Why Is a British Carrier Strike Group Heading to the Indo-Pacific?
On July 6, a British carrier strike group passed through the Suez Canal, heading to the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time since 1997. The last carrier deployment to the region marked a decline in British Indo-Pacific presence, as the task group visited Hong Kong prior to the handover of the former colony to the People’s Republic of China. This deployment, led by the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, marks a renewed determination to wield British maritime power and influence “east of Suez.” The carrier group’s schedule crucially suggests that Britain intends to venture well into the Indo-Pacific and give substance to its engagement in the region’s security dynamics, without undermining its Euro-Atlantic commitments. It is no coincidence that the first phase of the deployment included an array of NATO exercises, and support to the NATO operation Sea Guardian in the Black Sea, including a test of Russia’s revisionist territorial claims by HMS Defender, one of the carrier’s escorts. By the end of the second phase, the strike group will have visited more than 40 countries; conducted approximately 70 engagements, exercises, and operations; and sailed over 26,000 nautical miles. Judging by the fact that, shortly after the crossing, the carrier group was already conducting an exercise with the Japanese destroyer JDS Setogiri in the Gulf of Aden, there is a clear commitment to meet this ambitious agenda.
The strike group represents a decisive step in Britain’s long-term renewal of its military capabilities and a visual statement of the Johnson government’s desire to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe.” HMS Queen Elizabeth, with its air wing of F-35Bs, stands as a quantum leap in carrier capabilities for the fleet after a decade-long “fixed wing carrier holiday” following the decommissioning of the venerable HMS Ark Royal. Combined with the recent announcement of an upgrade in air defense capabilities for Type 45 destroyers, and the progress of the Type 26 frigate program, the Royal Navy is on track to become the primary military expression of the statecraft and international security role of a post-Brexit “Global Britain.” Whilst recent reports have raised reservations on the long-term affordability of current procurement plans, and as public opinion in the United Kingdom remains unclear as to the logic behind Britain’s renewed interests “east of Suez,” the remarkable nature of this effort raises four crucial questions. Why is Britain deploying its carrier to the Indo-Pacific? What does this deployment tell us — if anything — about how British strategy is changing? Will this renewed interest “east of Suez” compromise Britain’s ability to meet commitments elsewhere — crucially within the Euro-Atlantic area? And, relatedly, why does this all matter to the United States and Britain’s partners in the wider region?
The answers to these questions are far from trivial. The British media has heavily criticized this deployment. The Observer categorically judged that “sailing into imperial delusions is no way to run foreign policy.” The Financial Times went to great lengths to present remarks by U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin so as to suggest that Britain would be “more helpful” closer to home — presumably in Europe — only to subsequently update the story to better reflect his rather “positive remarks.” This comes as no surprise. Since its first appearance in a speech Theresa May delivered in 2016, the idea of a “Global Britain” has often attracted criticism from those who view it as a “lonely fiction.” Specifically, pundits have regarded the recalibration, or “tilt,” toward the Indo-Pacific — and the carrier deployment — as a post-Brexit “theatrical exercise.” The prism of Brexit has tinted much of these critiques, with the majority of skeptics viewing plans for the Indo-Pacific as a distraction from the loss of a close relationship with the European Union and, as a result, of relevance to the United States. Informed observers, on the other hand, have raised questions about Britain’s need to sustain its engagement for British intentions to be taken seriously within the region. Similarly, some academics have noted that the logistics of sustaining activities would inevitably stretch British military resources too thinly, like “butter scraped over too much bread.” Harsher critics have gone as far as considering British ambitions in the Indo-Pacific through the prism of “imperial nostalgia,” with the government’s rhetoric being “miles distant from reality.”
These criticisms are misplaced. Britain’s broader Indo-Pacific “tilt” is not an act of theater to relive past glories with little relevance to contemporary national security. Rather, the tilt offers a strong indication that the latest integrated review of foreign and security policy, titled Global Britain in a Competitive World, is truly a reset of British grand strategy. Britain is sending its strike group to the Indo-Pacific for three reasons. First, it is an acknowledgment that state-on-state competition is back as a defining feature of international affairs. The emerging “Biden doctrine” notes as much, with authoritarian regimes like Russia and especially China representing the “pacing” challenge of our time. The deployment of a British maritime task force to the region signals the continued strong relationship between Britain and the United States in the context of America’s competition with China. Second, with two long and costly military campaigns in Central Asia and the Middle East now firmly taking their places on the shelves of history, the strike group deployment underlines a major strategic shift toward the maritime-leaning posture that will characterize British military statecraft for the foreseeable future. Third, and related to the previous point, the deployment is indicative of a proactive security profile, one that, in the Indo-Pacific, focuses on convening allies, reassuring partners, and signaling to competitors to positively shape regional stability. Britain’s carrier in the Indo-Pacific showcases, in this respect, the country’s role in the post-Brexit age.
