There is a new carrier power preparing to flex its muscles in the Indo-Pacific – the Royal Navy is planning the maiden voyage of its newest flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, fulfilling Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of a ‘global Britain’ with one target in mind: China.
Following a resounding electoral victory and the ensuing political certainty established under the leadership of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK has turned its attentions to the rapidly developing multi-polar world order, particularly as the nation untangles itself from the bureaucratic confines of the European Union.
A key focus for Prime Minister Johnson is countering foreign influence, including 'grey zone' tactics and political warfare, methods increasingly favoured by totalitarian regimes in Russia and China – with asymmetric threats like violent extremism also figuring strongly in the proposed holistic national security response.
PM Johnson's proposed response would incorporate the combined efforts of the British Armed Forces, foreign and domestic intelligence services, counter terrorism and law enforcement agencies to respond in an era of great power competition – with the aim of delivering the review by the end of this year.
Enabling the UK to return to the global stage as a true great power, particularly with active economic, political and strategic interests in Australia's own backyard, the Indo-Pacific has required the most fundamental structural and capability modernisation of the British Armed Forces since the retreat from 'East of the Suez' in the late 1960s-early 1970s.
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; and
- A modernisation of the British nuclear deterrence force – with the planned construction of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines.
At the forefront of Britain's resurgence as a global power is the most potent and visible symbol of any great power, force projection platforms like aircraft carriers, in this case the Royal Navy's newest flagship and first true aircraft carrier in nearly two decades, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves
While still a shadow of its former glory, the Royal Navy is emerging from a period of concentrated modernisation and recapitalisation to become a truly global power player once again.
As part of stepping up its global presence, it has been revealed that HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead ship of the Queen Elizabeth Class of aircraft carriers, is expected to depart for a global maiden voyage, at the centrepiece of a carrier strike group, with a focus on enhancing strategic partnerships, improving interoperability and patrolling the highly contested waters of the Indo-Pacific.
As part of the carrier air wing attached to the Queen Elizabeth, it is expected that two squadrons of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter variant will be included alongside a suite of helicopters – interestingly, it is expected that the two squadrons will be made up of Royal Air Force and US Marine Corps aircraft, particularly in the Indo-Pacific deployment.
The deployment is also expected to see a large Royal Navy task group joining the carrier, including Type 45 guided missile destroyers, alongside Type 23 guided missile frigates and two at-sea replenishment tankers to support the deployment.
This significant deployment is also expected to foreshadow a permanent return by the UK to the Indo-Pacific, with long-term plans to permanently base one of the two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers in the region – this also opens the path for greater capability aggregation with the allies like Australia, Canada, Japan and the US expected to be invited to contribute to the escort and airpower capabilities.
Lucy Fisher of The Times reported a senior White Hall source, explaining, "One carrier will support NATO in the North Atlantic. Where else are you going to put the other? On the main trade routes and to counter the emerging threat of China. It would be an allied task group, a British carrier, but a coalition of the willing. That’s how it’s being looked at."
This was reinforced by Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd, Fleet Commander, Royal Navy who explained that the Royal Navy was "going to be coming back to the Indo-Pacific region".
"Our ambition is to be absolutely persistent and forward-based there, maybe with a carrier strike group, or maybe not. We’ll see," VADM Kyd explained.
This commitment builds on statements made by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who proposed a return to a global British strategic presence with outposts planned for Indo-Pacific Asia and the Caribbean “within the next couple of years”, marking a major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the 'east of Suez' doctrine in the 1960s.
"This is 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," Williamson said.
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 – this echoes the new Prime Minister's focus on re-establishing and rebuilding Britain's 'brand' as a major global power across the economic, political, diplomatic and strategic domains to support the global rules-based order and the UK's position in it.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
For both the UK and Australia, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges evolve; responding to this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.