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£3bn HMS Prince of Wales to finally set sail amid ’embarrassing’ state of navy

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is to set sail on Sunday after its sister ship suffered an “issue” with a propeller shaft that forced a last-minute cancellation of its deployment a week ago.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the fleet flagship, had been expected to depart from Portsmouth Naval Base last Sunday to lead the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War, involving more than 40 vessels.

But the sailing of the £3bn warship was called off after the problem was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.

Admiral Lord Alan West, the former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, previously told i that the Government “should be embarrassed” by the state of the Britain’s armed forces, reiterating calls for increased defence spending amid fears that the UK was losing its military “clout”.

Since the cancellation was announced, the crew and base workers switched their focus to preparing the HMS Prince of Wales to take over its sister ship’s role in Exercise Steadfast Defender, which will take place off Norway’s Arctic coast in March.

It comes 18 months after HMS Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight, when it also suffered a malfunction with a coupling on its starboard propeller.

“I think it’s very embarrassing when something goes wrong to one of your major units,” he said, adding that there was “no doubt that the pressure on resources has impacted on the Navy as it has on the other services”.

Other defence experts have agreed, saying the UK’s lack of naval power was undermining its ability to serve alongside the US Navy and warning that a second Donald Trump presidency could increase the risk of the US withdrawing from Nato, leaving Europe alone in defending its maritime security and trade routes.

And having HMS Queen Elizabeth out of action could affect the Royal Navy’s ability to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea amid the continuing threat posed by the Houthi rebels, which armed forces minister James Heappey has suggested was being considered.

HMS Prince of Wales is set to depart at lunchtime on Sunday, with scaffolding previously seen on the carrier’s flight deck having been removed.

Announcing the change of plans, Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Andrew Burns said: “Routine pre-sailing checks identified an issue with a coupling on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s starboard propeller shaft. As such, the ship will not sail on Sunday.

“HMS Prince of Wales will take her place on Nato duties and will set sail for Exercise Steadfast Defender as soon as possible.”

A Royal Navy spokesman said: “The aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail from Portsmouth to take the place of HMS Queen Elizabeth to join the Nato Exercise Steadfast Defender.

“As ever, sailing will be subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.

“On completion of initial investigations, HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail for Rosyth in Scotland so any necessary repairs can be carried out in due course.

“The cause of the issue with HMS Queen Elizabeth is wear and tear of her starboard propeller shaft coupling.”

The Ministery of Defence (MoD) has not confirmed if HMS Prince of Wales will take over all of its sister ship’s scheduled duties, which would include taking part in the annual Joint Warrior exercise off northern Scotland.

In February last year it was revealed by i HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail without a full complement of ammunition and fighter jets due to a severe supply shortage, while in August 2022 the HMS Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight when en route for a diplomatic mission to carry out exercises with the US Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and the US Marine Corps.

The carrier was towed back into harbour before investigations by divers and engineers found the Prince of Wales’ 33-ton starboard propeller – the same weight as 30 Ford Fiesta cars – had malfunctioned, with a coupling holding it in place breaking.

An MoD spokesman said the issue on HMS Queen Elizabeth was “separate and not linked” to the earlier defect on its sister ship, adding: “The issue identified is with the ship’s shaft couplings.

“The ship’s propeller shafts are too big to be made from a single piece of metal, so each shaft is made from three sections, which are connected using shaft couplings, which bind the shaft sections together.”

HMS Prince of Wales was taken to the Babcock shipyard where it was built in Rosyth, Fife, in Scotland to undergo repairs to the propeller shaft, which took nine months to complete.

On that occasion, HMS Queen Elizabeth acted as the replacement for its sister ship on the US deployment.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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