The largest fleet of Royal Navy warships to deploy internationally since the 1982 Falklands War is setting sail to the Indo-pacific this month. The government is hailing the fleet as a symbol of ‘Global Britain’. Its mission is to demonstrate Britain’s intention to tilt its military, trade and diplomatic efforts to the far east.
Escorting the Queen Elizabeth will be two Type 45 destroyers and two Type 23 frigates, along with several Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) support ships. An Astute-class nuclear submarine will also be part of the force. Together forming the UK Carrier Strike Group (UKCSG).
Onboard Queen Elizabeth will be eight of the RAF’s new F-35B jets. A variety of multipurpose helicopters will be on board from the UK Navy, Marine’s and US Marine Corp. This will be managed by a force of around 3700 personnel and a small Marine Commando force.
The 26,000 nautical mile trip will take the UKCSG on a carefully calculated tour of the world. The first stop of the tour will be Gibraltar before carrying on its journey to the Mediterranean. From there the UKCSG will travel through the Suez Canal, stopping in Oman where there are facilities specifically designed for the Carrier. From Oman the Strike Group tours the Indian Ocean, visiting India and carrying out joint exercised with their Navy. Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are also on the itinerary. Following this, the strike group will journey through the South China Sea. This is seen as the most assertive and calculated leg of the journey.
UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, says the deployment demonstrates that Britain is ‘not stepping back but sailing forth to play an active role in shaping the international system’. Closely aligning with the Prime Minister’s desire to see an end to what he describes as an ‘era of retreat’. The UKCSG and all it represents is believed to send a clear message that the UK is a global player in every sense.
Russia was identified as Britain’s ‘most acute direct threat’ in the latest defence review ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. China was labelled a ‘systemic competitor’, with the aggressive modernisation of its military and assertiveness globally posing a continuing risk to UK interests. Both countries and their threats have been targeted in this trip.
As well as the supporting Navy and RFA ships, a US Navy Destroyer and Dutch Navy ship will accompany the fleet. They will also be sailing alongside the French carrier, the Charles De Gaulle in an exercise in the Mediterranean. These are efforts to bolster interoperability and signal a multilateral approach to issues of maritime security. Russia will be watching closely.
Their time in the Mediterranean will also allow the carrier to launch attacks against IS targets in Iraq. These are usually carried out from a base in Cyprus, however launching from the carrier will be a further demonstration on Britain’s new capabilities.
The most controversial leg of the trip will be their time sailing in the South China Sea. Some fear it to be too antagonistic, others say it is predictable. For a government targeting greater trade with China, this move may not be the best way to win favour with Beijing. Perhaps this leg is more a piece of diplomatic theatre to win favour with the US, than military strategy.
There are credible fears that trading relationships will be affected by the trip. Companies trading with Russia and China must be prepared for some form of backlash. This will likely be a short-term inconvenience with increased red tape or slowing delivery/order times. Nevertheless, troubles British companies could do without.
The deployment has as much to do with a show of strength and diplomacy as it does with trade. Head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Tony Radakin said, “Navies follow trade and trade follows navies’. Whether or not that is taken as a slightly imperialistic statement, it does have some credibility. The Middle East has strong economic ties with Britain already. Showing off the very latest in British military hardware is hoped to secure lucrative defence contracts for the British defence industry in the region.
The UKCSG deployment is deliberately global in nature and will transit almost every major trade artery in the world, culminating into 70 engagements with 40 countries. All of which are aimed at bolstering British military, diplomatic and economic influence.