HMS Prince of Wales docked while it should be 'defending our interests abroad', Minister brands it 'not acceptable'

12 February 2024, 10:29 | Updated: 12 February 2024, 10:32

Aircraft carrier's departure for major Nato exercise delayed

EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The Security Minister has said it is "not acceptable" that the HMS Prince of Wales is sitting in dock when it should be out "defending our interests abroad."

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The Royal Navy aircraft carrier had been expected to take part in the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War, involving more than 40 vessels, but an "issue" was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.

Asked what had happened, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "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.

Spectators gather near Portsmouth Harbour to see the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales before the sailing was cancelled.
Spectators gather near Portsmouth Harbour to see the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales before the sailing was cancelled. Picture: Alamy

"But I'm sure the First Sea Lord is looking at this right now. Admiral 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.

"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."

Read more: Humiliation as replacement ship for malfunctioning British carrier postpones departure for Nato exercises

Read more: Britain set to deploy aircraft carrier to Red Sea to counter Iran-backed Houthi attacks

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari is joined by Security Minister Tom Tugendhat | 12/02/24

Mr Tugendhat rejected the suggestion that the £3 billion HMS Prince of Wales warship can only sail on a sunny day when the tide is going the right way.

Asked whether the aircraft carrier can only be used in such conditions, the security minister told Nick Ferrari: "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."

Work is undertaken on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales alongside at HMNB Portsmouth.
Work is undertaken on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales alongside at HMNB Portsmouth. Picture: Alamy

The setback came 18 months after HMS Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight, when it also suffered a malfunction with a coupling on its starboard propeller.

Since the cancellation was announced, the crew and base workers have been busily preparing the HMS Prince of Wales to take over its sister ship's role in Exercise Steadfast Defender - which will take place off Norway.

As part of the preparations, scaffolding which was seen on the carrier's flight deck had been removed ready for the sailing.

People lined the walls of Portsmouth Harbour to watch the 65,000-tonne warship on Sunday.

But after Ministry of Defence (MoD) police boats had secured the area and the harbour mouth was closed to traffic - the normal protocol for the departure of a carrier - the channel was reopened and HMS Prince of Wales failed to leave the jetty.

It is unclear if the sailing was cancelled before the carrier was set to leave or whether it had made its first movements from the jetty at Portsmouth Naval Base.

One member of the public who had come to wave off the carrier said: "I hope it hasn't broken down again."

After about 20 minutes, the hundreds of people gathered to see the ship started to disperse as word spread that it was not leaving.

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales moored in Portsmouth Harbour after its scheduled sailing was called off at the last minute after an 'issue' was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales moored in Portsmouth Harbour after its scheduled sailing was called off at the last minute after an 'issue' was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling. Picture: Alamy

An MoD spokesman said that the sailing had been postponed and added that an announcement would be made later on Sunday of a future sailing time for HMS Prince of Wales.

But the spokesman did not give a reason for the last-minute postponement of the sailing.

He said: "The aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail from Portsmouth soon, subject to suitable tide and weather conditions."

Having HMS Queen Elizabeth out of action could affect the ability of the Royal Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea amid the continuing threat by Iran-backed Houthi rebels - which armed forces minister James Heappey has suggested was being considered.

Announcing the change of plans, Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Andrew Burns said: "Routine pre-sailing checks identified an issue with a coupling on HMS Queen Elizabeth's starboard propeller shaft. As such, the ship will not sail on Sunday.

"HMS Prince of Wales will take her place on Nato duties and will set sail for Exercise Steadfast Defender as soon as possible."

A Royal Navy spokesman said: "On completion of initial investigations, HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail for Rosyth in Scotland so any necessary repairs can be carried out in due course.

"The cause of the issue with HMS Queen Elizabeth is wear and tear of her starboard propeller shaft coupling."

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