The deployment of a British aircraft carrier and her strike group is politically symbolic as it serves to validate the concept of ‘Global Britain’ and as such the deployment is certainly political, but it also serves a strategic aim.

The British ’tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific is based on several concerns such as economics (the economies of the region are growing at a substantial rate) and security (to preserve freedom of navigation in the face of China claiming vast swatches of the world’s oceans).


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Simply put, the UK believes that the increasing power and international assertiveness of China is likely to become one of the defining geopolitical factors of the coming decades.

HMS Queen Elizabeth with a mix of British and American jets.

The British government recently published a policy document outlining the country’s comprehensive strategic framework for engaging with the world for the next decade.

The 100-page document titled ‘Global Britain in a competitive age — The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy’ states that the Indo-Pacific region is critical to the UK’s economy, security and global ambition to support open societies.

Don’t take my word for it, the following mentions China.

“To meet the Prime Minister’s vision for 2030, we will need a long-term strategic approach – combining all the instruments available to government – that continues to adapt to a changing international environment. This is a context defined by: geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts, such as China’s increasing international assertiveness and the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific; systemic competition, including between states, and between democratic and authoritarian values and systems of government; rapid technological change; and transnational challenges, such as climate change, biosecurity risks, terrorism and SOC.”

and…

“Indo-Pacific: we will pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties. This approach recognises the importance of powers in the region such as China, India and Japan, and extends to others including South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. We will seek closer relations through existing institutions such as ASEAN and seek accession to the CPTPP.”

annndd….

“China: we will do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes more powerful in the world. We will invest in enhanced China-facing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people, improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that China poses to our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners. We will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected. We will also cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change.”

Why does this matter to Britain? To put it simply, freedom of navigation.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea

While the Royal Navy plans to forward deploy patrol vessels to the region, it is the carrier strike group which is paving the way and sending a message, ‘Britain is capable of deploying serious firepower to back up its obligations in the region’.

HMS Spey and Tamar have today set off for the Indo-Pacific as part of a five year deployment to bolster the British presence in the region. Spey and Tamar will arrive in the Pacific on the back of the maiden deployment by HMS Queen Elizabeth and her strike group which have spent several months working alongside the UK’s allies and partners in the region.

British patrol ships head to Pacific for five year deployment

You can read more about the enhanced, long term, presence of patrol vessels here.

In fact, British military aims for the region don’t stop at a patrol vessel and a very occasional carrier visit.

The aforementioned deployment of River class patrol vessels is certainly the primary short-term addition to British naval forces in the Indo-Pacific but in the late 2020s, Type 31 frigates are going to be permanently based in the region, patrolling the British Overseas Territories and paying visits to friendly nations with the aim of building relationships.

HMS Queen Elizabeth sailing her Carrier Strike Group.

Local nations have very strong concerns about security in the region in the face of increasing Chinese claims on vast swathes of ocean, the presence of a British carrier group and soon more British warships is likely to stop China from undertaking any major moves against countries in the region as that could risk the wider involvement of the U.S., UK, and other powers.

Referring to the concept of ‘Freedom fo Navigation’, the strategy document states:

“For our security – the region is at the centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints: from unresolved territorial disputes; to nuclear proliferation and miscalculation; to climate change and non-state threats from terrorism and SOC. It is on the frontline of new security challenges, including in cyberspace. Much of the UK’s trade with Asia depends on shipping that goes through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points. Preserving freedom of navigation is therefore essential to the UK’s national interests. We already work closely with regional partners and will do more through persistent engagement by our armed forces and our wider security capacity-building.”

So what are they going to do?

“Deploy more of our naval assets across the world to protect shipping lanes and uphold freedom of navigation. The Joint Maritime Security Centre will support this, strengthening operational maritime coordination across government. The Royal Navy’s Maritime Component Command in Bahrain will continue to ensure the flow of trade in the Gulf, including through support to part of the new International Maritime Security Construct.”

China claims practically the whole 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it has blamed foreign warships for escalating tensions in the region.

Freedom of navigation operations are routinely conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to counter what the West refers to as “attempts by coastal states to unjustly limit access to the seas” and HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Carrier Strike Group is simply another instance of these efforts.

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Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago

The US is worried that even its forces in the Pacific may not be sufficient to deter an increasingly assertive China. Britain’s rather small contribution is unlikely to impress Beijing. Does anyone seriously believe that a few more British warships in the Pacific is likely to stop China from undertaking major moves against countries in the region? Freedom of navigation exercises in concert with others is a more modest and achievable ambition. Deploying sufficient forces to have any deterrent effect on China is far beyond the RNs capability.

eclipse
eclipse
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

I might remind you that until Carl Vinson arrived while Reagan was deployed to Afghanistan the only major carrier in the West Pacific was HMS Queen Elizabeth. While our navy is much smaller than China’s, we can send a much larger task force far from home than they can.

