UK Carrier Strike Group – heading for the South China Sea?

In the first part of this article, we summarised at the political situation and strategic balance in the South China Sea. Here we untangle the confusing statements about whether the UK will send its carrier strike group to the area and take a balanced view about the risks and reward that could accompany such a deployment.

He said… she said…

The complicated messaging surrounding plans for the UKCSG deployment in May 2021 really started in July 2017 when the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson speaking in Australia about the SCS said “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area ”. This was later downplayed by the then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who stated in October 2017 “We will exercise our right of navigation and the Americans have been carrying out specific exercises [FONOPS] throughout some of the disputed islands but we’re not, we don’t have plans to do that.” Fallon resigned in disgrace in November and his surprise replacement was the more forthright Gavin Williamson. In July 2018 he explained that the RN presence in Asia would not be just a “flash in the pan” and that we would be “deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific and hopefully sailing side by side with Australian vessels.”

In February 2019 Williamson went a step further saying HMS Queen Elizabeth‘s first operational mission would take place in an area where China had been involved in an ongoing dispute over navigation rights and the UK needed to be ready to “use hard power”. His comments led to the Chinese cancelling a trade visit by the chancellor, Philip Hammond. A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May distanced her from Williamson’s comments, saying that the UKCSG would “would visit a number of global locations but the PM will take the final decision over its route”.

When this author asked COMUKCSG on 2nd July 2020 if he knew where they would be going during the deployment next year, he replied that the RN was hoping to get a decision from the government by the Autumn. In a public IISS webinar on 13th July, Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd said the Royal Navy is “going to be coming back to the Indo-Pacific region”.  An otherwise decent article by Lucy Fisher, the Times reported Kyd’s comments but accompanied the piece with an inflammatory headline “Britain set to confront China with carrier”. Reacting strongly to the Times article, Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the HoC Defence Committee TweetedTalk of sending our carrier towards China on the day Huawei is banned is reckless. We need a full foreign policy reset on China…” Subsequently, the Defence Secretary has now issued a ban on officers of one-star rank and above from making public speeches or appearing at think tank events until further notice. Depending on your point of view, this gagging order is either a hindrance to democratic discourse or may help restore some dignity to the chaotic pre-defence review process.

On 23rd July Baroness Goldie, House of Lords Defence Minister was asked whether government intends to send HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea. “No decision has yet been made. Cross-government consultation is in progress and we expect to finalise the details of the deployment soon” she replied, but added that building on “a near persistent presence there for a number of years… the Royal Navy intends to continue to operate across the region, including in the South China Sea”.

During the IISS webinar at no time did Jerry Kyd specifically say the RN would conduct FONOPS near islands claimed by the Chinese. His comments were measured as ever and in line with the direction of previous ministerial comments. The Admiral floated the idea of disembarking the F-35 Jets ashore for some of the time to exercise with allies. Commonality of aircraft with the US means UK jets could potentially be sustained at a USMC airbase in Japan. What was most striking was his admission that RN “ambition is to be absolute persistent and forward-based there [Pacific Region], maybe with Carrier Strike Group, or maybe not, we’ll have to see”. Permanently basing one of the aircraft carriers in the Pacific seems unlikely and it would have enormous cost, personnel, air group and logistics overheads before even considering the political angles. Basing a Type 23 or Type 31 frigate in Singapore, Brunei or Japan has already been considered and is probably a more realistic possibility. Notably, Kyd admitted that “the centre of gravity for me as Fleet Commander is the Atlantic against the Russian threat”.

