The British military made a subtle change before showing off its newest aircraft carrier — and avoided an awkward gaffe

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Images showing the naming ceremonies for HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
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Admiral Sir Philip Jones/Twitter

There was a lot of fanfare and pomp on Friday when the heir to the British throne led the naming ceremony for Britain’s second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

The carrier – the second of two ships meant to revitalise the Royal Navy – will follow its sister craft, HMS Queen Elizabeth, into service in the 2020s and beyond.

The formal ceremonies to name the two craft were in most respects very similar. But close observers will notice one stark difference between the two.

In 2014, HMS Queen Elizabeth was named while sporting what looked very like an F-35 Lightning II on the tip of its flight ramp:

HMS Queen Elizabeth naming ceremony

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The HMS Queen Elizabeth naming ceremony in July 2014.
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Getty Images/Business Insider

However, the day after the launch, Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper revealed that the plane was actually a fibreglass demonstration model. In fact, the Royal Air Force did not have any usable F-35s in 2014 – and still doesn’t.

Ten of the planes have now been manufactured in the United States, where RAF pilots have been testing them.

But it will be next year at the earliest before any British F-35s fly from HMS Queen Elizabeth, according to a statement given to the UK Defence Journal earlier this year.

The use of the model plane three years ago drew extra attention to the fact that the UK’s F-25 programme was years behind schedule and had exceeded its original budget.

F35B

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An F-35 Lightning II in action.
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Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

A spokesman for the Britain’s Ministry of Defence declined to comment on whether the plane was left out this time because of 2014’s media coverage, describing the detail as “not a significant choice.”

Its absence may remove the possibility of similar criticisms being levelled at the F-35 programme again.

But British military chiefs will struggle to avoid attention focusing on the slow deployment of planes as the carriers begin to come into service.

During sea trials last month, HMS Queen Elizabeth participated in group exercises with other NATO vessels, including American aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

Though the joint carrier group was an impressive sight, the contrast between the two militaries was obvious: The US Navy fielded its carrier with dozens of aircraft, while the Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck was empty.

At full strength, the Queen Elizabeth could have 36 F-35 fighter jets and four helicopters on board.

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Handout/LPhot Ioan Roberts via Reuters