When will HMS Queen Elizabeth arrive in Portsmouth?

HMS Queen Elizabeth will arrive for the first time in Portsmouth in 2017 but the exact date is still unknown at present, even to the Royal Navy. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) who are constructing the ship are determined she be tested thoroughly and the majority of teething problems eliminated. Only when the ACA and the RN are is satisfied she meets the specification will she be formally handed over.

Since this article was posted, it has emerged that there has been a slight delay to the programme and HMS Queen Elizabeth will conduct trials in Summer 2017 and will probably arrive in Portsmouth sometime in August 2017. See more recent article.

With the ship now in an advanced state of completion alongside in Rosyth, a power and propulsion trial will be conducted towards the end of 2016. The ship has been has been fitted with brake blades in place of propellers which allows the shafts to turn for engine testing without moving the ship. These will be replaced with proper propellor blades by divers before the ship begins sea trials. There will be harbour trials of most on-board systems including propulsion, steering, navigation, or communications before she puts to sea. “Pretty much everything is now installed in the ship and working,” said Ian Booth, managing director of the ACA last month. Much of the equipment was thoroughly factory tested before installation and the ACA is confident the ship is already in a good state. Sea trials in the North sea are expected to take around 11 weeks.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is the world’s first fully electrically-propelled aircraft carrier. Like the Type 45 destroyers, she has an Integrated Electric Propulsion (IEP) system. She is powered by two Rolls Royce MT-30 gas turbines and four diesel engines which deliver up to 110MW of electrical power to the four induction motors that turn the propellers as well as providing the ship’s electrical supplies. Given the problems with the Type 45’s IEP, there is some concern about the carriers having similar issues. However the MT-30 gas turbine engine has been in development since 2003, is based on the proven Trent 800 aero engine and has undergone far more testing than the WR-21s used on the Type 45. The power arrangement of the QE class is innovative but in many ways lower risk than the Type 45, utilising elements that are already at sea in cruise ships and other naval platforms. The ship is intended to cruise on diesels and only use the gas turbines when higher speeds are required.

Designed to operate with a relatively small crew, the QE Class are fully networked ships and has several complex internal systems to monitor and control all aspect of the ship. The Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) controls and power and propulsion and can asses combat damage. The Combat Management System (CMS) assists the crew in fighting the ship. The Air Group Management Application (AGMA) is used to control flight operations. There is also an extensive network of CCTV cameras feeding the Visual Surveillance System (VSS). All this technology will have to be integrated and will undoubtedly throw up initial problems. Fortunately much of it can be at least partially tested and fine-tuned before the ship ever goes to sea.

The delivery date for HMS Queen Elizabeth has already slipped from what was promised several years ago and everyone is keen to see the ship in service as soon as possible. However it is prudent to wait until initial sea trails have been successfully completed before committing to a date of arrival. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a high-profile vessel and will attract much comment and media interest wherever she goes. With the Type 45 debacle fresh in the memory, any problems, even during initial sea trials could generate a storm of unhelpful headlines so it is wise to ensure the vessel is a ready as possible before putting to sea. The First Sea Lord has called 2017 “The year of the carrier” and there is justifiable excitement about the arrival of the vessels that have dominated RN planning for the last decade. It is important that the delivery and introduction onto service goes smoothly. There is also likely to be plenty of ill-informed anti-carrier rhetoric and negativity doing the rounds so any technical failure or minor mishap that may damage public perception of these great ships is to be avoided.

The aircraft carrier project is very much a long-game. HMS Queen Elizabeths’s arrival in Portsmouth in 2017 is an important milestone but one on a very long road. She will be then be alongside for 8 weeks over the summer for a defect rectification period. This may alarm the layman but is a sensible plan, quite normal for a new and very complex ship. There will then be further sea trials for the ship and considerable time spent supporting flying development with various aircraft. The RN will need time to learn about how to run these very large ships, develop operating procedures and re-acquire some long-forgotten carrier aviation skills. Rotary wing flying trials are planned for first quarter of 2018 mainly involving the Merlins Mk2s of 820 Naval Air Squadron. The first real fixed-wing flying trials will be be conducted in late 2018, using three specially instrumented F-35Bs off the eastern seaboard of the US. Throughout 2019 and 2020 there will be further F-35B trials and the ship will begin working with battle staff and other warships to develop carrier strike capability. The target for declaring Initial Operating Capability is sometime in 2020.

She will not go on operational deployment until sometime in 2021. She is not expected to achieve full operating capability with F-35s until the first quarter of 2023 and may still need to rely on the US Marine Corps to provide some of the aircraft to bring the compliment up to 24. It could be 2026, almost 10 years away before both carriers and sufficient UK aircraft are available so the RN can sustain a continuous aircraft carrier capability. Nevertheless the wait will be worth it, these are potent ships that will serve the nation for 50 years and be globally-deployable platforms for generations of future aircraft.