An F-35B of VMFA-121 permanently deployed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, southern Japan makes a vertical landing. Some of the USMC and UK jets could potentially disembark from HMS Queen Elizabeth to the base during the 2021 deployment. (Photo: USMC)

A calibrated response

The inherent flexibility of naval power offers a sliding scale of options. There is clearly some disagreement within government and amongst Tory MPs about how far the UK should go in confronting the Chinese. The decision-makers can select a calibrated deployment plan for the UKCSG that reflects its current priorities but can be easily modified at any time. At the most benign level, the ships may avoid the SCS entirely and simply make a tour of partner nations in the Indo-Pacific Pacific region. Alternatively, a transit of the SCS but avoiding most of the waters claimed by the Chinese would be a compromise. To make a more determined statement, a FONOP (like that of HMS Albion in 2018), by the carrier group within the 12-mile radius of a Chinese claimed island is a possibility. The highest level of action would be to loiter within these disputed areas for some time and conduct naval and flying exercises and then possibly make a transit of the Taiwan Strait.

Whatever the decision about the SCS, the CGS21 deployment promises to be a landmark opportunity and the first major global RN deployment for more than a decade. It will likely include exercises with European partners in the Mediterranean. The Russians have an increasing footprint in the Levant and the presence of the carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean would be desirable. Passage through the Suez Canal and visits to ports in the Indian Ocean are likely. Whether the carrier group would be needed in the Persian Gulf is debatable. Both Australia and Japan are likely destinations for diplomatic visits. If a complete circumnavigation of the globe is planned, the ships could cross the Pacific but the carrier would have to round Cape Horn as HMS Queen Elizabeth is too wide to pass through the Panama Canal, despite the 2016 increase in Panamax size after new lock construction.

The case in favour of an SCS FONOP

Arguably the great investment in the QEC carriers is already delivering a useful effect for Britain. Even the possibility of their presence in the Pacific is causing the Chinese to react. State media mouthpiece, the Global Times complained the UK is using “Huawei, the national security law for Hong Kong, and the South China Sea to make troubles for China.”

A single transitory deployment but a carrier group will not tip the military balance much but if China realises an increasing number of nations from around the globe are prepared to face them down, then despite the bluster, it is likely to modify their behaviour. During July 2020, both the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz both operated in the SCS in a demonstration that the US won’t be intimidated despite China’s growing ability to put these carriers at risk. When considering how to respond this is a very different prospect to the skirmishes and low profile intimidation of its neighbours. Any kind of harassment or attack on the US and its allies could trigger a major conflict which is not in the greater interest of China that is ultimately dependent on trade with its adversaries. A concerted international effort may help China to understand adherence to international law will be to its advantage far more than trying to take control of the SCS by coercion.

‘Upholding the Rules-Based Order’ sounds to some like a pompous construct, tinged with Western hypocrisy. But despite its many flaws, this fragile global system slows the ‘race to the bottom’ where every nation acts purely in self-interest and military strength is ultimately all that matters. Failure to contest China flouting international law could be the start of a domino effect where other nations follow their example, leading to further instability and conflict. UNCLOS is an example of fair rules that provide for equitable distribution of resources between nations. In very broad terms, the RBO established after WWII has been the platform for trade and co-operation which has seen an explosion global prosperity.

Sending the UKCSG into the SCS would be a signal to allies in the region that the UK is serious about supporting them in their disputes with Beijing. The Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) which only loosely ties the UK to Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand starts to assume greater value and meaning beyond good intentions. As Britain seeks new free trade agreements, tangible efforts to support the foreign policy of these partners (and the US) can only help in negotiations.

The 21st century has seen the Asia-Pacific becoming the dominant area of the world as European influence has waned and the future dominance of the US is less certain. Especially in light of Brexit, UK engagement in the Pacific assumes more importance for new trading relationships. The RN potentially has key role in the government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda aimed at strengthening both the UK’s trading and overseas defence networks. The great soft power benefits of the aircraft carriers for diplomacy and trade is undermined if they are perceived as merely ‘flag-waving’ platforms. If the UK is unwilling to place the carriers into higher threat environments to operate as a credible military force then their cost and purpose is called into question. Soft power influence is most effective when there is a measure of hard power to back it up.

More than 45 ships and submarines from 25 nations participated in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, July 2018. The US Navy provides the backbone of this exercise designed to ‘foster cooperative relationships to ensure the safety of sea-lanes and security on the world’s oceans’. The Chinese were invited to observe but not participate.

