After the recent announcement that HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent to the Far East later this year, many questioned why a globally-connected, service-based economy with a diverse range of allies and partners should send a carrier strike group to the other side of the world. The response may start or not with a sigh, depending on the time of day and how many times the question has already been answered.
Militarily there are three key reasons for deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth and a strike group, which will be made up not only of the Royal Navy ships but of allied vessels as well, to the Indo-Pacific:
- Whilst exercises are great, they are usually very short. This long term, long-range deployment, involving multiple exercises with other allies will be the fullest possible test of not only Britain’s new carrier but also the form and command of the battle group and how it should be integrated. It could be argued that just keeping them together in the Atlantic for months would be the same, but this is not going to be the case. If anything goes wrong, HMS Queen Elizabeth and a strike group cannot simply head home – the force will have to work together and to pull together far away from any support. It will be a learning experience beyond any other.
- A major ally that would have its forces freed up to redeploy is the United States (US). But ships capable of deploying fifth-generation fighters, like the F35 Lighting II, which will make up HMS Queen Elizabeth’s air group, are rare. Moreover, thanks to the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, combined maintenance and refits, there has been a gap left in the US’s coverage of the South China Sea. A gap, which only one ally and only one ship can relatively easily fill: HMS Queen Elizabeth – if that is not something to strengthen an alliance, nothing will.
- No one can predict the future or how chips may fall. Recent British strategic reviews failed to predict many strategic shocks. History, though, is quite well known. Britain knows that in the twentieth century’s world wars, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, India and many other nations in that region fought alongside it. Those ties are not something to be taken lightly and have endured through many conflicts and events since. Beyond British commitments to the US, as a nation, the United Kingdom (UK) has those partners as well. While the idea of a scenario where these allies looked to Britain to deploy, rather than the US, might seem far-fetched, a ‘Trump presidency’ was once considered similarly unlikely, even when it was first mentioned – on 19 March 2000 in The Simpsons episode, ‘Bart to the Future’. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be in service for probably five decades. It is unclear what will be required of the vessel during that time, but the country should be prepared.
The importance of relationships provides further justification for the deployment. Its economic value is questioned frequently. Britain no longer possesses a Royal Yacht; nor does it possess vast fleets, at least by historical standards. The biggest and flashiest things that are built in the UK are the Queen Elizabeth class. They are 65,000 tonnes of magnificence, of scale, of technological marvel. And they cost a lot, partially because two were ordered, a little over three were paid for in order to keep the yards going whilst delaying their entry into service. But Britain has them and not many other nations do. So when they turn up they create a stir, people want to see them, they want to go to events hosted aboard them. The carriers are literally floating exhibits of British engineering – fixed leeks notwithstanding, they are still impressive.
Britain is a nation that depends on international trade and is a part of the current global economic system built on relative stability and established relationships. Insofar as geopolitical competition is unlikely to abate a proportionally well armed and at least outwardly united coalition of nations may well serve to prevent war. However, it is arguably a hope more than anything as the people of Vietnam, Korea and South America know. Whilst NATO, the Warsaw Pact and Mutually Assured Destruction kept war out of Europe, they did not stop proxy wars ripping the rest of the world apart.
Therefore, the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth – along with a group of escorts, a submarine and supply ships – to the other side of the world makes strategic sense. Britain has a lot economically riding on the world staying relatively peaceful and this means that, as a democratic nation, it has to do its part, pay its share of the bill and make its share of the deployments. Not just in its own area, but also in the area of geopolitical gravity – which is no longer Europe. In the 1970s and 1980s, a nation that had flirted with starvation in two world wars, focused its defence spending on its army in Europe as the continent was the area that mattered most. And whilst it could never afford to build enough ships to secure all the convoys it would need in the Third World War, it could rely on its allies to support them where it was most important to them.
For the Indo-Pacific and Britain’s allies and partners, the UK has three cards it can play to deter revisionists: Diego Garcia to support operations in the Indian Ocean, the Falkland Islands to close off the southern access from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and the Royal Navy’s carrier strike groups. They might be used primarily to cover the Atlantic and Mediterranean to free up American carriers for deployment elsewhere, but they may also be used to cover allied amphibious forces in Southeast Asia or support allies fighting in Africa. It is not known what sort of scenarios will come up. Britain can just hope that by preparing for strategic eventualities and by showing the strength of its relationships, it can deter and persuade that it is much better to just keep selling each other cars, electronic goods and nice holidays on gorgeous beaches. That is why Britain is sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Far East.*
*And stop comparing the deployment to Force Z in 1941, which was supposed to take a carrier with it, but could not because there was already a war going on, during which the Royal Navy was down five carriers already (three lost – Ark Royal, Courageous and Glorious – and two damaged: Illustrious and Formidable), and Pearl Harbour was not anticipated (despite what Britain itself had done at Taranto), which puts an entirely different context on the deployment.
Dr Alexander Clarke is an independent naval historian focusing on naval ship design, conventional deterrence and naval diplomacy from 1900 onwards. His PhD, awarded by King’s College, London, examined the development of the Royal Navy’s Naval Aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.
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