Small Ships, Big Impact – the Royal Navy & Tonga

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The Royal Navy is providing disaster relief support to Tonga, following the undersea volcanic eruption near this small island nation, and fellow Commonwealth member. The assistance, which sits alongside support from other nations such as Australia and New Zealand, is a very vivid reminder of the importance of the humanitarian aid mission.

Providing aid to areas affected by natural disasters is a critical task for the modern Royal Navy. There is a long standing tradition of providing support when required to those struck by disasters, and helping provide humanitarian support and assistance, particularly to smaller states whose ability to respond may be more limited.

This mission is not exclusively a Royal Navy mission – it is a truly purple effort. While RN and RFA ships make excellent platforms to support the mission, both the British Army and RAF are also heavily involved in this space.

For example, in 2020-21 RFA ARGUS, containing a tri-service team delivered humanitarian support in the West Indies to Belize and Honduras. More widely the RAF strategic air lift force has been heavily employed delivering supplies in support of disasters, such as OP RUMAN, which demonstrated the significant reach and capability of British strategic airlift, and its ability to rapidly provide support when required.

The British Army has deployed support teams, such as from the Royal Engineers, which have embarked in vessels like the BAY class LDS(A), and then provided vital support ashore after an incident to help restore crucial services.

In recent years the presence of the BAY class in the West Indies has been a critical tool in providing aviation, hotel services, medical treatment and other critical functions to help in an emergency. These ships continue to demonstrate their huge value as a base to support a wide range of operations a long way from home.

Although the UK has only relatively recently re-established its permanent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region, this is not the first time that RN vessels have taken part in humanitarian aid missions. For example, in 2014 HMS ILLUSTRIOUS deployed to the Philippines to provide assistance as part of OP PATWIN, helping deliver aid, partly by using UK facilities in Singapore to restore and deliver assistance.

In addition to this, it is worth remembering that the military is but one part of a much larger UK aid operation that involves a wide range of professional support and assistance. The former DfID, now FCDO excels at helping provide a co-ordinated approach to disaster recovery, and one of the UK’s great strengths is that in times of crisis, the strength of its wider machinery of government and third sector organisations to work effectively together can, and does, make a life saving difference to those in need.

The sort of assistance being provided here helps showcase the utility of maritime power as a tool of disaster recovery. The Royal Australian Navy has deployed one of its largest vessels – HMAS ADELAIDE, to provide assistance here. She will be carrying a significant amount of UK government provided aid to help deliver support as required, including tents and water supplies. This is in addition to wider Australian Defence Force operations, including the use of their C17 force to provide airlifting of emergency supplies to help.

RNZN (and RN) Hydrographic Party going ashore

The Royal New Zealand Navy is delivering critical supplies, including water, from the largest vessel ever operated in their navy, HMNZSAOTEAROA. She has been used to provide fresh drinking water and desalination, a critical need at a time when volcanic ash is impacting on water supplies, and which is making a truly lifesaving difference.Their amphibious platform HMNZ CANTERBURY is also deploying, and will provide troops and air support to the rescue operation.

In both cases, we see a vivid reminder of the importance of auxiliary and multi-platform vessels, able to help do more than just fight a war. These ships are ideal to provide assistance when required – and helps remind us too of the value in the UK of regenerating the TIDE class as a much more capable platform than their predecessors for delivering this sort of work as well.

Also present is HMNZ WELLINGTONa patrol vessel that includes an RN Exchange officer, and the ship will, in part, conduct hydrographic operations to survey the damage underwater and ensure that ports remain safe for entry – without this work being done, it will not be safe to allow larger vessels to dock, for fear they may run aground and cause even more damage. That the OIC of the hydrographic team is an RN exchange officer is a timely reminder of just how strong the ‘droggies’ links are globally, and how valued their skills can be.

This sort of combined relief effort highlights several extremely positive issues. Firstly, the strength of the co-operaration between the UK, Australia and New Zealand, whose navies continue to be able to work together effectively around the world. It is also becoming apparent that the US Navy is also deploying a Destroyer too, helping reunite four of the 5 EYES partners together as operational allies in a crucial mission.

The AOTEAROA last encountered the Royal Navy in late 2021 when she conducted replenishment at sea operations with HMS DIAMOND, as part of wider Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) exercises. Meanwhile the ability to embark UK aid, and to deploy with British personnel onboard is a good reminder of the deeper strong operational links that exist between all three navies, who are capable of very quickly spinning up and conducting a disaster relief operation.

For the Royal Navy this is a good news story in that it highlights the value of the forward deployment of the RIVER class vessels. These outstanding ships are ideal for this sort of task, able to quickly embark stores and additional personnel and be able to depart into smaller states to provide aid and assistance.