The case against an SCS FONOP

For some, the issues in the SCS could be seen as a problem in a distant part of the world that UK need not become involved with. Talk of sending the Royal Navy to the Far East has echoes of Britain’s imperial past and is already being perceived as driven by nostalgia for a time when Britannia ruled the waves. The optics of such a deployment play badly with a large section of the domestic audience who can make a good argument for avoiding foreign interventions, given recent history.

With the UK already committed to varying extents in two other main theatres European/Atlantic and in the Gulf/Middle East, sending substantial forces to the Indo-Pacific looks like over-reaching. Although possessing a broad spectrum of high-end capabilities, almost without exception, the UK lacks numbers and mass in any domain. Spreading assets too thinly goes against the basic principles of force concentration. With some uncomfortable parallels to the deployment of battleships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse to the Far East in 1941, both subsequently lost to overwhelming Japanese airpower, some wags have nicknamed CSG21 ‘Force Z Mk 2’.

The UK is seeking to enhance its trading relationship with many nations in the Asia Pacific region through deeper engagement. However, if this comes at the expense of exports to China, the UK’s 6th largest customer, which totalled £30.7Bn last year, then this may prove to be a false economy. Exports to the next largest Pacific markets, Australia (£18.1Bn) and Japan (£14.8Bn) were only about half that of China. While in recovery from the economic damage of the pandemic and dealing with the effects of Brexit, the UK can ill afford to alienate a major trading partner. China’s inward investment averaged nearly £10Bn per year between 2017-19 and this would also be difficult to replace.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which comprises the smaller powers in the region, have to co-exist and trade with China. While they may be aggrieved at Chinese bullying and resource-grabbing, they also are concerned about the militarisation of the area and the potential for conflict on their doorstep. The arrival of more assertive US and UK forces may place them in a difficult diplomatic position if they do not wish to directly confront their powerful neighbour.

An early preview – Exercise Saxon Warrior, June 2017. HMS Queen Elizabeth (still on builders trials) and USS George H W Bush accompanied by HMS Westminster, HMS Iron Duke, USS Donald Cook, USS Philippine Sea and HNoMS Helge Ingstad.

Military conflict seems unlikely but it is worth briefly analysing the true extent of UKCSG capability in 2021. Although the RN will provide the core of the group, it will likely be supplemented by US, Japanese, Australian and possibly ASEAN warships. Dutch and French vessels may also participate for some of the deployment. Not only would such a multi-national force make a powerful statement, but they would also bring considerable extra firepower.

The NATO members are well used to working together, but the other nations do not frequently interact with the RN. To achieve full force integration would require a determined effort from all participants over a long time. Considerable diplomatic negotiations, staff work and demanding exercising are needed to build up a credible integrated strike group. In a complex battle, the command and control arrangements, rules of engagement, communication protocols and interoperability are critical to success, even if you outmatch the adversary.

The UK carrier group that will deploy in 2021 is still a work in progress and will not achieve full operating capability until 2023/4. Although mostly comprised of modern and powerful platforms with some very effective systems, there are significant gaps. The fourteen F-35Bs lack sufficient numbers to both protect the group with Combat Air Patrols while at the same time sustaining meaningful strike missions. The ace up the sleeve of the F-35 in the air defence role is the Meteor missile which will not be fully integrated until 2024. The aircraft has no stand-off weapons, besides SPEAR-3 which will also not be in service for several years, pending the F-35 Block 4 software upgrade. The Crowsnest ISR system, critical to situational awareness, carried by 3 of the Merlins will be pre-IOC prototypes. Apart from the accompanying SSN, RN has no heavyweight anti-ship weapons at its disposal, making do with the obsolete Harpoon Block 1C until the interim SSGW is purchased for a handful of vessels.

It is clear there are very good arguments both for and against sending the UKCSG into the South China Sea to conduct what would be a quite lawful FONOP. Having regained the great asset of aircraft carrier capability, it is now up to politicians to wield this weapon wisely to uphold the law while keeping the peace.