With the forces of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 21 gathering off Scotland right now, the maritime fighting power, flexibility and general capability of the upcoming Operation Fortis deployment to the Indo-Pacific is coming to fruition. It is exciting, not just for the Royal Navy but hopefully, as a maritime nation, for the country as a whole. Coverage of the deployment both at home and abroad is accelerating and with the Russians already sending two of their intelligence gathering (spy) ships to the northwest coast of Scotland, it is clear that the ‘effect’ has started.
The effect of this deployment can be summarised in one word: influence. This is the zone HMS Queen Elizabeth, indeed most warships, spend the vast majority of their life operating in. They are about diplomatic and dissuasive efforts to prevent crises from happening. Of course, demonstrating you could fight if all else fails is a major part of the deployment and doing so as a group of allies is entirely reasonable, particularly in a part of the world where attempting it unilaterally, even for the United States (US), would be altogether unreasonable.
For influence to work, and in particular deterrence, it must be credible, and for this, it must be sustainable. To this end, once Operation Fortis has returned to the sound of marching bands and lengthy post-deployment reports, what will follow both for the carrier strike group and also the United Kingdom’s (UK) presence in the Indo-Pacific.
With HMS Queen Elizabeth to be held at very high readiness on her return and with HMS Prince of Wales keen to have her turn, possibly in the High North, it is apparent that whatever happens, the next CSG deployment is unlikely to be another seven-ship set-piece deployment to the Indo-Pacific. So what will be left out there when Operation Fortis comes home?
The Defence Command Paper, entitled ‘Defence in a competitive age’, published on 22nd March 2021, outlines plans for the Royal Navy’s forward deployment to the Indo-Pacific, but is light on detail. Critics say this is representative of the entire paper and that this is just another example of the Ministry of Defence being asked to do more with less. But it is well written because there is also enough in there to give the optimists – and those whose job it is to support the British Government’s policy – belief that this is a genuine turning point in decades of defence underspending. Time will tell who is right.
Nevertheless, details of what might be in store for the Indo-Pacific are starting to emerge, both in the paper and elsewhere. First, one, maybe two, of the new River Class patrol vessels will be permanently based there from later this year. Singapore and Japan must be the front runners for ‘where’ but this has yet to be confirmed. Significantly, the Royal Navy is keen to describe HMS Trent’s deployment to Gibraltar as forward deployed, and not forward based. Nomenclature maybe, but a smart distinction that allows for increased flexibility and therefore probably the reason the patrol vessels’ location has yet to be announced. Incidentally, this forward deployment/basing should not be underestimated because it is ‘just’ a patrol vessel. In fact, in many respects, their lack of complexity, reduced ‘threat factor’ and even shallow draft when compared to a destroyer or frigate will be an advantage in terms of the shaping activities they will be asked to undertake.
The Defence Command Paper also refers to a littoral response group being in the Indo-Pacific from 2023. This will be at the heart of the flexible Future Commando Force plans, although it is not clear at this range if that comes with any larger ships permanently attached or, indeed, how long it will be there.
Finally, the notion of forward deploying an escort there is aired. Presumably, this will be a Type 31 (to replace the patrol vessels), but again, it is hard to speculate without an exact timeline.
So, in order, we have: CSG 21, forward-deployed patrol vessels, a littoral response group and (eventually) a frigate. If sustainability is key to influence, then in terms of presence, that posture feels both measured and sustainable.
If these are the set pieces, then what does the Royal Navy’s ability to regather a task group and deploy once again to the Indo-Pacific look like?
Recent analysis by Engaging Strategy shows that since 2000, the Royal Navy has deployed a group of ships overseas every year bar three. The total number of warships deployed in this manner was 160 at an average of 7.2 per year. However, since Cougar 14, this has dropped to three a year. It would be easy, and not unreasonable, to attribute this to levels of tautness within the surface fleet. Escorts are not the only place there is tension. Fully deck qualified Joint Strike Fighter pilots are alleged to be so scarce that the same group will have to go again in 2022.
With ‘best effort’ allocating just seven Merlin helicopters to cover both airborne early warning and subsurface warfare to CSG 21, there is obviously no slack there either. Orders for the solid support ships required to sustain HMS Queen Elizabeth have yet to be placed. Crew numbers across the navy remain taut, with some branches below the minimum requirement. And so on. While Operation Fortis, with the deployment of seven Royal Navy warships, is a welcome return to the average (and a huge increase in capability), how sustainable is it?
This returns us to the start. Carrier Strike as capability brings a balance to the force not seen since HMS Ark Royal was paid off and of which the UK should be rightly proud. But any effect it generates must be sustainable if it is to be credible.
In countries marked by the Integrated Review as ‘acute direct threats’ to the UK or ‘systemic competitors’, strategic analysts will be tracking British plans with granular attention to detail. They will not be hoodwinked by Whitehall bombast about Operation Fortis.
To keep them on their toes and to prevent HMS Queen Elizabeth’s work from going to waste, much depends on what is meant by the deployment of the littoral response group to the Indo-Pacific in 2023 as well as when the next Royal Navy CSG deploys to the region.
Operation Fortis is an outstanding achievement that will impress wherever it goes. But if CSG 22 ends up being HMS Prince of Wales plus one in the North Atlantic and HMS Tamar in Singapore, then the effect will be short-lived.
Tom Sharpe OBE is a partner at Special Project Partners, a communications consultancy. Previously, he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea.
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