The Royal Navy has kicked off the final round of qualifications and trials of HMS Queen Elizabeth, marking the beginning of a new era in British naval power projection and a return to true naval aviation for the first time in a decade as the British Armed Forces prepare for the 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact. The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Recognising the continuing importance of aircraft carriers and their associated power projection capabilities, the United Kingdom has sought to reestablish itself as true carrier focused naval power, culminating in the commissioning of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
The two carriers form a key component of the major restructuring of British foreign policy as outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson following the recent UK election.
This radical approach echoes comments made by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson earlier in the year who promised a “major departure and reorientation” and the first major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the “east of Suez” doctrine in the 1960s.
At the time, Mr Williamson described the post-Brexit era as “our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play”.
Mr Williamson said that this shift would see the UK become a “true global player” following Brexit, stepping into a leadership role in an increasingly troubled world.
Expanding on this, then secretary Williamson said there would be a specific focus on enhancing the strategic relationships between the UK and key Commonwealth partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean and nations across Africa.
This renewed focus on traditionally British areas of influence and strategic responsibility, specifically in the Caribbean, and more importantly for Australia’s economic and strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia, aims to secure the UK’s national interests.
These comments were echoed by Prime Minister Johnson following his appointment in late July when he declared:
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“Today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two noble sets of instincts between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support and security and defence between Britain and our European partners and the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country.”
Return of a truly global Britain
Part of the UK’s strategic realignment towards “great power” status has seen the former global power commit to a range of capability acquisitions and force structure developments, including:
- Recapitalisation and modernisation of the Royal Navy – including the acquisition of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the planned development and acquisition of the Type 31e frigates to supplement the capability delivered by the Type 45 Daring Class guided-missile destroyers and the Astute Class fast-attack submarines.
- The restructuring of the British Army to focus power projection and rapid expeditionary capability as part of the Army 2020 plan – this plan is designed to support concurrent deployments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Indo-Pacific.
- Modernisation of the Royal Air Force to include fifth-generation air combat capabilities in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the E-7A Wedgetail and upgrades for the Eurofighter Typhoon – while supporting increased airlift capabilities and a focus on the future, including the beginning of development on the sixth-generation Tempest air superiority fighter.
- A modernisation of the British nuclear deterrence force – with the planned construction of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines.
Then secretary Williamson expanded on what this could look like, proposing Singapore or Brunei as potential bases for UK forces in the Indo-Pacific region, enabling greater integration with regional partners: “If we have economic interests there, we should have a military interest there.”
“The UK already has a world-leading array of capabilities. We will make the most effective use of them. Our armed forces have led the way for global Britain, tackling our adversaries abroad to protect our security at home and nurturing enduring relationships with our allies and partners,” Williamson said in early 2019.
Enter the UK carrier fleet
This reorientation and renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific in particular will see an increasing rotation and semi-permanent presence of Royal Navy assets in the not-to-distant future, with what is becoming known as Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) to become a corner stone of the renewed global Britain.
In order to achieve this, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have used late 2019 and early 2020 as an opportunity to stand up the integration of the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter force for the two carriers off the coast of the United Kingdom.
This working up process builds on the training and trial programs HMS Queen Elizabeth conducted off the coast of the US in conjunction with the US Marine Corps as both forces continue to develop platform interoperability and new combat doctrines.
Commanding Officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Captain Angus Essenhigh, Royal Navy, recently explained the importance of the working up and trials, stating, “We have proven the range at which we can operate HMS Queen Elizabeth together with her jets, having spent the past two autumns in the USA. There is now tremendous training value to be gained for both my Ship’s Company, and the Lightning Force team at RAF Marham as we work together to operate our jets to and from the ship from their land base.”
This was reinforced by Wing Commander Scott Williams, Royal Air Force, Officer Commanding 207 Squadron as part of Lightning Force, who said, “This is a really fantastic opportunity for all of us, and we are very much looking forward to getting experience that will underpin our carrier strike capability in the decades to come.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Lightning Force will continue training through the year, ahead of their first operational deployment together, along with a squadron of F-35B Lightnings from the US Marine Corps, to the Far East in 2021,” WGCDR Williams explained.
This trial milestone comes a month following the final work out for the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in December 2019, which saw the carrier formally organised alongside HMS Northumberland and tanker RFA Tideforce and the Norwegian Navy’s newest frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl.
Additionally, that round of trials saw the strike group supported by Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron based at Culdrose, providing anti-submarine protection and search and rescue capability and 845 Naval Air Squadron acting as “workhorses”, transporting stores and equipment, providing rescue cover and also landing Royal Marines from Lima Company, 42 Commando, to practise saving personnel from behind enemy lines. A Merlin from 814 NAS and Wildcat from 815 completed the Air Group.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea lines of communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia’s precarious position is an acceptance that “Pax Americana”, or the post-Second World War “American Peace”, is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multidomain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia.
These similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geopolitical and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment, what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation’s leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?
Fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities are one of the key force multipliers reshaping the Indo-Pacific. The growing prevalence of fixed-wing naval aviation forces in particular serves to alter the strategic calculus and balance of power.