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  eclipse

So what?

eclipse
eclipse
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

Hence saying that the deployment of the QE CSG to SCS is a “rather small contribution” is simply incorrect. Even today, despite an insufficient number of F-35s and 20-30 year old frigates (which are still hella good at their job btw!), a UKCSG can outmatch any other CSG except one of the US’.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  eclipse

Absolute nonsense.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

It’s absolutely laughable. Surface ships wouldn’t last long at all if a war broke out with China: https://breakingdefense.com/2019/03/us-gets-its-ass-handed-to-it-in-wargames-heres-a-24-billion-fix/

As for sending River OPVs? WTF??????
That’s absolutely insane.
All they’re capable of dealing with is boats poaching fish in UK waters.

The idiotic thing is that we spend billions on defence but spend it on all the wrong things. If we spent it on the right things we could counter China (and Russia).

Palaboran
Palaboran
2 months ago

The disastrous outcome undoable contract with Glasgow shipyards to build two aircraft carriers in order to win Scottish votes. As a consequence the RN can barely provide a defensive support fleet to the carriers and the RAF is denuded of strike aircraft. China certainly has nothing to worry about. The age of the British Empire has long gone, rather look after the defensive needs of the UK.

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  Palaboran

I’m not suggesting that we should not have a wider role than the direct defence of the UK. Our presence in the Middle East, backed up by bases in Cyprus is a reasonable commitment, for example. But the tilt to Asia Pacific is not. We do not have vital interests in the region and even the US defence secretary has indicated he would prefer European powers to concentrate their efforts nearer home. Meanwhile, as pressures on public expenditure mount, we are more likely to see further cuts in equipment than any increase. You can’t do global on a £45b a… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

“We do not have vital interests in the region…”

Nearly all the microprocessors we import, come from the Far East, we be stuffed without microprocessors in these modern times.

It would take a decade or so, to set up alternative production in the West.

Last edited 2 months ago by Meirion x
Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  Meirion x

We already have a micro processor crisis with eg Toyota cutting car production by 40%. Japan has a big naval presence in the Pacific but of course if made no difference. Why would it? You mentioned the solution and it isn’t more warships.

JohninMK
JohninMK
2 months ago
Reply to  Meirion x

Almost all semiconductors come by air from the FE.

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago
Reply to  JohninMK

It doesn’t matter, how microprocessors are transported, because we will still be stuffed if China can control the airspace and air routes as well, even worse the production facilities to conform with their specifications.

Last edited 2 months ago by Meirion x
James
James
2 months ago
Reply to  Meirion x

China is already playing the political game here and restricting the processors from leaving China, they are being prioritised for Chinese production facilities.

China is very much winning the global economic war since the pandemic started.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

“You can’t do global on a £45b a year defence budget.”

Yes you can if you spend the money wisely.

Buy some Airbus A350s, convert them into missile trucks and use them to take out ships and land targets from beyond the range of enemy defences. Large long-range aircraft can carry dozens of missiles to overwhelm enemy defences, which carrier aircraft can’t do.

Last edited 1 month ago by Hugh Jarce
Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
2 months ago
Reply to  Palaboran

A navy with escorts only and no carriers or SSN is not a serious navy, as it has no ability for sea denial. The UK acts with allies. Not alone. Whether China is worried or not is irrelevant. Your preference for the UK to withdraw basically says to authoritarian states like Chinato go ahead and do what they like. A defender who only defends always loses. Eventually. If the UK acted as you desire would you expect others to follow suit and leave the field to others and allow China to walk all over the SCS and the nations around… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago

Whilst much of what you say may be true, you haven’t really addressed the key point made. The cost of the QE carriers and their aircraft has eaten up so much of the budget that numbers of both surface escorts and SSNs have been greatly reduced, the former lacking the all round armament that is normal on other countries vessels. We didn’t have to choose this supercarrier design- it was selected to generate a sortie rate comparable to USN carriers in the foolish and unfunded expectation of a fleet of 138 F35b. We now have carriers we are unlikely ever… Read more »

Dern
Dern
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Just going to point out Trieste can’t even carry as many F-35’s as QE currently has embarked…. (never mind as many F-35’s as QE has plus the helicopters on board.)

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  Dern

Trieste can carry 16 plus 8 helicopters though it is likely that 12 will be the max if the Italian navy loses its argument with the air force. I am not arguing UK should have an identical vessel but pointing out how effective you can be if you plan realistically. Italy has retained its Harriers which will be replaced by F35b. It has avoided the 10 year gap the UK has had in fixed wing capability. It has provided sufficient funds to equip Trieste with a comprehensive defensive armament suite. The original plan for UK carriers was for more modest… Read more »

Dern
Dern
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

A realistic combat load for F-35 is 12 at max Peter the numbers you’ve listed are for Cavour. Either way the current load out on CSG-21, that everyone is mocking, is already beyond the max size of either Trieste or Cavour, so… no it’s not effective. It’s cheaper yes, but also delivers less than 1/4 of the airwing (yes that includes the reduced UK F-35 buy).