HMS SPEY and her crew are able to enter smaller ports, not perhaps accessible to larger warships, and provide disaster relief. They are well trained for this, having conducted exactly this sort of training operation at FOST in Plymouth, where the RN trains all its crews to help bring assistance when required.

They are very capable platforms for this sort of work, low threat, high value life saving operations that will make a genuine difference. They are not designed to go into harms way to fight off hordes of Russian or Chinese warships, rather they are designed to patrol, provide support, stop pirates and handle the myriad of tasks that make up the vast bulk of maritime operations in the 21st Century.

Their presence in the region is to be welcomed as a sign of the ‘Global Britain’ agenda in action. Unlike in previous years, where a UK military response may be dependent on sheer luck that a deployment was underway in the region, it is now far more likely that in future the Royal Navy can be deployed to assist.

It is important to remember the sheer size of the region though – the Pacific is an utterly vast ocean, and having ships deployed there does not always mean that they are able to respond quickly. For example HMS TAMAR, the sister ship of SPEY is not participating in this operation because she is already committed to participating in UN sanctions enforcement missions off the coast of Korea.

The sheer distance between the two regions is immense – in very (very!) rough terms, HMS TAMAR is roughly 5000miles away from Tonga – or even at best speed, some 10-15 days steaming time. By the stage she could arrive, it is likely that the disaster relief effort will have moved on.

That in early Jan 2022 the Royal Navy is already committed to two separate operations in different parts of the Pacific Ocean, while also supporting operations in the West Indies, South Atlantic, Antarctic, Gulf, Med and North Atlantic (including a carrier deployment to Ex COLD RESPONSE) is a really good reminder of how globally deployed and busy the fleet is right now.

Looking to the future, the RIVER class will be in this region for the next five years, operating across it, and providing assistance of this kind, while also regularly being reinforced by larger deployments of other RN vessels. What is even more exciting is that this is the start of an even larger presence, with the RIVER class being replaced in time by the Type 31 frigates, which will be the forward deployed presence towards the later part of the 2020s.

Some will see this as ‘too little, too late’ or alternatively’ too far away to be our problem’. Both views are arguably wrong. There is little point looking to the increasingly distant past and reminiscing misty-eyed about the ‘Far East Fleet’, which has now been out of existence for over 50 years.

That force existed to deliver very specific aims and counter Communist influence while drawing down the empire. The UK has no need of a vast fleet in the region, and has not done so for many years. To suggest that the RN presence is weak is to miss the point – the RN presence in this region is far greater than many regional navies have in our own home waters. The Royal Navy is adventurous by design, and has a far greater global presence of permanently based warships abroad than any other nation bar the US Navy.

Australian Aid being delivered

It is also not too far away to care. The Indo-Pacific region is where the next main chapter in human history will be written, and even if the UK is a geographically small island in NW Europe, our digital and virtual trading links to this region still count. We still maintain good diplomatic links to many of the tiny island nations across this huge area, all of whom have votes that matter in international organisations.

Assistance at times like this is not forgotten – and it is telling that this aid has been seen in some media outlets as a wider issueover Chinese influence. Tonga is one of many small Pacific island nations that is both amenable to Western interests, but also in severe debt to China. As the battle for influence grows, immediate condition free assistance without preconditions or expectations will be remembered in a hopefully positive manner by policy makers in the region.

If the UK wants to have a broader positive trading, diplomatic and wider relationship with this region, it needs some form of presence to ensure that it is not forgotten. Striking this balance is not easy – forward deploying half the fleet in Singapore may be a pipe dream of fantasy fleet types, but it is utterly unrealistic to consider in real life. But the balanced combination of low level presence, coupled with regular and repeated return visits by bigger platforms, air power exercises and Army deployments will help ensure that British defence maintains a credible level of engagement in the region.

This sense of ambition is palpable, and it is a genuinely exciting time – that this deployment to deliver aid occurred at a time when the British Foreign and Defence Secretary’s were in Australia, meeting their counterparts and furthering strategic co-operation on areas like AUKUS and the Type 26 helps remind us of the huge ambition at stake here.

The deployment of SPEY fits into this bigger strategic narrative – to send aid in this manner, without disrupting a short term deployment, and helping foster links and assistance that will be built up over the coming years is not only a positive advert for the UK, but a great reminder of the hugely exciting vision for British aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region.

Finally this deployment highlights at a macro level the sheer scale of opportunity that exists for your average RN, RNR and RFA sailor. To join these organisations and be able to travel across the world, and help see places most people in the UK will never travel to, and

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