HMS Prince of Wales has set sail to lead the biggest Nato exercise since the Cold War after being delayed at the last minute.
The £3 billion aircraft carrier had to be prepared at short notice after HMS Queen Elizabeth, its sister vessel, pulled out of exercise Steadfast Defender on Norway’s Arctic coast because of an “issue” with its starboard propeller coupling.
Now, after a seven-day turnaround, which included bringing on board £400,000 of food, as well as spare parts for F-35 Lightnings, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, cold weather kit, and medical stores, the warship has set sail for the North Sea, where it will conduct a week’s training with its air group.
The carrier brings the capability of 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.
HMS Prince of Wales will lead a carrier strike group of eight ships, with four British, including frigate HMS Somerset and two Tide-class tankers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, being supported by US, Spanish and Danish vessels.
Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, said the military’s ability to deploy “hundreds of crew” within a week was “testament to the skill and ability of the Royal Navy”.
Mr Shapps added: “In an increasingly dangerous world, where it is more important than ever that we stand united with our allies, HMS Prince of Wales will send a powerful message of collective security and deterrence at the head of this multinational strike group.”
Captain Will Blackett, HMS Prince of Wales’s commanding officer, said his team had succeeded in bringing the ship to “immediate readiness” in one week, rather than the usual 30 days.
“HMS Prince of Wales is now ready to go; we are all looking forward to delivering the mission,” he said.
Commodore James Blackmore, commander UK Carrier Strike Group, in overall charge of the ship, her air power and escorts, added it was a “remarkable achievement” to be at sea, given the carrier had been preparing for a substantial maintenance package seven days ago.
Once the work-up is complete, the Prince of Wales task group will move to the High North and Exercise Nordic Response, the maritime element of Steadfast Defender, with the emphasis on protecting northern Norway, Sweden and Finland to defend the Nordic nations from “attack”.
Commodore Blackmore added: “The UK has an unwavering commitment to Nato and collective deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic region. There is no better demonstration of that than HMS Prince of Wales being at the heart of the upcoming Nato maritime exercises; the largest in over 40 years.”