In March 2021 the UK government published its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy: Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” commonly known as the “Integrated Review.” The two pages devoted to framing the United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” represent the clearest statement to date regarding the country’s official intent to expand and deepen its economic, security, and social ties to the Indo-Pacific region. While the United Kingdom had begun shifting its weight toward the Indo-Pacific years earlier and the tilt had been previewed in a variety of sources, the Integrated Review made a powerfully clear declaration that was immediately backed with action.
In July 2021 a multinational naval strike group centered on the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth entered the Indian Ocean as a part of the flagship’s 28-week maiden deployment. Loaded with some of the world’s first operational F-35B fighters, the deployment delivered an unmissable statement regarding the United Kingdom’s commitment to back its strategic intent through resource-intensive activities, with advanced technology, and in partnership with like-minded nations. Ranging as far as Japan and Guam, strike group vessels visited or exercised with the navies of more than 40 countries.
When large ships travel through the water, they leave low-pressure zones in their wake. Some observers have expressed concerns that Queen Elizabeth’s return to Portsmouth could leave a similar vacuum with regards to the United Kingdom’s presence in Indo-Pacific dynamics. Given lingering questions about the sustainability of the Indo-Pacific tilt in the face of fiscal pressures, emerging political priorities, and security challenges such as those in the English Channel and Eastern Europe, skepticism will quickly seep in if the tilt is not braced. The plan’s reliance on the fleet is noted in a new report from the UK Parliament’s Defense Committee, titled, “We’re going to need a bigger Navy.”
Actions are already in motion to prevent a complete vacuum in which UK forces are absent from the Indo-Pacific. Two Royal Navy vessels, the River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) Spey and Tamar are already in the region and will remain so for five years. However, the two vessels combined displace about half the weight of Queen Elizabeth’s smallest escort, the Dutch frigate Evertsen. In terms of naval warfare capacity, the OPVs compare even less favorably. They have limited sensors, no missiles, and little capacity to sustain combat damage. They are gadflies in a region home to naval giants such as the forces deployed by China, Japan, and the United States.
However, the OPVs will provide more strategic value than their mass and fighting capabilities would imply. Their persistent presence in the region will be remarkable, especially in comparison to the decades before 2018, a period when Royal Navy forces were basically absent from East and Southeast Asian waters. Going forward, the United Kingdom will become the only non-Asian power other than the United States to maintain a persistent naval presence in East and Southeast Asia’s littorals. Given their low operating costs, these should be sustainable in the face of budgetary pressures. Furthermore, we can expect the OPVs to remain active. Unlike the U.S. naval forces based in Japan and Guam, they won’t have to pause operations for crew readiness reset and training periods as they will employ a three-shift system. While two watch teams of about 20 sailors are embarked, the third team will be refreshing their training and recuperating ashore. Maintenance downtime should also be minimal. Without complex combat systems and equipped with propulsion plants that officers refer to as “agricultural,” they appear unlikely to be stuck in port with the sort of problems that have often tethered the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) which began deploying to Southeast Asia in 2013 with a similar “train-at-home” rotational crewing system and relatively untested (and deeply flawed) engineering systems.
The OPVs are also well suited for defense diplomacy and to foster working-level relationships in the region. Their hull size and capabilities are similar to the mainstay vessels of many regional navies. This will enable them to pair up for training events in ways that the region’s high-end training partners such as the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force find more difficult. Illustrating this similarity, a pair of up-gunned River-class OPVs currently serve the Royal Thai Navy.
The OPVs’ limited range and need to rotate crewmembers will create opportunities to practice procedures related to logistics and personnel movements. The United Kingdom maintains a facility on Singapore’s north shore well-suited to serve as a hub, but, the Royal Navy is previewing plans to favor an “asymmetric basing” approach that uses a wide variety of ports, as it has been doing with OPVs in the Caribbean. Using multiple ports for resupply and crew movements means that more UK sailors will be able to learn about the operational environment and develop experience working with their regional hosts than would in a conventional deployment to and from a homeport. Despite their limited combat capabilities, the OPVs will be well-suited to support the region’s frequent multinational naval operations, such as search-and-rescue, that have nothing to do with combat.
According to the 2021 Defense Command paper, in 2023, the Royal Navy will brace up the tilt with more mass by deploying a Littoral Response Group (LRG) to the region. The 2021 LRG deployment to the Baltic and North Atlantic gives an idea of what to expect. That force consisted of the amphibious assault ship HMS Albion, the landing ship RFA Mounts Bay, the frigate HMS Lancaster, and a force of embarked Royal Marines. This LRG is expected to remain in the Indo-Pacific for up to eight months and will likely use the UK Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman as an operational hub. The force will provide London with options to conduct a wider range of operations to include disaster response and training events with regional ground forces.
The United Kingdom also plans to forward-deploy a Type 31 Inspiration-class frigate to the Indo-Pacific. These ships are currently in construction and the first is scheduled for delivery in 2025. The larger platform and more capable combat systems will be an upgrade to the Royal Navy’s regional presence. The Type 31’s basing plan will likely be similar to that being used to operate an older frigate on a 3-year stint out of Bahrain. From an operational standpoint, Singapore and Japan would seem to be the most appealing hosts. However, Singapore will carefully consider the ramifications of providing basing for such a large warship. Co-locating with U.S. 7th Fleet forces in Japan might provide logistics efficiencies but could risk tying the ship too closely to American operations and thus reducing her appeal to those looking for an engagement partner that is neither the United States nor China. The September 2021 announcement of the AUKUS (Australia-UK-U.S.) trilateral defense partnership would seem to improve the attractiveness of Australian options. Brunei could also support. It already hosts UK forces and operates a navy with advanced ships that draws on the Royal Navy for technical support.
A second Indo-Pacific carrier strike group deployment is also being planned, although the government has yet to go on record regarding the timing. Some knowledgeable sources were hinting that Queen Elizabeth’s sister ship, Prince of Wales, which recently demonstrated her capabilities in the European theatre, could deploy to the Indo-Pacific as soon as 2023. However, with only two carriers, two rapid deployments would likely create a post-deployment gap with force readiness regeneration. One carrier deployment to the Indo-Pacific every three to five years seems like a more reliable pace going forward; any faster would mean essentially orienting the entire battle force to this mission.
The tilt is about far more than naval deployments and defense activities. The Cabinet Office is driving a whole-of-government effort by hosting a drumbeat of interagency meetings and demanding regular reports. In terms of trade, the tilt is being supported by efforts such as the United Kingdom’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and push for a UK-India free trade agreement. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the AUKUS partnership by focusing on the creation of jobs across the United Kingdom and opportunities to reinforce national expertise in science and technology.
Integrated cross-sector elements will play an important role in stabilizing the United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific tilt. However, given that the policy’s splash started with the Queen Elizabeth Strike Group deployment, defense activities will be necessary to prevent the initiative from appearing to fall flat in a region where discourse focuses on security competition. In 2019, Defense Minister Gavin Williamson pointed out that, “Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action.” With the United Kingdom’s armed forces now under the leadership of former First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin, the Royal Navy’s defense engagements will be essential to brace the nation’s Indo-Pacific tilt.