HMS Prince of Wales was officially named today during a ceremony in Rosyth, Scotland. The ship’s sponsor, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Rothesay, followed Royal Navy tradition by triggering the release of a bottle of 10-year-old whiskey to smash against the ship’s hull. It’s been a busy summer for the RN. In August HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Portsmouth for the first time. Less than a month later it is time to mark another major milestone for the aircraft carrier programme.
HMS PoW was structurally complete in July 2016 but the complex work of fitting out and systems integration is still in its early stages. The ship will be floated out of dry dock in early 2018 and be berthed in the same position where HMS Queen Elizabeth was completed. HMS QE was in effect a prototype vessel so progress on the second ship is already ahead of schedule which has been built around 20% faster, thanks to the lessons learned. This includes improvement to the application of its heat-resistant flight deck Thermal Metalic Spray (TMS) paint and installing an improved F-35 landing light systems earlier in the build process. There have also been adjustments to construction practice. To save time coming on and off the ship, contractors now use the ship itself as their offices, using the hangar and other large available spaces to hold meetings and keep stocks of materials. Although it is described as “an aggressive timeline” there is confidence HMS PoW will go to sea in the Summer of 2019, building on the success of HMS QE’s initial trials.
HMS Prince of Wales – lead ship for the assault role
HMS PoW is having some internal modifications so she can perform in the LPH (assault ship / littoral maneuver) role. These modifications are modest and include changes to some access routes, accommodation and storage arrangements for the embarked military force and their kit. She will be able to comfortably accommodate 2 companies of Marines (around 500 men) and it is intended she will declare full LPH operating capability sometime in 2023. The 4.5 acre flight deck will allow HMS PoW to simultaneously launch up to 14 helicopters in a single wave. Although using these ships in the LPH role far from ideal, this space gives them a great advantage over HMS Ocean. HMS QE will be modified like her sister during her first major refit, probably in 2026, so both ships will then have full LPH capability.
The QEC are not designed to carry amphibious landing craft. They will carry 3 passenger transport boats (PTBs) lowered down from bays on the sponsons on 4 deck. The PTBs are intended for ferrying crew and visitors to and from the ship when anchored offshore and are not intended for use in the assault role. Four PTBs have been ordered from Alnmaritec for HMS QE, two named Swordfish and Buccaneer have been already been delivered. HMS PoW will instead receive three workboats of the SEA class, part of the recent order for 30 workboats placed with Atlas Elektronik.
Continous carrier capability
It is now clear the RN is aiming to maintain continuous carrier capability. Initially, manpower concerns had made this seem unlikely but manning the carriers has been prioritised, even at the expense of the rest of the fleet. The intention is that one aircraft carrier will be at 5 days notice to deploy (Very High Readiness). When configured for the LPH role they will be expected to be at 30 days notice to deploy (High Readiness). Theoretically, it may be possible for both carriers to be deployed together, with one in strike role and one in LPH role. Maintenance periods and refits will obviously mean that for long periods only one carrier will be available.
The future for HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth should sail for the second phase of her sea trials in October and will formally commission in December. She will sail for heavy weather trials in the North Atlantic in the first quarter of 2018. During this time she will also focus on rotary-wing certification and trials with embarked Wildcats, Merlin Mk2s, Merlin HC4s, Army Air Corps Apache and RAF Chinooks. HMS QE will not be fully capable in the LPH role for several years but she will routinely embark Royal Marines of the Special Purpose Task Group. The SPTG was established in December 2015, its prime role is to rescue downed aircrew and destroy or recover sensitive equipment such as F-35 parts. However, the SPTG is a multi-purpose formation that can be used to support other special forces operations or conduct raids ashore.
HMS QE will be back alongside for a further planned “defect rectification and capability insertion” period in mid-2018. The main work will be adding equipment to support F-35 operations such as the Instrument Carrier Landing System (ICLS) and set up ALIS – the F-35 aircraft maintenance system. In the later part of 2018 HMS QE will sail with HMS Montrose as her escort to the East Coast of the US. She will embark Royal Marines who will be flown ashore to exercise with the US Marine Corps. Off the Eastern Seaboard of the US, the first F-35Bs will land on HMS QE to begin flying trials. Two specially instrumented “orange-wired” F-35B test aircraft and four pilots will be aboard for 8 weeks of trials and evaluation. Short Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) will be practiced for the first time outside a simulator. This complex manoeuvre will allow the aircraft to return safely to the ship with a weight of unused weapons or fuel. The technique is controversial, many F-35 naysayers expect it to prove unworkable.
As something we can all look forward to, respected film-maker Chris Terrill has been embarked aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth during her sea trials and his 3-part documentary Royal Navy: Carrier Strike will be shown on BBC 2 in January 2018.