“Carrier Strike Is Coming Home” – the Royal Navy Returns ‘East of Suez’
It has been a big week for the Royal Navy in many different ways. For the first time in many years a Royal Navy aircraft carrier, with fixed wing jets embarked is operating ‘East of Suez’, while major announcements have been made on the upgrading of the Type 45 force. It is a week which has showcased not just the culmination of 20 years of work, but also provides a sneak preview of the next 20 years of capability.
The fact that HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and her associated escorts have deployed ‘through the ditch’ and sailed through Suez is an extremely important, and symbolic moment. One of the defining reasons for the cancellation of the ‘CVA-01’ design was a political decision to step away from maintaining a carrier presence ‘East of Suez’ in the 1960s.
This decision in turn removed the need for a carrier force in the region, and helped pave the way for the dismantling of the then five strong fleet of aircraft carriers over the next few years. With the disbandment of the Far East Fleet in 1971, and the paying off of HMS EAGLE, the days of the Royal Navy deploying fixed wing strike carriers in the region had passed.
It is therefore a powerful symbol to see the ‘QE’ heading back into the region with her escorts, which together form one of the most powerful surface task groups deployed by the Royal Navy in recent decades. The presence of a strike carrier ‘East of Suez’ heralds a renewed policy interest in the region, some 55 years after the UK decided to abandon the carrier commitment, and is doubtless the first of many deployments through the Suez Canal.
This year marks the start of a very visible reconnection to the Indo-Pacific region by the Royal Navy, which has long held an intellectual interest in the area, not always backed up by physical assets on the ground.
Not only will the Carrier Strike Group be deployed across the region, helping showcase the full range of UK naval power and capabilities, but these ships will be joined by two RIVER class OPVs, which will be permanently based in Singapore.
This marks the first full time deployment of Royal Navy warships in the region since the end of the Hong Kong squadron in 1997, and arguably is even more important given that these ships will have the ability to deploy across the region, and not be tied to protecting Hong Kong itself.
When you reflect on the totality of the Royal Navy commitment ‘East of Suez’ this year, you quickly realise how substantial this presence has become. There are three different surface formations active, supported by facilities in no less than four different locations.
In the Gulf there are four mine warfare vessels, supported by a BAY class LSD(A) and a permanently based Type 23 frigate. Singapore will permanently house two RIVER class OPVs, and in the CSG there is a carrier, four escorts, an SSN, tanker, and support ship too. In practical terms there will be some 16 Royal Navy vessels operating in the region shortly, of which 8 are permanently based there.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy benefits from access to superb shore support facilities in Bahrain, Oman, Diego Garcia and Singapore. This is a very significant and substantial overseas support footprint, giving access to a wide range of facilities, support and berthing that can be used to ensure that ships can remain active and deployed for sustained periods of time.
To give some context, the Royal Navy has demonstrated that it is one of only three navies in the world capable of not only deploying a large and complex carrier battle group globally (the others being the USA and France), and also maintaining a global network of permanent bases to support other vessels from too.
While it is fashionable to moan about ‘we don’t have a navy anymore’ lets reflect on the fact that here is a navy deployed globally, and which while all of this work is going on East of Suez, also has permanent bases and activities going on in the Med, West Indies and Falkland Islands too. This is very much a navy that is going places, not retreating in on itself.
It was perhaps a particularly potent signal to send that as one carrier left the Med, another one entered it. The PRINCE OF WALES went on her first overseas visit to Gibraltar, pulling in for several days. Perhaps less noticed, but equally of importance was the visit on an ASTUTE class SSN into the port at the same time, as well as a Type 23 frigate too.This is in addition to the permanent presence of the ARCHER class and a RIVER class in Gibraltar, helping maintain presence in the region.
Again, this is worthy of positive reflection – right now the RN is known to be operating a very capable range of warships and submarines in the Med, able to, if required, carry out a diverse range of operations and work should the need arise. There are three navies in the world right now capable of putting more than one aircraft carrier to sea on a deployment, the UK, USA and China. The UK is a key member of a very exclusive club here.
