MELBOURNE, Australia – Britain’s new aircraft carrier departed Singapore Tuesday, bringing an end to a nearly three month deployment to the western Pacific.
The deployment of the Royal Navy’s largest warship underscores the growing geopolitical complexities in the region, brought about in part by increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The 65,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth had arrived in Singapore barely 24 hours earlier following exercises with the southeast Asian island nation’s military, which included the carrier’s Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters training with Singaporean F-16 fighter jets.
The aircraft carrier carried 18 F-35Bs on this deployment, of which eight were from the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron and the remainder being U.S. Marine Corps aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron or VMFA 211.
Accompanying the carrier on this voyage, which started in late May, was a multinational task group called Carrier Strike Group 21, or CSG21, that included the Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Richmond (F239) and HMS Kent (F78); the Type 45 guided-missile destroyer HMS Defender (D36); Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria (A387) and RFA Tidespring (A136). It also included U.S. destroyer The Sullivans (DDG-68); Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805); and the nuclear attack submarine HMS Artful (S121).
The group arrived in the region in late July, with the first ships from the task group entering the strategic Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean on July 22 and moving to the South China Sea the next day. The carrier and the bulk of the ships followed four days later.
The group conducted training with regional navies during its time in the region and culminated in a large scale naval exercises with six regional navies in water southeast of the Japanese island of Okinawa.
These exercises involved 17 ships from the six navies, and also included the U.S. Navy’s George Washington and Carl Vinson carrier strike groups and the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Ise. The other countries involved in the exercise included the Canadian, Dutch, and New Zealand navies.
The group’s leader, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, told media in Singapore that the deployment “heralds just how important the region is.” He added that because several nations wanted to train with the group, it proves out that those countries “viewed the world the same and wanted to uphold the same values”.
Britain will continue to have a naval presence in the region following the departure of the group. Another Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer, the HMS Diamond, has arrived in the region and is taking part in the Five Power Defence Arrangement or FPDA exercise Bersama Gold with the forces of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
The arrangement calls for the five member nations agree to consult one another on measures taken separately or together in response to any attack or threat of attack to Malaysia or Singapore, with regular military exercises.
Another two Royal Navy vessels, the River-class offshore patrol vessels HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, are in San Diego after having crossed the Panama Canal on the way to the Indo-Pacific, where they are expected to spend much of the next five years.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.