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Suppressing the Houthis: The potential for British carrier strike

As HMS Prince of Wales departs for NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises, and HMS Queen Elizabeth undergoes repairs in Rosyth, the United Kingdom (UK) is continuing its efforts to protect maritime shipping in the Red Sea, in conjunction with the United States (US) and European allies. Amid this wider effort to deter regional escalation, Britain has been carrying out its most extensive air campaign since striking Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Initiated on 11th January, Operation Poseidon Archer is an extensive effort by the UK, the US, and international partners to destroy targets in Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. So far, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has flown four missions, starting on 11th January and most recently on 24th February, punctuated by frequent Houthi missile and drone attacks. With no sign of Houthi attacks on regional commercial shipping or naval assets ceasing, the Ministry of Defence must be prepared to sustain a regional naval-air presence.

His Majesty’s (HM) Government has stated clearly that these strikes intend to degrade the Houthis’ ability to threaten maritime commerce, yet the Houthis have remained defiant against UK and US operations and continue to launch anti-ship missiles and suicide drones. This dramatic escalation is claimed by the Houthis to be in response to Israel’s military operation in Gaza, launched after Hamas’ terror attacks on 7th October 2023, a conflict which shows few signs of concluding. Therefore, as the impact on commercial shipping intensifies, additional states are allocating naval resources to the region. Most recently, the European Union (EU) has launched Operation Aspides in which warships and airborne early warning will be deployed to the region. As a defensive measure, however, Aspides’ remit does not include its members launching strikes on land-based targets. 

In response to the killing of three service members by Iran-backed militants in Jordan, the US has struck several targets in Iraq and Syria, in addition to launching a drone strike against a Hezbollah Commander in Baghdad. Adding a new dimension to an increasingly complex security environment, the Pentagon has shared that it intends to conduct further strikes against Iran-backed militias in the region, as part of the potentially ‘multileveled’ response, as articulated by Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State. The Houthis, undeterred by this development, continue to target opposing naval targets and commercial shipping in the Red Sea region. 

The inevitable departure of the USS Eisenhower could lessen the operation’s ability simultaneously to defend international shipping and strike targets in Yemen. Having been dispatched to the region in October 2023, the US aircraft carrier will likely remain in-theatre for roughly seven to eight months in total, as is typical with a carrier strike group deployment. Not only would this mean the withdrawal of the flagship, but also its accompanying support vessels and carrier air wing, thus removing critical strike and air-defence capabilities. 

A British carrier strike group in the Red Sea?

The lack of a confirmed carrier strike group replacement by the US presents the opportunity for the UK to deploy one of its own carriers to the region. James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, has hinted at a near term deployment, which would mark a significant departure from the current British preference for land-based aircraft to conduct high-precision strikes. This has taken the form of four Typhoon FGR4s embarking on a 3,000-mile round trip from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, supported by a pair of Voyager tankers for air-to-air refuelling. This choice, however, means that unlike the USS Eisenhower’s carrier air wing of F/A-18s, the UK currently lacks the ability to deploy multirole warplanes to enforce mobile missile defence, as it continues to instead rely on naval anti-air missiles and shipborne guns. This stands to continue as HMS Richmond, a Type 23 Frigate, has taken over from HMS Diamond which has now returned to the UK after sailing 20,000 nautical miles on patrols in the Red Sea. 

A Royal Navy carrier deployment to the Red Sea would greatly enhance the UK’s ability to generate sorties to strike targets in Yemen, in addition to signalling Britain’s long-term operational commitment to upholding freedom of navigation. As the Fleet Air Arm’s only fixed wing aircraft capable of carrier launch, F-35B Lighting II warplanes would be deployed to continue precision strikes, through their integration with Paveway IV bombs, and conduct fleet air defence with their AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. Having air assets in the region, as opposed to relying entirely on land-based aircraft, adds a heightened level of flexibility, speed and capacity to loiter. 

The UK’s current fleet of 31 F-35B jets is expected to increase by an additional 13 jets by 2025 amid the wider, and much debated, final procurement goal of 138 aircraft by the 2050s. Therefore, due to the limited numbers of currently operational F-35B multirole warplanes, it would be difficult for the Royal Navy to generate the same power as a US carrier strike group. A potential solution to addressing this combat massgap’ left by the USS Eisenhower’s inevitable departure is enabling Marine Corps F-35B jets to operate from the deck of a Queen Elizabeth class carrier. This high degree of interoperability was demonstrated in 2021 during Carrier Strike Group 2021, where both UK and US F-35B jets conducted strikes against Daesh. Therefore, either upon the return of HMS Prince of Wales following the conclusion of Steadfast Defender 2024, or the repair and redeployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, a potent package could be assembled. 

Should it decide to deploy a carrier, HM Government would have to deploy requisite surface and sub-surface combatants along with a logistical support vessel. As a critical source of munitions and provisions, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) is an essential component of a carrier strike group. Though the RFA’s only solid support vessel, RFA Fort Victoria, is undergoing maintenance, a potential Red Sea carrier strike group could instead be sustained by one of four Tide class tankers. Alternatively, the group could seek sustainment through the UK Joint Logistical Support Base, located in Duqm, Oman. This latter option, however, would be less than ideal, as removing the carrier from the theatre of operations in steaming to Oman could disrupt operational tempo.

Despite the potential limitations, deploying a British strike group to the region would demonstrate to the critics of the Royal Navy’s carriers their unique attributes in augmenting the UK’s existing naval response in the Red Sea. Through capitalising on a carrier’s flexibility, mobility and interoperability, the Royal Navy would send an important signal to domestic critics, military allies and the wider public that the UK has the means and inclination to respond to emerging crises. 

Conclusion

The UK currently walks a tightrope of self-defensive strikes amid escalation in the Red Sea region. Commitment to protecting both commercial shipping and the wider freedom of navigation has reasserted Britain’s capacity as a regional power. The decision to send a carrier to the Red Sea would mark the first combat deployment of such a vessel since the introduction of the Queen Elizabeth class in 2017. Although a carrier strike group would significantly enhance the UK’s contribution to Operation Poseidon Archer, fully realising this potential would require both the willingness of the Pentagon to deploy US Marine Corps F-35B and the willingness of HM Government in the short term to take the lead in striking Houthi targets in Yemen. This once again shows the necessity of a fully capable navy. Establishing the precedent of a UK carrier strike as a viable option is crucial in meeting the challenges of an increasingly complex security environment in the near and far abroad.

Benedict Baxendale-Smith is an Associate Fellow in maritime strategy at the Council on Geostrategy and a PhD student at King’s College London in the Defence Studies Department.

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