A number of challenges face the UK, not the least of which is how is Britain is to become ‘Global Britain’.
We have renewed our commitment to the defence of Europe and we must remain the bridge between Europe and the United States and Canada. However, we must look to the world beyond the continent.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Geoffrey Roach.
Geoffrey Roach has a work background in features, publicity management and more recently digital marketing. Geoffrey advises that his interest the armed forces started with his Dad who served with Captain Johnny Walker on HMS Stork and then HMS Starling during the war, mostly in the Atlantic and the Arctic. His own own interests developed into defence and foreign affairs and he took that brief on joining the National Advisory Committee in the eighties. Geoffrey is currently a member of RUSI and SSAFA and in the process of taking up a position as leader of a policy forum advisory group.
After a gap of over fifty years, we look east of Suez. Whilst the Middle East will remain vital to our interests it is to the Indo-Pacific that we must now give our attention. The region will be the centre of the global economy for decades to come.
Moves by Britain towards an alignment with Indo-Pacific nations will inevitably bring it into political conflict with China. China is unashamedly trying to achieve hegemony over the entire region.
The treatment of the Uyghur people, slave labour, the suppression of free speech in Hong Kong and continued threats against India are just the beginning of a long list of existing tensions.
Soft power can achieve a lot.
Our historic ties to the Commonwealth through cultural links, education and language and increasing cooperation with countries like Japan and South Korea in defence, politics and trade is increasing, and free trade deals pursued. The election of President Biden and our natural friendship with the United States will allow for a more stable relationship between the UK and the USA and will hopefully lead to a free trade deal of benefit to both nations.
Hard power for Global Britain will inevitably mean the Royal Navy being at the heart of our strategy. The Queen Elizabeth Battle Group on it’s first deployment east of Suez will need to be the precursor to a regular presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The sight of a Royal Navy Battle Group needs to become the norm.
Britain is playing catch up after an absence of many decades and needs to be seen to be committed to the region.
In peacetime it will show the flag, exercise with friendly nations and be ready to assist with natural disasters. It will gather information, it will underline rites of passage and assist commercial shipping. It could be involved in combating piracy and smuggling. A third of all global shipping passes through the South Chins Seas and over 100,000 vessels a year use the Gulf of Malaca.
Our carriers are our biggest surface asset and we must do whatever is necessary to maximise availability. We need to equip and crew both ships. Not to do so would, in peacetime, be a waste of the resources invested to date and in times of conflict foolhardy. Having both carriers active with a well balanced complement of aircraft will also allow one to be always available for UK sovereign requirements.
To achieve the aim of each carrier operating for about 200 days a year, one would be on station, the other working up, in transit and carrying out exercises and perhaps testing future equipment. A reduction in transit time and costs for all Royal Navy and RFA vessels could be achieved by forward basing, at least for maintenance facilities maybe in Australia or Singapore or even Japan.
We will also need the cooperation of our allies. The carriers, given the will to do so, can be made ready as suggested but we may not need to provide all the escorts. An open handed commitment to both our European, Indian Ocean and Pacific allies could easily see naval vessels from thesregions standing up to contribute to a joint escort force, perhaps including one or two submarines.
The United Kingdom at the heart of a truly international fleet operating in international waters.
So how do we achieve maximum capability?
A brief but important passing note, the F35A is reportedly being discussed again in RAF circles. The idea of maintaining an RAF strike force and equipping two carriers and providing a test and training element has never made sense.
The ‘A’ variant is far better suited to RAF requirements, has a significantly longer range, carries a heavier weapon load is and is far less expensive, around 25 per cent cheaper than the ‘B’ version.
Back to the Royal Navy. Whatever occurs with the RAF, the Royal Navy need around 50 to 55 F-35B airframes. Operationally the on-station carrier would operate with two squadrons each with ten F-35’s probably with another US Marine Corps squadron with another ten aircraft. Also Merlin ASW and AEW.
The second or supporting carrier would carry a nominal squadron of ten F35’s and Merlin helicopters. A fourth squadron and OCU would provide the opportunity to rotate and allow for surge situations, reinforcing the UK’s sovereign capability.
Both carriers can embark a Royal Marine Commando force. The capability to carry out an over the horizon insertion against terrorists, extremists or even criminal gang would be a considerable UK asset. Such a force will need speed and surprise.
Currently the fastest helicopters with the best combat radius are Merlin and Wildcat, the latter being able to deliver a substantial punch A composite squadron of six and four respectively seems appropriate. Longer term, the V-280 Valor or the SB1 Defiant could be considered.
The provision of an amphibious element is also a possibility. An international task force with, for example HMAS Canberra, HMS Albion, and an Izumo from Japan riding shotgun with F-35s?
Regarding the ships themselves, the carriers are poorly defended with only three obsolescent Phalanx. Even allowing for their escorts both ships could easily be fitted with three or four 12 cell SYLVER VLS and the provision of 30mm/Martlet systems would provide defence against small craft.
The phrase ‘built for but not fitted’ is all too common. A decision to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a warship and then try to save money by not fully arming it beggars belief. The Type 45’s must be fitted with their VLS silo’s for anti ship and land attack missiles as soon as practical and the Type 26’s must join the fleet complete.
In conclusion, the United Kingdom faces opportunities and threats alike in dangerous times. Moving towards 2030 there is much to do.
The Royal Navy is in good shape and with the right ships and the right people it will continue to be the United Kingdom’s ambassador worldwide.