While alongside in Portsmouth recently HMS Prince of Wales suffered at least one major internal flood incident causing damage to the high voltage electrical system that propels the ship. The Sun newspaper has now gone public with the story and it appears the ship will not sail until Spring 2021 at the earliest.
HMS Prince of Wales returned to Portsmouth on 25th March after completing sea trials, a visit to Liverpool and a training period around the UK but has not put to sea since. She underwent the first of her planned Capability Insertion Periods (CIP) over the summer but was due to sail sometime in the autumn to conduct further helicopter trials and training. The ship was due to leave for the Westlant 2021 deployment to the coast of the US in the new year, where she was scheduled to conduct her first F-35 landing.
Internal flooding on ships is not a new phenomenon. Warships have a high-pressure saltwater main which is available for firefighting. There is also piping that carries water to cool engines and electronic equipment. The amount of damage caused by a burst pipe or valve failure very much depends on where in the ship it occurs and how long it takes the ship’s company to isolate the leak and pump out the compartments. HMS Queen Elizabeth suffered a fairly serious internal leak in July 2019 which required an immediate return to port but the damage was contained and repaired without significantly impacting her programme. QE also had a very minor issue with leaking shaft seals in December 2017 which many media outlets blew out of all proportion.
In the case of HMS Prince of Wales, it would appear that the flooding was much more serious because it affected the machinery spaces. Photos that emerged in October show compartments flooded quite deep in places. The QEC carriers are propelled by electric motors with high voltage power supplied from diesels and gas turbine generators through a complex system of converters, switchboards and cabling. As warships have increasingly come to rely on electric propulsion, the hazards of high voltages can make damage control more complex and dangerous. Fortunately, the flood did not occur at sea with the engines running and the HV system was probably not in use. However, if elements of the electrical system were submerged in saltwater then it will require stripping out and replacing which will be costly and time-consuming.
The immediate consequences to the ship’s programme are clear but the RN says the PoW is still on track to being declared fully operational in 2023. The benefit of having two aircraft carriers is immediately obvious, sod’s law always applies and the unexpected can happen. HMS Queen Elizabeth is unaffected and will become the RN flagship next year and lead the landmark first carrier strike deployment. HMS Prince of Wales’ training and work up programme may have to be more compressed in order to make up for the lost time. It is unclear if the RN will be liable for the costs of the repair but it would seem the contractor (The Aircraft Carrier Alliance) is likely to be responsible for making good if the cause was faulty pipework and not human error.
The RN cannot be expected to give a public running commentary on every breakdown, opdef or minor issue that occurs. These type of problems happen in every navy in the world, however, the aircraft carriers have a particularly high profile and there is no lack of official coverage of their successes. In this case, involving a more serious incident, the Ministry of Defence should perhaps have allowed the RN to admit the flood and provide some detail about the cause and their response. This would help build public trust in their messaging and reduce the embarrassment when it inevitably became public. It was obvious that eventually, journalists would notice the ship had not sailed for months and begin asking questions. Predictably the mainstream media are now reporting the situation in more sensationalist terms than if a calm official explanation had been provided at the time.
We were made aware that all was not well some time ago and asked for details from official sources but they refused to comment. When trying to promote the RN it is always a difficult line to tread between telling the good stories while being honest about serious problems. We are not in the business of publishing ‘scoops’ that might get us attention but cause repetitional damage to the RN and with no official confirmation, decided not to go public.
(Main image: HMS Prince of Wales alongside in Portsmouth, October 2020. Photo: Andy Amor)