With its eye on China, Royal Navy carrier battle group steers towards Indian Ocean - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 26 April 2021

With its eye on China, Royal Navy carrier battle group steers towards Indian Ocean

This will be the biggest British projection of naval force since the Falklands War of 1982


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 27th Apr 21


A British aircraft carrier strike group, led by the Royal Navy’s flagship, Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Queen Elizabeth, will embark on its first operational voyage next month to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, the British government announced on Monday.


For a mission designed to showcase British military power and resolve to China, HMS Queen Elizabeth will embark 18 state-of-the-art F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters and 14 naval helicopters. It will be accompanied by six Royal Navy warships, another two from the US and Dutch navies, a submarine and a company of Royal Marines.


Speaking to Business Standard, Brigadier Gavin Thompson, Defence Advisor to the British High Commission in India, said the carrier strike group would route through the Mediterranean Sea into the Indian Ocean before crossing into the South China Sea and proceeding to Japan.


Sailing through waters that Beijing aggressively claims, and which are bitterly contested between China and its maritime neighbours, this will be the biggest projection of British naval force since the Falklands War of 1982. 


Both on its way to and from south-east Asia, the Royal Navy carrier strike group would exercise with the Indian Navy. Discussions are learned to be under way between London and New Delhi for holding a tri-service joint exercise in the Arabian Sea in October. 


Currently, joint training between the two navies is conducted through the annual Exercise Konkan, between the two armies through Exercise Ajeya Warrior and between the two air forces through Exercise Indra Dhanush.


Brigadier Thompson said the 28 week-long, 26,000-nautical-mile mission would display British support for the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that formalises principles such as “freedom of navigation” and sets limits on countries’ claims to international waters.


China unilaterally claims most of the waters of the South China Sea, setting an arbitrary maritime boundary along the so-called “nine-dash line.” Other navies, principally the US Navy, have been sending warships to sail through China-claimed waters in what are termed “freedom of navigation operations”, or FONOPS.


Ironically, the US has itself not ratified UNCLOS, arguing that the treaty was unfavourable to American economic and security interests.


Among London’s aims in deploying the carrier strike group to Asia is to demonstrate the “Indo-Pacific tilt” in the UK’s foreign policy: “Projecting our influence, signalling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” said the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.


Towards that, the carrier strike group would include the Royal Navy’s most capable and high-tech warships: The 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth will be accompanied by two Type 45 air defence destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; two Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; an Astute-class submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles; and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Fort Victoria fleet replenishment ship and the oil tanker, RFA Tidespring.


The UK has another reason to showcase its flagship aircraft carrier to India. New Delhi and Washington are cooperating closely in finalising the specifications of India’s third aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, that is on the drawing board. But with New Delhi ruling out nuclear propulsion, the UK believes the “full integrated electric propulsion system” that powers HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be ideal for powering INS Vishal


“The UK and India are natural defence partners, particularly in world class research, design and development and joint training. The carrier strike group’s collaboration with India will build the foundations for this relationship to flourish even further,” said Wallace.


London and New Delhi have not yet signed a “logistic support agreement”, of the kind that India has with other defence partners such as the US, France and Singapore, it is understood that discussions are under way for allowing both sides to plug into the others’ logistics infrastructure. 


“India is an important defence partner and a natural partner for the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific. The two countries share security concerns and common threats. The UK is very keen to enhance naval cooperation, maritime domain awareness and joint training with Indian in the Indian Ocean Region,” said Thompson.


US Navy aircraft carriers routinely exercise with the Indian Navy in Exercise Malabar, as do Japanese helicopter carriers. The French navy is currently fielding its carrier, Charles de Gaulle, in an exercise with the Indian Navy that terminates on Tuesday. But this will be an unusual event for the Royal Navy.

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