LONDON – The largest fleet of Royal Navy warships to deploy internationally since the 1982 Falklands War is heading to the Indo-Pacific region next month as the British government seeks to raise its presence in the Far East.
The maiden deployment of a UK carrier strike group led by the Royal Navy’s new 65,000 tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth has been on the cards for months but this is the first time the MoD has detailed the destinations, ships, aircraft and submarines involved.
Aside from the carrier, the surface fleet comprises Type 45 destroyers, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s logistics ships Fort Victoria and Tidespring.
An Astute-class nuclear submarine will also be part of the force.
The deployment accounts for a significant portion of a Royal Navy surface fleet which totals only 19 frigates and destroyers.
The US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans and a Dutch frigate, HNLMS Evertse, complete the line-up of surface warships accompanying HMS Queen Elizabeth on the 28 week deployment.
Eight British F-35B Lightning strike aircraft will be deployed on the carrier, with the bigger part of the warship’s fast-jet strike force made up of 10 US Marine Corp F-35s.
To date Britain has only ordered 48 of the short-take-off, vertical-landing aircraft version of the F-35, with deliveries standing at 21.
Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin laid out the expected F-35 and carrier capability development path in a Parliamentary answer last November.
“The current, agreed F35-B Lightning procurement profile will see the U.K. reach 48 aircraft in quarter four of 2025. … In December 2023, when full operational capability carrier strike is scheduled to be declared, the UK F35-B Lightning force will have a total of 37 F35-B aircraft which will support two frontline squadrons and the Operational Conversion Unit. The full complement of 48 aircraft will be available in 2026,” he said.
Howard Wheeldon, a consultant and commentator here, dismissed criticism of the low numbers of British aircraft deploying on the carrier.
“With only eight Royal Navy/Royal Air Force F-35 Bs on-board HMS Queen Elizabeth, rather typical of the criticism heard today is that because we don’t have sufficient numbers of F-35 aircraft of our own we had no choice in respect of US Marine Corps being required to make up the numbers,” he wrote in a commentary.
“Read that how you will, but as far as I am concerned, although never actually stated as such by successive U.K. governments, it was always intended that U.S. F-35B aircraft would, on international NATO or allied deployments, engage alongside UK F-35s from our carriers,” said Wheeldon.
Also part of the task force will be four Leonardo-built Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Leonardo Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters.
No mention was made of the new Merlin Crowsnest airborne early-warning helicopter capability, but it seems the British will be fielding all three aircraft so far handed over to the Royal Navy by contractor Lockheed Martin UK.
In March the Royal Navy reported they were starting operational training of Crowsnest ahead of deployment on HMS Queen Elizabeth in the spring.
The deployment is being touted by the MoD as a practical demonstration of Britain’s intention to tilt its military, trade and diplomatic effort more to the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the British government’s recently published integrated review of defense, security and foreign policy.
More than 40 countries are scheduled to be visited during the deployment, with India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore at the top of the list for a step-up in a British defense effort in the region, which already includes membership of the Five Powers Defence Agreement with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
The British are planning a significant increase to their maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific region if a government response to a question in the House of Lords on April 1 is anything to go by.
“We plan to deliver this through offshore patrol vessels from 2021, a littoral response group from 2023 and a permanently assigned frigate by the end of the decade,” said Baroness Annabel Goldie, the MoD’s Minister of State.
“These forces will intentionally operate asymmetrically, without a nominated base. They will use existing U.K., allied and partner facilities around the region enabled by our existing global support agreements,” she said.
“When our carrier strike group sets sail next month, it will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” said Defense Secretary Ben Wallace in a statement.
On the Mediterranean leg of the deployment, HMS Queen Elizabeth will undertake dual operations with French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.
At other points during the deployment air and maritime forces from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Israel, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Oman, South Korea, Turkey and the UAE will operate alongside the carrier strike group.
The British have yet to decide whether the carrier strike group will be taking the long route to Japan by avoiding the Taiwan Strait in order to prevent antagonizing Beijing.
Media speculation recently said warships will go through the South China Sea to the east of the island.
The carrier strike group, dubbed CSG21, will participate in NATO exercises such as Exercise Steadfast Defender and provide support to NATO Operation Sea Guardian and maritime security operations in the Black Sea.
A decision have yet to be taken about which, if any, task force warships could enter the Black Sea, a potential flashpoint with Russia.
Entry into the Black Sea by warships the size of the Queen Elizabeth is restricted under the terms of the Montreux Convention.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.