Royal Navy Carrier Sails For NATO Exercise Amid Readiness Concerns

The U.K. Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is headed to Norway to lead an international task group in one of the largest NATO exercises since the end of the Cold War. This comes after significant controversy over the reason for its departure, as well as a delay in leaving its pier, which has reignited debate over the readiness of the class. 

The carrier left the Royal Navy’s Portsmouth Naval Base for Steadfast Defender 2024 on February 12. In all, approximately 90,000 troops from all 31 NATO member-states, as well as partner nation Sweden, are set to take part in the exercise. Exercise Nordic Response, the maritime element of Steadfast Defender, will feature over 50 vessels, including surface combatants, submarines, and other ships from across NATO, and will take place in in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland between March 3–14. According to the Royal Navy, Nordic Response has particular emphasis on “protecting northern Norway, Sweden and Finland [in order] to defend the Nordic nations from ‘attack.'”

HMS Prince of Wales was seen off by cheering crowds as it departed England’s southern coast earlier today, as can be seen below as well as in the top shot above.

Royal Navy

“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,” Capt. Will Blackett, HMS Prince of Wales’ Commanding Officer, said.

Royal Navy

However, the carrier was not originally slated to lead Nordic Response. Issues with the starboard propeller shaft of HMS Queen Elizabeth, found by the Royal Navy during last-minute pre-sailing checks earlier this month, prevented it from leaving for the exercise. On announcing this, the Royal Navy also revealed that its sister ship, the HMS Prince of Wales, would be replacing it.

As it was being assigned the duties of its counterpart, Prince of Wales was scheduled to begin a planned maintenance period. As of the first weekend in February, its deck was covered in tents and scaffolding, Navy Lookout reports, in preparation for the re-application of non-skid paint and heat-resistant coatings. Within the space of just days, however, Royal Navy personnel were able to ready the carrier for departure.  

“I am immensely proud of how my ship’s company and their families have responded to this short-notice tasking,” Blackett said. “We have managed to bring the ship from 30 days’ notice to immediate readiness in just one week. This has been a monumental effort by the whole enterprise, including HMS Queen Elizabeth, Portsmouth Naval Base, and our numerous defense and industry partners.” 

Royal Navy

Lt. Cdr. Chris Barnet, the ship’s Logistics Officer, added that: “in less than a week we have brought onboard approximately 70,000 sailors days rations – £400,000 [roughly $505,000] of food – with 450 pallets of stores and 30,000 toilet rolls; not to mention spare parts for F-35 Lightnings, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, cold weather kit, and medical stores. It has been an amazing effort from all involved.” 

The U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps also voiced his support for efforts to rapidly deploy the carrier. “I would like to congratulate the crew of HMS Prince of Wales for their hard work and dedication in rapidly preparing the ship for departure. The ability to deploy hundreds of crew to make ready one of the world’s most complex aircraft carriers within a week is testament to the skill and ability of the Royal Navy.”

Praise for Royal Navy personnel comes after a short delay to the Prince of Wales‘s departure from Portsmouth; which has been characterized negatively by several U.K. media outlets.

As the Royal Navy indicated in a Tweet posted on February 10, “sailing will be subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.” However, its departure from Portsmouth — originally scheduled for 12:15 P.M. GMT on February 11 — ended up being “postponed,” the BBC quoted the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) as saying, for reasons which the Ministry would not elaborate on.

“Hundreds of people lined Portsmouth Harbor to watch the carrier’s scheduled departure [on February 10],” the outlet notes. “However, after MoD police boats secured the area and the harbor mouth was closed, the channel was reopened and the crowd dispersed.”

When asked on February 11 about the decision to delay the ship’s departure on LBC radio, the Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat said, “I’m afraid it’s not something I can explain – that’s a matter for the MoD, and I’m going to have to ask some questions about it.”

Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer arrive for a cabinet meeting at Downing Street on September 12, 2023 in London, England. Photo by Peter Nicholls/Getty Images

“But I’m sure the First Sea Lord is looking at this right now. Adm. [Sir Ben] Key has commanded an aircraft carrier in the past and will no doubt be all over the details of this and making sure they set sail as soon as possible. It isn’t acceptable that we have such expensive and important items of kit sitting in dock when they should be out defending our interests abroad.”

In response to the departure today, however, Adm. Key acknowledged the “monumental efforts” of “all those involved — service personnel, dockyard teams and industrial partners” in preparing the vessel for sail.

It should not come as a surprise that this latest episode has sparked renewed debate over the U.K.’s two aircraft carriers, which have received their fair share of criticism in the recent past. Notably, concerns were raised recently over the readiness of the carriers to respond to the volatile situation in the Red Sea due to recruitment issues, despite claims from the Minister for Defense Procurement James Cartlidge that they were “at readiness” to respond as of mid-January.

U.K. Minister of State (Minister for Defense Procurement) James Cartlidge arrives to attend the European Air Defense Conference with 18 foreign counterparts, at Les Invalides in Paris on June 19, 2023. Photo by Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

Not helping matters, both vessels have also suffered various problems in recent years. Flooding, for example, has affected both carriers. Moreover, problems with Queen Elizabeth’s starboard propeller shaft have similarly impacted the Prince of Wales. This was labeled as the cause of the latter’s breakdown in August 2022; repairs for which ran into the tens of millions of pounds.

These mechanical issues appear to many, like Tugendhat, as glaringly at odds with the high costs of procuring and maintaining the carriers. The original budget for the Queen Elizabeth class vessels was slated to be £3.9 billion, but this increased to over £6 billion for the pair. As of 2021, it was estimated by Jeremy Quin, the then Minister of State for the Ministry of Defense, that the annual operating costs of just one of these ships stood at just shy of £100 million [roughly $138.5 million at the time]. 

The Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will arrive in Gibraltar today for her first overseas port visit. Image by Dave Jenkins via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0

But more pressingly for the service, there is the larger issue of having two aircraft carriers — each with a crew compliment close to 700 — while not having enough surface combatants, at a time when these are in high demand. Just last month we reported how the Royal Navy is so short on sailors that it is reportedly having to decommission two Type 23 class frigates in order to staff its new class of frigates. Concerns over readiness within the Royal Navy, particularly its surface combatants, have been raised as key issues for the service for some time now, which you can read more about here.

With that said, however, the presence of the Prince of Wales, and the wider multi-national strike group around Norway, Sweden and Finland comes at a time when cross-allied partnership is more critical than ever. While Russia remains bogged-down with its war against Ukraine, the threat from that country within the Arctic region should not be downplayed. The Arctic Circle bifurcates the northern sections of Norway, Sweden and Finland. 

Norway, Sweden and Finland seen in relation to the article circle. Apple Maps

Moreover, given the destabilizing impact of the war in Ukraine, which has further shifted the geopolitics of the Arctic, it remains critical for NATO forces to show their commitment to defending the northern Nordic region. While Norway has been an active NATO member since 1949, it was only in April 2023 that Finland joined the alliance. Sweden is still waiting to join the organization, although there are signs that Hungary, the last remaining member to approve of Sweden’s application, may be poised to clear the way for that country’s NATO membership.

Of course, exercises within and round the Nordic countries were a staple of the Cold War, but have seen something of a renaissance in recent years thanks to the renewed threat from Russia. Be sure to check out this article from the archive by contributor Kevin Noonan on what it was like to conduct those exercises during the twilight of the Cold War.

Despite the slight delay in its departure, that the Prince of Wales will partake in Exercise Nordic Response is both significant and impressive; given the timescale on which it was set with setting sail.

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Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent’s Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone‘s military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.