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  Dern

The aircraft numbers I cited were from a US defence website. Trieste is slightly bigger than Cavour so a broadly similar number of aircraft is likely. The real point is how little the UK has got for its money. I have just re-read the Navy Lookout article on whether the carriers are too big. Defence insiders knew we would never have the funds to buy enough aircraft. An argument was made that steel is cheap so a big carrier made financial sense. That is obviously untrue: the QEs cost £3.5b each for a fairly simple vessel with limited sensors and… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

QE’s are still cheaper than the Ford’s at $13 Billion each, excluding it’s aircraft some more so expensive then F-35B.

Last edited 2 months ago by Meirion x
James
James
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

What are the sensor differences in capability between the QE and the Trieste?

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

“the QEs cost £3.5b each for a fairly simple vessel with limited sensors and almost no defensive weaponry.” Exactly, the QE and PoW are embarrassingly bad. The cost adds insult to injury. Just 3 Phalanx (which is a shit CIWS anyway) and no 76mm or 57mm gun-based defences. No laser or microwave weapons. Do the QE or PoW even have an EW suite like SLQ-32? And the F-35B lacks range, can’t be refuelled flying from the QE or PoW, and can’t carry much ordnance internally. The F-35B can’t carry the following ordnance internally: AIM-9X, IRIS-T, standard HARM, JASSM/JASSM-ER/JASSM-XR and LRASM.… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Hugh Jarce
BradyS
BradyS
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

The rationale was that a bigger carrier allows more sorties to be generated. Future upgrades and modifications to be made, and possibly an angled flight deck to be added.

If the UK can operate a CSG with good type 45s and type 23s ready with proper missiles but average readiness then that is a very useful achievement.

JohninMK
JohninMK
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Add in the cost of the submarine and missile replacement programs and there isn’t going to be much left over for the Army or the RAF. NHS or MoD? We are heading rapidly towards a seriously unbalanced, underfunded military unfit for the tasks we are likely to actually face.

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  JohninMK

I agree. First you make sure you have the people and equipment to do what absolutely needs to be done. Then and only then do you think of what optional capabilities you might be able to afford.
But the absence of any coherent strategy makes this all but impossible. So we lurch from one funding crisis to another and get by by postponing delivery of equipment and making yet further cuts.
Defence is in a real mess and the recent reviews do little to fix it.

David Steeper
David Steeper
2 months ago
Reply to  JohninMK

You really have no idea how MoD funding works do you,

Peter S
Peter S
2 months ago
Reply to  David Steeper

That’s not the problem. The problem is that the MOD seems to have little understanding of how to order, manage and fund equipment programmes. See comments to day in the HoC on the latest statement on Ajax.

David Steeper
David Steeper
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Then why do the RAF and RN seem to be doing so much better than the Army ?

David Steeper
David Steeper
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

So why do the RAF and RN seem to be doing so much better than the Army ?

Tom Keane
Tom Keane
2 months ago
Reply to  JohninMK

Are we not already at that point?

Chris
Chris
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Whilst it is certainly a shame that we are highly unlikely to get the full fleet of 138 F35Bs, my view is that this may end up being irrelevant. The carriers have a declared service life of approximately 50 years, and let’s face it they will be kept in service well beyond that. As well as having plenty of room for future upgrades/modifications, a real benefit of their size is that they will be able to accommodate large numbers of large UUV/AUV. It is clear for everyone to see that unmanned aircraft are not just the future, they are fast… Read more »

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris

“Whilst it is certainly a shame that we are highly unlikely to get the full fleet of 138 F35Bs” I’d say that’s a good thing, considering how shit the F-35B is. It lacks range if a carrier is staying out of the range of DF-26 or Kinzhal, it can’t carry much ordnance internally and it’s riddled with hundreds of unresolved problems. “The carriers have a declared service life of approximately 50 years, and let’s face it they will be kept in service well beyond that.” You don’t know that. And I expect they’ll be sunk, mission-killed or retired well before… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago

HERE, Here!

Chris
Chris
2 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. It’s so nice (and unfortunately rather refreshing) to hear this viewpoint put forwards in a coherent manner.

Airborne
Airborne
2 months ago

Kaboom, what more does anyone else need to say!!!!!!

