How building HMS Prince of Wales turned out to be a tricky mission for the Royal Navy

Building not one but two of Britain’s biggest-ever warships was never going to be a simple task.

Thursday, 24th October 2019, 1:54 pm
Updated Friday, 15th November 2019, 6:17 pm

But nobody could have predicted the drama and turbulence that would surround the construction of HMS Prince of Wales and her sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The mighty 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers cost a staggering £6.2bn. And although neither have yet faced a war zone, simply getting them to the stage of completion has been a battle in itself.

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An early computer generated photo issued by the MoD showing one of two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers. Photo: PA/MoD

Signed off by a former Labour government in the late 1990s, the design process for the two behemoths started just before the turn of the millennium.

Announcing them in his defence review in 1998, the then defence secretary George Robertson said the two vessels would replace the fleet of smaller aircraft carriers ‘from about 2012’.

But from day one, the multi-billion pound project had its critics. MPs in Westminster were quick to attack the proposal, with the Tory shadow defence secretary of the day, John Maples, questioning whether the carriers would ever be delivered.

A ship builder welds a hull section of the first of two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers at BAE Systems in Portsmouth on December 8, 2010. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire

‘They will be too expensive and will get killed off by the treasury, first by delay and then cancellation,’ he told MPs in the Commons.

Undeterred, the government pushed on with the plans, pulling together a conglomerate of defence industry specialists, known as the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, to build the supercarriers.

In one of the biggest national endeavours since the Second World War, involving more than 11,000 people, huge parts of the vessels were built in shipyards across the UK before being shipped to Scotland, where they were assembled in Rosyth.

Portsmouth played a critical role in the aircraft carriers’ build, with shipbuilders from the city responsible for constructing the forward island of Queen Elizabeth, which would house the ship’s bridge, and huge parts of the hull.

But by 2010 the fears of Mr Maples appeared to be coming true and the carriers’ future looked bleak.

The year’s infamous Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) saw the armed force’s budget shrink by billions – costing the roles of thousands of military personnel.

Former prime minister David Cameron had wanted to cancel the construction of one of the carriers – likely Prince of Wales.

A report from the government watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted serious concerns about such a move.

The organisation warned against any such action, claiming axing parts of the programme mid-build would cost taxpayers billions.

In its report, the NAO said changes to the carrier programme, in the government's SDSR, had created ‘significant levels of operational, technical, cost and schedule uncertainty’, with the final total cost of the programme now set to exceed £10bn.

The Whitehall monitor also raised concerns at the time with plans to make only one carrier with aircraft operation, claiming it was mean the UK would only have one of the ships at sea for between 150 and 200 days a year, forcing Britain to rely heavily on allies to fill the gap.

Speaking at the time, Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, said the report was ‘deeply worrying’.

She said: ‘It's a very depressing report. This is a project that has been plagued with poor decision-making.

‘What the report says is that it's something technically which has never been achieved elsewhere in the world and that we have no idea of the costs.

‘What we are getting is a delay without a capability for a decade of a carrier on the seas.’

Instead, it was proposed that HMS Prince of Wales be built but never kitted out and kept in limbo as a reserve vessel.

For years rumours persisted that Prince of Wales would be mothballed and potentially sold to the highest bidder once she was completed.

Meanwhile, the future of the ship’s future home, Portsmouth, also faced its own worries.

Fears swirled that the government would close the historic military establishment as finance chiefs attempted to rein in the purse strings in the wake of the recession.

Eventually the government refused to close the estate. But again, it still wasn’t clear sailing ahead for Portsmouth Naval Base.

At the end of 2013, months after completing the 680 tonne forward island, BAE Systems announced it was putting an end to shipbuilding in Portsmouth, closing the curtain on centuries of naval history.

It was a move that sparked fury and heartbreak across the city in equal measure.

However, despite all the uncertainty, workers continued to piece together HMS Prince of Wales, with her forward island being constructed at BAE System’s yard in Govan, Scotland.

Three years later, she was proudly alongside in Rosyth’s dry dock – sitting next to a near-complete HMS Queen Elizabeth.

By June 2017, Queen Elizabeth was stretching her sea legs and being put to the test during her maiden sea trials.

As the first-of-class – a £3.1bn prototype – she has faced her share of setbacks and teething problems.

But the lessons learned from Queen Elizabeth were applied to her younger sister.

Consequently, Prince of Wales defied expectations, being built more rapidly and completing her sea trials earlier than expected.

The mighty Prince has managed to cruise through the tumultuous drama of her construction and now faces the next stage of her journey – arriving to her new home and formally commissioning into the Royal Navy.