Last week, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales was at 30 days’ notice for sea. That means exactly what it sounds like: if such a ship is ordered to sail, it is expected that it will take the captain and ship’s company 30 days to get ready. For once they can relax – go on leave, go on a course, commit to some deep maintenance, send items away to have things done to them. They can chill out, up to a point.
That’s not to say the Prince was not busy – she was. Apart from the day before sailing, a warship rarely has such a buzz of activity as it does at the start of a maintenance period, which the Prince was about to commence having recently returned from a voyage to the United States. The engineering department has hundreds, if not thousands of lines of work to deliver in a synchronised manner to ensure that the ship is ready on time at the end of the period.
As planned work commences, other problems pop up and have to be added to the plan. All the while the team are asking, “does this emerging defect take us outside the 30 day window for sea?” The minute it does, or might, it’s up to the captain’s cabin to discuss. The avilability of a ship can have implications, as it did here, all across Nato.
Maintenance in a warship never stops. It perhaps exemplifies the difference in complexity and operating environment when compared to your car more than anything else. If you serviced a warship once a year, it wouldn’t work.
Being the captain of a ship in maintenance is a weird feeling. Three things always struck me in these periods. First, how big the team is from ashore. Dozens – in the case of the PoW, hundreds – of people are now aboard who you have never seen before. Many of them have no idea who you are … nor do some of them seem to care.
Second, there is the state of the ship. Your carefully manicured diplomacy and warfighting machine is under attack. Scaffolders are everywhere putting up poles and tents. Holes appear in decks to take engines out. Paint gets stripped back to reveal undercoats. Deck protectors go down everywhere to protect them from oily boots. Equipment is tagged out to allow for maintenance and there is a perpetual sound of banging, drilling and announcements (“pipes”, we say in the Service) on the main broadcast. It’s well organised, but a mess nonetheless.
Third, and related to point two, is safety. Carefully crafted systems to keep you both watertight and able to rapidly deal with incidents at sea all change. Pipes and cable pass through watertight, fireproof doors and hatches meaning they can’t be shut. There is little that can be done about this, it’s part of a major work package, but it is not a comfortable feeling. The USS Bonhomme Richard was in deep maintenance in July 2020 when a small fire, started as arson, spread so completely that it destroyed the ship. It was five days before all fires were reported extinguished.
Then imagine that one quiet evening your sister ship, preparing to sail for the biggest Nato exercise in decades, is found to have a shaft corrosion problem. You get a call, probably from your administrative chain of command saying, ‘you know that 30 days notice to sail thing? Yup, you’re now at seven – make it so’. This won’t be a complete surprise. Chances are the captain of the other ship already called informing you that they have ‘an issue’.
You will then gather your heads of department, recalling them from leave if necessary to break the ‘good’ news. Thus begins the rebuild. Scaffolding that took six weeks to put up has to be taken down in four days. This has to be coordinated with the radar work that had just started. Getting equipment off the ship is complicated by having 600 or so newly joined people coming up the gangways. Many of these are from the Battle Staff who only a few days ago thought that HMS Queen Elizabeth was their home. Overall numbers onboard just increased to over 1000 who all now need to be accommodated and fed. Whatever work was being done on the fridges needs to be stopped right now.
Large bits of engine need to be put back together and tested. Many things need to be rushed back from having stuff done to them and reinstalled. The ship needs to do a basin trial to make sure the engines are now working – and that they will deliver thrust in the direction expected – but this puts loads on the berthing lines holding you in place so the gangways will have to be closed and all work between the ship and the jetty paused.
Given everything, you’re going to want divers to check your shafts. Seems sensible. But this has to be deconflicted with the basin trial and other engineering evolutions and tests.
With that number of new joiners you are going to want to do a alongside personnel check called a Fast Cruise – essentially simulating going to sea to ensure that everyone knows where they should be in the case of an emergency, action stations and various other situations.
The executive officer of the Prince of Wales (the second in command) called it a giant game of Tetris to indicate the interconnected nature of all this which is a good description. We know this because he had to take a break from his day job – he is the intensely busy administrator striving to make it all come out right and on time – to make an excellent video about it. Such is life in the intense glare of the carrier spotlight.
