Just days before departing port on a high-profile mission on a NATO exercise, the Royal Navy carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has had to stand down because of problems with a shaft coupling. It is the second time that a shafting issue has sidelined one of the Royal Navy’s two new carriers on the eve of a significant deployment.
After the disastrous shaft damage incident aboard HMS Prince of Wales in August 2022, the Royal Navy decided to carry out a heightened inspection schedule for HMS Elizabeth to head off any similar problems in advance. On Friday – the same day as a formal announcement celebrating the carrier’s “historic” departure – a pre-sailing check revealed problems with one shaft coupling on the starboard side.
Though the ship is still technically fit to sail, according to the service, the decision has been taken to cancel her departure and to shift the mission to sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, which just had her own shaft coupling issues resolved in September. (A Ministry of Defense official told the BBC that the shaft coupling problem on Queen Elizabeth was “separate and not linked.”)
Prince of Wales has just returned from a voyage to the U.S. East Coast, and she was due for a routine maintenance and R&R period. The necessary repair work will have to be accelerated, parts and stores cross-decked from HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the crew recalled early to shipboard service.
HMS Prince of Wales will now lead NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender, a multinational carrier strike group exercise operating off Norway. The carrier will be accompanied by frigate HMS Somerset, two fleet oilers, and an assortment of American, Spanish and Danish escorts. Prince of Wales will carry an air wing of F-35B fighters and an assortment of helicopters on deck.
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All told, the exercise will draw 40 NATO ships from more than two dozen nations. The conditions will likely be difficult: the forecast calls for heavy seas, sleet, snow and subzero temperatures – plus the long winter nights of the north.
“The exercise allows us to train with our neighbors in a truly challenging environment, especially at this time of year – but that is why we have to operate up there; the weather cannot put us off,” said Commodore James Blackmore, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group.
The 40-day exercise will also bring in tens of thousands of troops on the ground for a scenario involving the defense of Norway and newly-joined NATO members Sweden and Finland, which all share a border with Russia.
Before the shaft issue aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth was discovered, UK Armed Forces Minister James Heaped had mooted the idea that a British carrier might relieve USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on station off Yemen. The task set would include the recurring duty of destroying Houthi antiship missiles and drones.