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UK aircraft carrier withdrawn from Nato exercise after propeller issue

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One of the UK’s two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers will not take part in the largest Nato exercise in Europe since the cold war after last-minute checks identified a problem with its propeller.

The Royal Navy said HMS Queen Elizabeth, which had been due to sail on Sunday evening, would be replaced by its sister ship, the HMS Prince of Wales, in the mission on Norway’s Arctic coast.

In a message posted on social media platform X, it said routine checks before sailing found an issue with a coupling on the starboard propeller shaft of the flagship, which had been set to be the naval centrepiece of Nato exercise Steadfast Defender 2024.

HMS Prince of Wales would set sail instead “as soon as possible”, the Royal Navy added.

The last-minute change of plan is highly embarrassing and will compound concerns over limitations to the Royal Navy’s capabilities at a time of heightened tensions in the Red Sea.

Critics have recently pointed to the aircraft carriers’ dwindling escort fleet of frigates and destroyers as evidence of a lack of logistic support. 

In a report on Sunday, a cross-party group of MPs warned that the Royal Navy was contending with “readiness gaps and capability shortfalls”, despite claims it was undergoing a “maritime renaissance”.

The Ministry of Defence said in response to the report that the armed forces were “always ready to protect and defend the UK”, and that boosting recruitment and retention was a “top priority”.

The problem on HMS Queen Elizabeth comes less than two years after another propeller shaft problem was identified on the HMS Prince of Wales.

In August 2022 the carrier broke down shortly after leaving Portsmouth. At the time, HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to the US in its place for training exercises. 

The MoD said on Sunday that the issue on HMS Queen Elizabeth was “separate and not linked” to the earlier defect on its sister ship. The issue identified was with the ship’s “shaft couplings”, it said. 

“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,” the MoD added.

More than 40 vessels from over 24 countries are due to take part in the Steadfast Defender exercise in March.

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