'Cannibalized' parts show how the British navy is struggling to keep its 2 new aircraft carriers in fighting shape

  • The Royal Navy is taking parts from one of its aircraft carriers and using them on its other one.

  • New warships often have problems, especially complicated vessels like aircraft carriers.

  • But the "cannibalization" of parts reflects how the British military is juggling limited resources.

Britain is having to cannibalize parts from one of its two new aircraft carriers to keep the other one operational.

HMS Prince of Wales, which was commissioned in 2019, has been sidelined since August because of a broken propeller shaft. The breakdown happened the day the vessel left port for a well-publicized visit to the US that would include flight trials for the F-35B stealth fighters that the carriers are designed to operate.

To add to the indignity, parts from the Prince of Wales are being stripped out for use on HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was commissioned in 2017.

"Oil and fuel filters, used to separate sea water from diesel in the fuel tanks to prevent fouling of the engine, have been taken from" the Prince of Wales, according to The Telegraph. "Also removed was the chain from one of the flight desk lifts, used to carry fighter jets from the interior hangars up to the flight deck."

The Royal Navy maintains that swapping parts is normal procedure. "It is not unusual for equipment to be transferred between ships of the same class to ensure operational availability and avoid delays," a spokesman told The Telegraph, adding that the Prince of Wales is scheduled to be operational again in autumn.

British Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier construction
Workers move the section of a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier at a shipyard in Glasgow in February 2011.REUTERS/David Moir

While Royal Navy officials have said the problem is limited to the ship and not "class-wide," the service's investigation is ongoing and it remains unclear whether the cause was defective design, lax construction, poor maintenance, or some other issue.

"These are big lumps of metal that have failed, so this is not necessarily going to be a quick fix," Adm. Ben Key, first sea lord and chief of the British naval staff, told reporters in September. And it is a rare ship that doesn't experience some kind of teething problems. The US Navy struggled for a decade to prepare the first ship of its new class of carriers for operations.

Yet even Key called the propeller damage to the Prince of Wales "a great shame."

Either way, the woes of the Prince of Wales are another embarrassment for a controversial program to build the first British aircraft carriers since the early 1980s.

Ironically, Britain's navy was a pioneer in inventing the aircraft carrier, operating the first true aircraft carrier — HMS Argus — during the final months of World War I. The Royal Navy was responsible for crucial features of modern carriers, such as the steam-powered catapult and the angled flight deck. Yet its leading position did not last.

Sea Harrier approaches the container ship and aircraft carrier Atlantic Conveyor
A Sea Harrier approaches the container ship Atlantic Conveyor to test its recently installed flight deck in June 1982.Royal Navy/Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

For the Falklands War in 1982, Britain could barely muster two carriers, one of which was about to be decommissioned, and it pressed two cargo ships into service as converted carriers. When the Royal Navy decommissioned HMS Illustrious in 2014, it was without any carriers for the first time in nearly a century.

The two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers were supposed to make Britain a carrier power again. The 65,000-ton vessels can carry up to 72 aircraft, including 36 F-35B short-takeoff and vertical landing fighters.

The gas-turbine-powered carriers, with their ski-jump flight decks for short takeoffs, are smaller than the US Navy's 100,000-ton, nuclear-powered carriers with their long flight decks and catapult-assisted takeoffs. (Jets also have to carry less ordnance and fuel to use ski-jump ramps.)

But the new flattops do give Britain a capability that few nations have: a mobile, floating airbase that can go wherever there is ocean. For example, on its first deployment, HMS Queen Elizabeth led a strike group around the world, operating in Mediterranean, Indian, and Pacific oceans, including in the South China Sea, as a signal to friends and rivals.

Though British power is but a shadow of its imperial heyday, there is a reason Britain has long had a reputation of punching above its weight.

Aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales sail together for the first time in May 2021.Royal Navy/POPhot Jay Allen

But critics derided the program as an anachronism more suitable for the Royal Navy in the days of the British Empire, and not the current fleet, which has dwindled to fewer than 20 destroyers and frigates and just 10 nuclear-powered submarines.

With the Royal Air Force and the British Army also shrinking in size and facing tighter budgets, skeptics questioned whether the $3.7 billion carriers were a luxury item that the UK could not afford.

There were also concerns about whether the carriers' defenses could stop Russian anti-ship missiles or if there would be sufficient escort vessels to protect them. In 2021, five of the Royal Navy's six Type 45 destroyers were down for maintenance or upgrades. (HMS Queen Elizabeth's escorts during its maiden deployment included a US Navy destroyer and a Dutch navy frigate.)

Many of the same criticisms have been aimed at the US Navy's carrier fleet. Skeptics say they are hugely expensive — a new Ford-class carrier costs more than $13 billion — and vulnerable to weapons such as China's "carrier-killer" ballistic missiles.

The role of carriers may eventually change because of those threats, but for Britain — and for the US — too much money and prestige has been invested in carriers to give them up now. Mechanical problems or not, British flattops are here to stay.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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