Minister Says 2nd Aircraft Carrier’s Failure to Join NATO Exercises ‘Unacceptable’

Days after the Royal Navy’s flagship broke down, a second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, has failed to leave port to join NATO exercises.
Minister Says 2nd Aircraft Carrier’s Failure to Join NATO Exercises ‘Unacceptable’
Undated image of Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales in Portsmouth harbour, England. (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Chris Summers

Security minister Tom Tugenhat has said it is “not acceptable” that the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales remains in dock rather than replacing its broken sister ship and sailing out to take part in NATO exercises off the coast of Norway.

The ship’s departure from Portsmouth on Sunday was postponed at the last minute, but Mr. Tugendhat said the carrier should be out “defending our interests abroad.”

Last week HMS Queen Elizabeth was forced to cancel its own deployment after suffering a problem with its starboard propeller.

Operation Steadfast Defender is due to take place between February and the end of May and is billed as “the first large scale NATO exercise where new defence plans will be put into action.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship HMS Prince of Wales were built between 2009 and 2018 to replace the Ark Royal and Illustrious, which were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

For a time the Royal Navy had no carriers at all and the new ships have both suffered a series of mechanical problems since they were first commissioned.

In September 2022 the Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight as it prepared to sail into the Atlantic to take part in joint manouevres with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, and the Royal Canadian Navy.

It suffered a malfunction with its starboard propeller and had to be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth.

Then, after the Queen Elizabeth’s mechanical problem, the Prince of Wales was called on to substitute for the fleet flagship in Steadfast Defender, which will involve 40 vessels from the United States, Canada, and several other NATO navies.

The Prince of Wales was due to lead a carrier strike group of eight ships, including the frigate HMS Somerset, two Tide-class tankers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and some U.S., Spanish, and Danish vessels.

Several F-35B Lightning stealth fighters from the 617 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk are also due to join the exercise along with Merlin helicopters from RNAS Culdrose and Wildcat helicopters of the 847 naval air squadron.

The crew and workers at Portsmouth naval base had been preparing HMS Prince of Wales to take over from HMS Queen Elizabeth’s role in Steadfast Defender.

Mr. Tugendhat told LBC on Monday: “I’m afraid it’s not something I can explain. That’s a matter for the MoD [Ministry of Defence], and I’m going to have to ask some questions about it.”

“But I’m sure the First Sea Lord is looking at this right now. Adm. [Sir Ben] Key has commanded an aircraft carrier in the past and will no doubt be all over the details of this and making sure they set sail as soon as possible,” he added.

“It isn’t acceptable that we have such expensive and important items of kit sitting in dock when they should be out defending our interests abroad,” added Mr. Tugendhat, who ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2022.

The MoD did not give a reason for the last-minute failure to sail but said, “The aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail from Portsmouth soon, subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.”

Ship Set to Leave Port on Monday

HMS Prince of Wales was expected to leave port later on Monday.

Mr. Tugendhat rejected presenter Nick Ferrari’s half-joking remark that the ship could only sail on a sunny day when the tide is going the right way.

He said: “That is absolutely not correct. Our warships are capable of operating in practically all weathers … the reality is we have a completely capable navy with some extraordinary sailors who are able to equip and deploy our vessels around the world.

“And you can see them in operations today, fighting the Houthis in the Red Sea, but also defending our interests around the world,” he added.

PA Media contributed to this report.