HMS Queen Elizabeth cancels departure due to propeller problem

UK’s £3 billion aircraft carrier pulls out of largest Nato drill in decades after last-minute issue

Aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, right, berths alongside aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth naval base. PA
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The departure of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was due to lead Nato's most ambitious drill since the Cold War, has been cancelled at the last minute after a problem was spotted in a propeller shaft during final checks.

The flagship, the Royal Navy's largest and most powerful vessel, was due to set sail on Sunday.

Sister ship HMS Prince of Wales is now being readied to take the place of the £3 billion ($3.79 billion) aircraft carrier on Exercise Steadfast Defender off Norway's Arctic coast next month.

The replacement could affect the ability of the Royal Navy to send an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea to counter the continuing threat of Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a possibility suggested by Armed Forces Minister James Heappey.

HMS Queen Elizabeth had been set to lead a carrier strike of eight ships – four of them British, including frigate HMS Somerset and two Tide-class tankers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – supported by US, Spanish and Danish vessels.

It was to be joined by its F-35B Lightning stealth fighters from 617 “Dambusters” Squadron at RAF Marham, submarine hunting and airborne early warning Merlin Mk2 helicopters from RNAS Culdrose, and battlefield Wildcat helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron from RNAS Yeovilton.

Announcing the problem on X, the Royal Navy said: “Routine pre-sailing checks yesterday identified an issue with a coupling on @HMSQNLZ starboard propeller shaft. As such, the ship will not sail on Sunday.

“@HMSPWLS will take her place on Nato duties and will set sail for Exercise Steadfast Defender as soon as possible.”

Commodore James Blackmore said: “Steadfast Defender demonstrates the unity of the alliance, our commitment to it – and that the UK continues to play a leading role in Nato.

“The exercise allows us to train with our neighbours 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.”

Before heading to the Arctic, the Carrier Strike Group was due to take part in the annual Joint Warrior exercise off northern Scotland before joining Exercise Nordic Response – the maritime part of Steadfast Defender.

About 18 months ago, HMS Queen Elizabeth was brought in to replace HMS Prince of Wales on a mission to the US after it suffered its own malfunction involving a propeller.

HMS Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight as it was heading to a diplomatic mission to carry out exercises with the US Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and the US Marine Corps.

The carrier came to a halt off the Isle of Wight and was towed back into harbour for the problem to be identified.

Inspections by divers and engineers found the Nato flagship's 33-tonne starboard propeller – the same weight as 30 Ford Fiesta cars – had malfunctioned, with a coupling holding it in place breaking.

It was then taken to the Babcock shipyard where it was built in Rosyth, Fife, to undergo repairs to a propeller shaft, which took nine months to complete.

HMS Prince of Wales is due to take over as the Royal Navy’s flagship from HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, which operates with a crew of about 700, can carry up to 40 aircraft.

Four fighter jets can be moved from the hangar to the flight deck in only one minute.

Its two propellers each weigh 33 tonnes.

Updated: February 04, 2024, 11:17 AM