Britain’s biggest naval task force since the Falklands War is headed our way. And its centrepiece, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, is sailing into uncertain waters.
Gunboat diplomacy has dominated news feeds in recent months.
Regular US deployments of its nuclear-powered behemoths – including a rare double act – to the South China Sea has focussed attention on the region’s troubles.
Then, in April, the PLAN Liaoning deployed for the first time as the hub of a powerful Chinese carrier battle group circling Taiwan. A few days later, Beijing’s first home-built aircraft carrier, Shandong, held combat exercises in the South China Sea.
All the while, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group were exercising between Taiwan and the Philippines – an active diplomatic hotspot with Beijing’s maritime militia muscling in on Manila’s exclusive economic zone.
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The big ships have certainly been busy. But defence analysts are asking, are aircraft carriers the right tools for the job?
They’re big. They represent massive investments in material, technology and personnel.
They’re high profile. The sight of a 330m ship is undeniably impressive. As are its aircraft.
They’re vulnerable. Their World War II-era advantages of long reach and virtual invisibility are long gone.
International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) senior fellow Nick Childs says deployments by China, France, the UK and the US “are reminders of the continuing potency of these platforms as symbols of defence and diplomatic influence”.
“At the same time, these deployments raise questions about how they will evolve in the future and what role these platforms would play in any future major confrontation.”
Strike force or show pony?
Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) is headed up by Britain’s newest warship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. The deployment to the Indo-Pacific is her first mission.
But it’s not a solo act.
The Task Force includes two air warfare destroyers, HMS Defender and Diamond, two anti submarine frigates, HMS Kent and Richmond, two supply ships, HMS Fort Victoria and Tidespring, and a nuclear-powered attack submarine. Rounding out the fleet are the USS The Sullivans, capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, and the Dutch general-purpose frigate HNLMS Evertsen.
That’s what it takes to keep an aircraft carrier safe.
On-board HMS Queen Elizabeth will be eight Fleet Air Arm F-35B stealth fighters. A US Marine contingent of 10F-35s will bring the air group up to strength. Supporting their operations will be Merlin Crowsnest airborne early-warning helicopters, four Wildcat attack helicopters, seven Merlin anti-submarine helicopters and three Merlin commando carriers.
“When our carrier strike group sets sail … it will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signalling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.
And that’s the point.
The carrier strike group is about gunboat diplomacy. It’s signalling Britain’s intention to build up its presence and influence in the Indo Pacific.
“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,” Baroness Annabel Goldie, the MoD’s Minister of State, told the House of Lords in April.
The growing hostility of authoritarian states across the world is putting the US military under pressure.
“It is no secret that it has been struggling to meet demand and maintain the tempo of carrier deployments,” Childs writes. “This is combined with a growing demand for a carrier presence in various theatres, including the renewal of deployments into the Arctic as a counter to various forces, particularly Russia.”
But Washington only has 11 large fleet carriers available. And the growing costs associated with their increasing age is leading to pressure for a further reduction.
Making matters worse is the USN’s latest aircraft carrier, USS Ford. It has been struggling to overcome problems since commissioned in 2017. It’s still not operational.
“The debate has also been reopened on whether a mixture of full-size nuclear-powered carriers and lighter carriers may be the answer,” says Childs.
This is why the performance of HMS Queen Elizabeth, FS Charles de Gaulle and China’s Liaoning and Shandon are drawing so much attention.
Are such smaller ships worth their weight?
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Does it increase their vulnerability?
Or does it balance the risk-versus-reward equation?
Do they have enough firepower to maintain their diplomatic presence?
“With the United Kingdom’s new carrier capability about to make its operational debut, how the US and its allies co-operate over future deployments will be important in determining their carriers’ use and availability in potential future crises,” he says.
France’s Charles de Gaulle recently deployed to the Indian Ocean. There it took command of the US Navy’s Task Force 50 when it had none of its own aircraft carriers available.
“The expectation is that the UK’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will do the same, occasionally supplementing or substituting for a US carrier presence,” Childs says.
In the meantime, a growing number of nations are pursuing the idea of small-to-midsize aircraft carriers to supplement their fleets.
Japan is rebuilding two helicopter “destroyers” to accommodate F-35Bs. South Korea is exploring its options to build its own version.
“While Australia has no current plans to deploy fixed-wing aircraft carriers, it has acquired two large-deck amphibious ships to act as the centrepieces of task groups that could figure in future multinational force-planning calculations in the region.”
But such ships are high priority targets.
Defending them is a problem.
Which is why USS The Sullivans and the Netherlands’ HNLMS Evertsen are sailing with the HMS Queen Elizabeth. CSG21 represents an unbalanced portion of the entire Royal Navy which totals only 20 major surface combatants.
So sustaining such a level of gunboat diplomacy needs international effort.
China’s defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian announced the success of Liaoning and Shandong’s recent deployments meant they would soon be engaged in “far sea” operations.
This likely means a visit to the PLA naval facility in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
But Beijing’s not so happy about “far sea” visits to its own backyard.
Britain will not say whether CSG21 will reinforce “freedom of navigation” claims by traversing the contested Taiwan Straits, or take the longer route around Taiwan on its visit to Japan and South Korea.
But the Royal Navy has challenged Beijing’s arbitrary territorial claims in the past.
In 2018, the Royal Navy amphibious assault ship HMS Albion passed near the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In 2019, the frigate HMS Argyll joined US warships conducting six days of co-ordinated drills in the region.
Which may be why Chinese military officials have already begun warning London against interfering with Beijing’s interests.
“We believe the South China Sea should not become a battleground for big power competition, or a sea full of roaming warships,” a spokesman for China’s Defence Ministry warned even as it sent its own carriers into the conflict zone.
“The Chinese military will take necessary measures to protect national sovereignty, security, and its developmental interests, as well as safeguard peace and stability in the region,” he said.