We must see all of this positive activity, being done against the backdrop of wider operations in the Arctic and North Atlantic, the deployment of amphibious warfare units to the Baltic, the ongoing preparation for hurricane season in the West Indies, and the ongoing sovereignty protection in the Falkland Islands. This is a very very busy navy, working extremely hard globally to support UK interests.
This hard work though works ships hard, and they do require refit, repair and updating. Incredibly HMS DARING was launched over 15 years ago, and the whole class of Type 45s have now been in service for the best part of a decade. These ships are now really performing and delivering sterling service, but thoughts need to turn to their future capabilities as well – there is nothing worse than relying on a warship long past its prime to defend your force.
To that end, it was extremely welcome news to hear that the RN will be delivering an upgrade programme for the Type 45 force, adding in a 24 VLS cell to the ship to carry the CAMM / SeaCeptor missile that has been retrofitted to the Type 23s.
This highly capable missile excels at anti-air warfare, but is also capable of being used against small inshore targets as well, e.g. fast moving patrol craft. Brought together this presents a very significant package of improvements for the Type 45s that will demonstrably increase their capability.
The plan now seems to be that the 45s will have 48 of the long range ‘Aster 30’ missile, capable of long range area air defence against aircraft, supported by 24 Seaceptor for closer in defences, for a total of 72 missiles.
There will be some who worry that ‘only 72 missiles’ is not enough – if it helps to reassure them, during the Falkland’s War, the entire Royal Navy task force fired 1 Seaslug 24 Sea Dart and 8 Sea Wolf missiles (plus a number of SeaCat missiles which failed to destroy anything).
In other words, following this upgrade programme, each Type 45 destroyer will carry over twice the number of anti-aircraft missiles fired during the Falklands War, and which are also significantly more capable too. Hopefully this reassures that for all the worry about numbers, any vessel putting 72 missiles to sea will be well equipped to face the challenges ahead.
In practical terms this upgrade is helpful as it adds in significant additional missile capability, bolstering the close in defences of the Carriers or Amphibious ships that the Type 45s are likely to spend most of their time protecting – it adds a further 3.5 Type 23 frigates worth of silos into the force, without adding additional hulls.
This is a great news announcement and one that will be warmly welcomed. It comes at a genuinely exciting time for the future of the Royal Navy. With this sort of investment, it helps safeguard not just the warship construction yards, but also the equally vital missile and radar industries at home, which produce equipment that no warship could credibly operate without.
By investing in platforms like this, the UK is helping ensure it can retain a long term indigenous defence industry able to meet emerging threats, rather than being reliant on other nations to provide missile solutions. This therefore is good news for jobs and industry.
When set against the wider backdrop too, you quickly realise just how much investment is going into the Royal Navy right now. There are multiple ship classes in design or build, and huge investment in shipbuilding at every level from the order placed the other day for no less than 18 new MOD Police fast patrol boats, through to the first Type 26 being nearly ready to enter the water, and with two others under construction.
It is easy at times to feel a bit depressed about the state of things, and without doubt there are many challenges ahead, almost all of which are fiscal related. But, we should perhaps pause and feel good about where the Royal Navy is right now.
This is a world leading navy which is right now deploying the full range of vessels operated by major navies, and deploying them both operationally, and permanently, on pretty much every ocean on earth. It has multiple ships permanently based around the world, and a global network of shore bases and support facilities.
Able to do everything from coastal patrol to operating fifth generation fighter jets at sea, at night, and able to conduct air strikes in hostile terrain, this is a truly modern force with a clear sense of vision and purpose for its future. With a building programme that is one of the largest of any navy in the world, and a plethora of extremely capable and advanced ships, aircraft and capabilities due to enter service over the next few years, the future for the Royal Navy has rarely looked brighter.
The Royal Navy is definitely ‘coming home’.