Having said that, it was a shame that much of this effort was derailed by poorly handled communications from the navy to the public. QE class carriers now book a sailing window on three consecutive days with the King’s Harbour Master, Portsmouth, during any of which they can sail. Advance booking is essential as Portsmouth itself is a busy harbour and other ships must not be coming in and out when a carrier is moving. Then once the carrier is out in the Solent there are often massive commercial vessels wanting to get in and out of Southampton Water, including supertankers for the Fawley oil terminal, massive container ships and other vessels which have no freedom of manoeuvre once they’re in the tight Solent channel.
The three day window also provides options for the carrier in the event of bad weather or mechanical issues. In this case, a combination of high winds, low tides and a minor leak on one of the many engines rebuilt at the rush caused the captain, very sensibly, to sail on the middle day.
To be clear, this does not represent any sort of failure by the Royal Navy. Even the mighty USS Eisenhower – now in the thick of the Red Sea fight – sailed 24 hours later than expected when her deployment was brought forward back in October: and the alteration to Ike’s schedule was less sudden and traumatic.
Unfortunately, the message that was put out there by the RN was ‘PoW sailing on Sunday’ and when this didn’t happen, there were howls of outrage about national embarrassments, Nato let down etc. Even at this stage, a pithy official statement could have controlled the speculation but, for whatever reason, that option was not taken and the fury online and in the media continued unchecked. The carriers generate enough division as it is, sometimes warranted – it’s silly to cause it by sitting silent and unwilling to say anything.
For HMS Prince of Wales the hard work is far from over. She is currently headed for the ammunition jetty in Scotland to refill her magazines. She will also have a number of tests and trials to do to prove her seaworthiness before she can even consider doing fancier stuff like working with the battle staff, leading Nato exercises and flying fast jets. As the lower readiness carrier for her life so far, she has had less experience in much of this which she will now need to accrue quickly. She has probably stolen quite a few people from QE to help.
In my view the Prince of Wales should not be going to the Red Sea – not right now anyway. This might sound odd from someone who has been saying for months that QE should. But QE was the up-and-ready carrier. PoW isn’t that yet, though she will be soon. Life at sea is about pushing but not exceeding your limits. If you do, you are now gambling and that’s when accidents happen.
If there was a war that absolutely demanded her, she would be there. In fact, dealing with QE’s shaft corrosion issue would probably have been postponed in that case. You would also not be delayed sailing by high winds – you would take more tugs and take the risk.
Herein lies the difference between peace and wartime risk tolerance. We’re not in a critical position yet so the decisions to dock QE and repair her, scramble PoW but then send her to the Nato exercise not the Red Sea are sensible.
How PoW comes out of the Nato exercise and at what state QE is in at that point will be interesting to track. Eisenhower will be six months into her deployment by then and whilst our carriers are not a like-for-like replacement for a US supercarrier, they could offer many options there in an environment where most of our carriers’ well-publicised shortcomings could be mitigated by US forces already there.
In one of the worst cases of ‘fitted for but not with’ around today, the RN only has enough Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS) for one of the carriers. Where those systems end up might well be an indicator of which ship is set to take the lead once QE’s shaft is fixed. All of which assumes the global situation hasn’t all changed by then.
Ships are complex and require constant maintenance. In peacetime, you can’t operate all of them at very high readiness or they, and their people break. No navy in the world attempts it. In wartime the rules are different and a greater appetite for risk can be explored. Turning a ship of that size at 30 days notice for sea in eight days is remarkable – although it had to be done or the ‘this is why we have two’ starts to look hollow.
Hopefully I’ve painted a clear picture. Beating a 30 days notice for sea by 22 days instead of 23 is not the screaming national embarrassment that some would have you believe. I would have preferred it if it didn’t have to be largely me saying it in the Telegraph, instead of official RN communications channels. These ships are unique across defence in their ability to generate debate, good and bad, and their communications should be handled accordingly.
In the meantime, the ship’s company and other teams that made this happen should be congratulated: although, to an extent, that is life in a blue suit and what they signed up for.
The people we should probably salute, therefore, are the thousand-plus families who have just had their plans turned upside down, waving goodbye to loved ones for an unknown duration.
It was ever thus – it doesn’t make it any easier though.
Tom Sharpe was captain of four different Royal Navy warships, and later became the navy’s top PR officer. Nowadays he works in strategic communications at SPP