Confirmation recently came of the British government’s decision to dispatch the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth along with an escorting battle group to the far Indo Pacific next month.
This would mark the largest British flotilla to sail out since the Falklands war 40 years ago, and marks a significant moment in contemporary British history.
The task force would comprise of the 65,000 tonnne HMS Queen Elizabeth, as flagship and be escorted by Type 45 class destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, Type 23 frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, the US Navy Alreigh Burke class destroyer USS The Sullivans, the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertse, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships Fort Victoria and Tidespring and a as of yet unnamed Astute class nuclear attack submarine.
The Queen Elizabeth will have onboard 18 F35B Lighting II 5th generation fighter jets, 8 of which will be Royal Navy/Royal Air Force while 10 would be from the US Marine Corps. In addition, there will be four Leonardo Wildcat maritime attack helos, seven Leonardo Merlin Mk2 ASW helos, three Merlin Mk4 Commando helos and 2-3 Merlin Crowsnest Airborne Early Warning helos as well.
The Task Force is scheduled to visit over 40 nations, and make several port calls as well, with fleet work ups and exercises planned with the major allied navies throughout the visit, beginning with a one with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle – which just concluded Varuna 21, the annual Indo French naval exercise (its first after the recent refit) – in the Mediterranean. Other navies include India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, US, Singapore and others – the possibility of large multilateral exercises with the QUAD nations can’t be ruled out either – given the proximity of these navies and their units.
This operation, named FORTIS, marks the beginning of a planned upgrade to British military presence East of the Suez – their first since the 60s – in a sustained effort to create the ability to reach out into the Indo Pacific.
The Royal Navy is planning to permanently base surface units, starting with OPVs, in the region from 2022 – and this operation will certainly ease that transition. Though, without any major bases in the region, apart from Diego Garcia, the British would be reliant on friendly navies, logistic support agreements and similar ad hoc arrangements for Operational Turn Around purposes.
The geopolitical significance of this flotilla’s planned deployment is of course not lost on anybody. Coming rapidly on the heels of several exercises, joint operations and sailing between the US Navy, Indian Navy, French Navy, Royal Australian Navy, Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force involving bilateral, multilateral work ups, and even joint Navy – Air Force exercises with major units in sensitive areas such as the Straits of Malacca, Lombok, northern Indian Ocean Region have signalled a very strong intent on behalf of the QUAD grouping to be the primary security providers in the Indo Pacific.
The willingness of the French and now, the British to engage with the QUAD navies will only further strengthen this signalling, and perhaps even encourage other smaller nations to court the group, such as South Korea, New Zealand and ASEAN nations.
All said and done, this will mark the first operational deployment of Royal Navy warships to the Indian Ocean in over 50 years, and would bring forth many recollections of bygone decades when the RN was ascendant and fleet exercises with Littoral states of the region – in addition to being a fantastic opportunity for all the friendly navies and air forces to work together – in the entire spectrum of modern naval operations, from Anti-Submarine warfare to full-fledged carrier operations.