014) as well as a more recent rumour that the Treasury planned her demise as part of the answer to the ‘black hole’ in the MoD’s budget. Of all the RN’s ‘big ticket’ procurements, the second carrier has always looked the most vulnerable to cuts and whispers that she might be axed still persist. A recent modest increase in the defence budget has reduced budgetary pressures, at least in the short-medium term, and this threat has receded for now. Her name, HMS Prince of Wales, is endowed with considerable history but being named after a prince, there could be some confusion over gender, traditionally British ships have always been referred to as feminine.

There are some minor differences between the PoW and her older sister (More details on this in a future article). PoW will be fitted with the ‘Bedford Array’, a set of lights embedded on the centreline of the flight deck which will guide pilots when making a Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL), initially as a technical demonstrator. PoW will also be the lead ship for developing the QEC aircraft carrier in the Littoral Manoeuvre (Helicopter assault ship) role.

R09 doing fine

PoW has been under construction for almost 10 years. Many of the lessons learned from HMS Queen Elizabeth have helped inform and improve the build process. Both ships took around 3 years to assemble in the dry dock but PoW has been fitted out and completed her test and commissioning phase in about 60% of the time it took QE. That said, she is four months behind the optimistic schedule published in 2016 which indicated PoW might sail in May of this year.

It should be noted that when QE first sailed, she was not fully complete and has undergone a series of Capability Insertion Periods (CIP) in Portsmouth where additional equipment has been added on an incremental basis as she works towards declaring Initial Operating Capability at the end of 2020. PoW will formally commission into the RN before the end of the year and her entry into service is likely to follow a similar path to her sister. PoW will benefit from the accumulated operating experienced gained from QE and is likely to be able to make faster progress in many areas. The RN now has two carriers at sea and the programme is on track and continues to meet its targets on time. There is still some way to go before both ships and the air wing are fully equipped, trained and ready to declare Full Operating Capability for Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) in 2026. Expect a continued un-informed stream of criticism about “empty decks” and “carriers with no aircraft” but the CV wing is gradually being generated and we will see multiple British jets flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth in the coming weeks.