Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has told Australian ministers that HMS Queen Elizabeth will conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea region on her maiden deployment in 2021.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said:
“We spoke about the challenges including in the South China Sea and we had a long discussion about the Pacific and the opportunities for deeper British engagement in our part of the world.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in response to concerns raised regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea:
“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area, to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”
Britain recently deployed a squadron of Typhoon aircraft to conduct exercises with South Korea and Japan amid heightened tension in the region. According to local media, the ministers agreed to identify opportunities to conduct joint activities when the two countries have ships or other assets in the area at the same time.
We reported recently that it had emerged that the UK plans to sail HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific in 2021 amid concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the region.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail to the Pacific on her maiden deployment in 2020 according to an ambassador. Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US said at a think-tank event in Washington:
“As we bring our two new aircraft carriers on-stream in 2020, and as we renew and update our defence forces, they will be seen in the Pacific. And we absolutely share the objective of this US administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.”
The Queen Elizabeth class carriers are the largest and most powerful warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy, but what will they carry?
The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW), the previously used Tailored Air Group (TAG) has fallen out of official use. The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions.
Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:
“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed.
We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”
In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2. We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.
The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.
Around the time the first carrier deploys operationally, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.
Recently, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans for the deployment of American F-35 aircraft alongside British jets aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The addition of US Marine Corps aircraft will see HMS Queen Elizabeth sail with 24 or so F-35Bs in addition to around 14 or so helicopters for her maiden deployment. It is understood that the US aircraft will augment British jets on coalition operations.