Britain's $3.7B aircraft carriers were meant to take a crowning role in a major NATO exercise — then failed to set sail, twice

  • UK aircraft carriers failed twice in a row to play their part in NATO exercises.

  • First HMS Queen Elizabeth broke down, then its replacement also didn't launch as scheduled.

  • It has put the spotlight on the capabilities of the UK Royal Navy, which aspires to be world-leading.

A UK Royal Navy aircraft carrier canceled its launch to join a NATO exercise on Sunday, the second similar failure in a week.

A UK carrier was meant to be a centerpiece of NATO's Steadfast Defender exercises taking place off the coast of Norway.

Its twin, modern carriers cost some $3.7 billion each. They are among the newest in the world and a clear demonstration of the UK's aspiration to be a first-rate military.

But neither of them could make it — the first candidate, HMS Queen Elizabeth, broke down on the eve of sailing.

Its replacement, HMS Prince of Wales, was meant to sail on Sunday, but the launch was abruptly pulled.

Sky News reported that crowds had gathered to watch the vessel depart, only to find out that it wouldn't.

It set sail the next day instead from its home harbor in Portsmouth, England.

Although it only pushed the schedule back one day, the unexplained delay was another embarrassment for the Royal Navy after HMS Queen Elizabeth pulled out of the exercise, citing a problem with its starboard propeller shaft.

The Prince of Wales itself underwent months of repairs after breaking down in 2022.

The UK Ministry of Defence did not give a reason for the delayed departure, saying in a statement that the aircraft carrier was "due to sail from Portsmouth soon, subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.

From protecting vessels against Houthi militants in the Red Sea to deterring Russian and Chinese aggression, the Royal Navy is seeking a central role in conflict flashpoints across the world.

But critics say that that long-standing government underfunding has impacted the Royal Navy's combat readiness.

Admiral Lord West, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, told Business Insider last week the cuts had "had a serious impact" on the navy's ability to respond to global threats.

He listed a series of problems, including an aging fleet of ballistic missile submarines, "precariously low" weapon stocks and engineering stores, and a gaping lack of personnel. He also said the Royal Navy doesn't have enough ships, particularly destroyers and frigates.

According to reports, the UK's aircraft carriers will be dependent on foreign allies for support vessels during the Nato exercises.

HMS Queen Elizabeth entered service in 2017, and the Prince of Wales in 2019, and each cost around $3.7 billion.

February 12, 2024, 9.25 a.m. ET: This story was updated after HMS Prince of Wales left port.

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