Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s foreword to the Integrated Review of Global Britain’s Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy spoke of HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, leading a British and allied task group on the United Kingdom’s most ambitious global deployment for over two decades, visiting the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific. Operation Fortis, as this deployment is named, commenced in May 2021. It is intended to mark the return of the United Kingdom to the global stage and serve as a model for the future of the Royal Navy’s operations: the use of large strike groups deployed globally to support national interests, with smaller vessels permanently based around the world to show presence.

Accompanying the HMS Queen Elizabeth and forming Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 21 on its maiden deployment were Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond (reported to have been detached due to a major defect earlier this month), Type 23 ASW frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, the Astute-class attack submarine HMS Artful, the United States’ Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans, Dutch De Zeven Provincien-class frigate HNLMS Evertsen, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Fort Victoria and Tidespring. The carrier embarked 8 F-35B Lightnings from the Royal Air Force and 10 from the U.S. Marine Corps, along with airborne early warning and control, anti-submarine, and transport helicopters.

Having completed the first phase of its deployment in the Mediterranean, CSG 21 transited through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea on July 6, 2021.  Days later, it joined the Ronald Reagan CSG and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group for an exercise in the Gulf of Aden. The combined surface, air, and sub-surface exercise was designed to enhance U.K., Dutch, and U.S. maritime interoperability and demonstrate naval integration through a series of training scenarios. A Covid-19 breakout was reported in CSG-21 on July 14, with about 100 cases on HMS Queen Elizabeth and others on accompanying warships. The report said all crew on deployment had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, the outbreak was being managed, and would have no impact on the deployment.

On July 21 and 22, CSG 21 was reported to have exercised with Indian Navy ships Satpura, Ranvir, Jyoti, Kavaratti, and Kulish, along with a submarine and P-8I aircraft. The maiden exercise between the Indian and UK navies’ latest aircraft carriers was described by India as a passage exercise, though a somewhat ambitious one, as it is said to have enabled engagement over the entire spectrum of maritime operations. The British High Commission, on the other hand, projected it as three days of complex maritime interactions. The United States Naval Institute reported this as Exercise Konkan. It went on to report that CSG 21 would exercise with a U.S. Carrier Strike Group in the Indo-Pacific in August, bringing together the largest concentration of F-35 jets anywhere in the world.

The return of British attention East of Suez first became evident with the reactivation of HMS Juffair, a U.K. Naval Support Facility in Bahrain, in April 2018.  The claimed regional footprint was broadened to the Indo-Pacific through a dedicated section in the United Kingdom’s integrated review of March 16, 2021, which describes the region as “at the centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints” and “on the frontline of new security challenges, including in cyberspace.”  To support operations in the Indo-Pacific, the United Kingdom will call upon British defense staff in Kenya (Mombasa), Oman (Duqm), Singapore, and Australia (Canberra) in addition to defense representation spread throughout the region which includes large training areas in Kenya and Oman and hubs/bases in the British Indian Ocean Territory and Brunei. The United Kingdom’s comprehensive strategic partnership with India also plays a significant role. India’s foreign secretary visited London on July 24 and 25 to review UK-India cooperation and the implementation of the bilateral Road Map 2020, which had been adopted in May 2021.

The stiffer posture of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and NATO toward China was visible in President Biden’s summits in June. It also showed in discussions at the Japan-UK Defense Ministerial Meeting on July 20, when the UK commitment to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific was described as robust and irreversible and the two ministers expressed their will to strongly oppose unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas by force or coercion. President Emmanuel Macron of France has also committed to strengthening bilateral security cooperation with Australia and Japan to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.  There are reports of the Pentagon considering a permanent naval task force to counter China in the Pacific, on the lines of the Cold War’s Standing Naval Force Atlantic.  Reports also indicate that Australia will send two frigates to join CSG 21 for exercises in the South China Sea. All in all, momentum against China’s coercion in the Western Pacific is gathering pace. European power will deploy in the Western Pacific during the period China sees as its window of opportunity. The Europeans will inevitably transit through the Indian Ocean for this purpose, providing greater opportunities for engaging with India and its navy.

Although some had anticipated it, CSG 21 did not conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during its transit through the South China Sea. This choice is notable given that the group’s own HMS Defender carried out a 36-minute operation in the territorial sea of Crimea on June 23 to assert its right to conduct innocent passage and, obliquely, to challenge Russia’s annexation of the region. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described that operation as a FONOP and it led Russia to reportedly fire warning shots toward the vessel. But in the South China Sea, the HMS Elizabeth took the most direct route across the contested waterway, from Singapore to the Philippine Sea, and did not enter the territorial seas or baselines around any Chinese-claimed islands. A FONOP in the South China Sea, either singly or involving elements from the United States or others, would have sent a strong signal.

Reports based on satellite imagery indicate that even as CSG 21 was transiting through the South China Sea, China’s Shandong Carrier Group was exercising in the region.  Ships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet had set sail for their annual deployment to South East Asia and would participate in bilateral exercises with Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam, apart from the annual Exercise Malabar being held off Guam in the second half of August 2021.  Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister had said that the HMS Queen Elizabeth would also participate in the forthcoming Exercise Malabar. The developing situation will no doubt provide rich material for geopolitical analysts.

About Lalit Kapur

Commodore Lalit Kapur is a veteran with over 35 years of service in the Indian Navy, including in diplomatic and tri-service appointments, and holds three master’s degrees as well as a deep interest in maritime history and the Indo-Pacific. He is currently a senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group.