George
George
2 months ago

Hi folks hope you are well.
Just had a chance to catch up with this article.
Agree Daniele, there appear to be many that want to seek out areas that want to play down the UK.
When push come to shove recently, how many EU military assets came to the rescue in the evacuation of Afghanistan?
Once again it was the UK and US that did the hard lifting.
Cheers,
George

Lin
Lin
1 month ago

Very well said. Cheers from Aus.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago

“A navy with escorts only and no carriers or SSN is not a serious navy, as it has no ability for sea denial.”

How do carriers help? Carriers would need to stay out of the range of DF-26 and Kinzhal, which would render them completely impotent. The carrier aircraft wouldn’t have the range to reach land.

SSNs and diesel-electric AIP subs would be useful though.

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago
Reply to  Palaboran

What country do you represent?

Palaboran
Palaboran
2 months ago
Reply to  Meirion x

I’m British and proud of it. I believe it’s still a right to hold a different view from you.

Meirion x
Meirion x
2 months ago
Reply to  Palaboran

You certainly have come across, in your posts, as someone of an adversary interest.

Last edited 2 months ago by Meirion x
Eufster
Eufster
2 months ago

I have a matchbox containing 100 matches, each capable of starting a wildfire! I must be incredibly powerful.

Tom Keane
Tom Keane
2 months ago

“Politically symbolic, and validates the concept of a Global Britain”.

Symbolic, and validates global Britain to whom? Lets face it, the Chinese couldn’t give a fiddlers about a British ‘boat’ swanning around in the Pacific.

They don’t really give that much of a ‘fig’ about anyone out there complaining about their ‘islands’, and claiming huge swathes of ocean.

Clearly there is more to this than us ordinary joe’s are aware of. Oil, Gas, and Minerals … thats my guess.

Same as around the Falklands … thats WHY we stay out there.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Keane
Frank62
Frank62
2 months ago

2 tiny River II OPVs with negligable armament say more about our naval weakness than any deterrent. The PLAN probably will die laughing at these vessels that would be clear cannon fodder in any conflict. If we deployed a couple of decent escorts it would be a credible presence, but the escort fleet has been cut well below any sense. But thankfully Chinas neighbors together amount to naval strength that matches that of the PLAN & then the USN prsence tips the balance. It’s a full scale arms race there with nobody behaving like the RN, being run down to… Read more »

Richard B
Richard B
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank62

I generally agree, but symbolism is sometimes important. If China decided to fire on an RN warship transiting the South China Sea, does it make much difference if it’s a River B2 or a T45? China could sink either in isolation

Frank62
Frank62
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard B

The difference would be a T45, or T23 would have a very good chance of defending itself from an enemy missile, but a River would be a sitting duck.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank62

“The difference would be a T45, or T23 would have a very good chance of defending itself from an enemy missile…”

What sort of missile exactly?

Frank62
Frank62
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Jarce

Hi Hugh. An AShM. With Aster or Sea Ceptor missiles & Phalanx(last gasp) there’s a chance of surviving an AShM attack. For a River OPV a PLAN Corvette could just turn up & demand it surrender & there’d be little it could do.
We do have decent escorts, just very few of them.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank62

“Hi Hugh. An AShM.” Well, obviously, but what type of anti-ship missile specifically? The Type 45’s Aster 30 Block 0 missile isn’t designed to shoot down ballistic anti-ship missiles. And as for Kinzhal, which is a hypersonic missile, I highly doubt a T45 could shoot that down either. “With Aster or Sea Ceptor missiles & Phalanx(last gasp) there’s a chance of surviving an AShM attack.” You sure? As I said, Aster 30 Block 0 isn’t designed to shoot down ballistic anti-ship missiles. AFAIK it’s only been tested against a sea-skimming, mid-supersonic Coyote missile. Type 45s don’t have SM-3, SM-6 or… Read more »

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank62

“2 tiny River II OPVs with negligable armament say more about our naval weakness than any deterrent. The PLAN probably will die laughing at these vessels that would be clear cannon fodder in any conflict.” Yep, totally agree, it’s absolutely laughable. We might as well send pedalos with Nerf guns. “If we deployed a couple of decent escorts…” We don’t have any. Type 45s can’t shoot down ballistic anti-ship missiles and how are Type 23s going to detect modern SSNs and diesel-electric subs that are quiet and that use acoustic tiles? It seems to me that active and passive sonar… Read more »

Richard B
Richard B
1 month ago

Guam rather than Singapore has unexpectedly become the Big Lizzy’s go to for R&R and maintenance periods. Two visits already, with a third to follow. This is almost certainly Covid-19 driven, but it will be interesting to see what happens when POW goes “East of Suez” for her own first deployment, expected in 2023.

Chris
Chris
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard B

Much like the Americans have found, port facilities willing and able to take big deck flat tops are few and far between these days.

Blue water navy problems.