British National Security and the Indo-Pacific in the Age of Competition
The integrated review process confirmed that the United States remains the United Kingdom’s closest ally and that Britain considers this relationship to be a cornerstone of international order and stability. It also indicated that an unfettered use of shipping lanes underwrites global stability through maritime connectivity which, in turn, sustains the circulation of goods, resources, and, ultimately, prosperity — the lifeblood of such an order. Without maritime stability, open societies and economies stand critically vulnerable. This is significant since the hot spots of the Sino-American competition are at sea, notably in the East and South China Seas and across the Strait of Taiwan. Of no less significance, China’s declared intention to become a maritime power has direct repercussions for global maritime stability. Within this context, the integrated review’s acknowledgment of the need to shift Britain’s posture to seek a stronger maritime core demonstrates an understanding of the vital geopolitical importance of both the maritime order and of the Indo-Pacific region to Britain’s national security. The adoption of a specific “Indo-Pacific tilt” in the integrated review as one of the novel frameworks for policy action is aligned with such a recognition and relates to the vocabulary Britain’s closest partners in the region use.
Yet, the Indo-Pacific is more than an area of growing significance in Anglo-American relations. In this region, Britain has standing commitments that derive from its roles as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and as a party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. In particular, the United Kingdom remains part of the U.N. Command overseeing the Korean War armistice and has been involved in implementing at-sea sanctions against North Korea since the monitoring of ship-to-ship transfers of materials supporting the North Korean nuclear program started in 2018. The U.N. Command membership implies no automatic commitment of U.K. forces in the event of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, but there is nonetheless an international expectation that the United Kingdom would be involved in meeting such a challenge. Similarly, the Five Power Defence Arrangements do not commit U.K. forces to regional crises in Southeast Asia, but members are required to consult each other “immediately” in the event of a threat or armed attack. This creates a reasonable expectation for the United Kingdom to retain a degree of commitment to regional stability in order to reduce the risk of armed attacks. Beyond treaty obligations, some of Britain’s most important ties outside the Euro-Atlantic space are with countries in the region, notably Japan, the Republic of Korea, and India, in addition to Australia and New Zealand (Five Eyes members), and Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, notably Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore (Commonwealth members).
Of no less relevance, the Indo-Pacific is also a central piece of British post-Brexit global economic outreach. In January 2021, the British government highlighted its ambition to prioritize access to fast-growing markets and major economies in the region through its submission of applications to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the successful application to become an Association of Southeast Asian Nations dialogue partner. This, in turn, elevated the region against an already expanding trade relationship. Indeed, in 2019, before the COVID pandemic affected the world economy, Asia already accounted for approximately 20 percent of both British exports and imports. By way of comparison, the Americas accounted for 25 percent of exports and 16 percent of imports. More broadly, in the same year, seven of Britain’s top 25 export markets were in Asia. The top three in Asia — China, Japan, and Hong Kong — together account for some $82 billion of exports in goods and services, a value higher than that of Germany (Britain’s second-largest export market). Whilst the Indo-Pacific is not understood to replace Europe in economic terms, British parliamentarians certainly view the region as an important opportunity to enhance economic resilience, especially in key areas such as, infrastructure, services, and digital economy. By a similar token, the Indo-Pacific — provided its exposure to the dramatic consequences of climate change, from sea level rises to extreme weather events and natural disasters — is an important stakeholder for Britain to engage on matters of green economy, national resilience, and environmental policy, notably through the U.N. Climate Change Conference of Parties.
Carrier Strike and Britain’s Maritime “Tilt” Toward a Network-Enabled Shaping Posture
When Boris Johnson announced in February 2020 his plan to conduct the largest review of the country’s defense and security policies since the Cold War, it was unclear what that would entail. By the end of the year and ahead of the completion of the integrated review process, the government had started to offer some indication of its intentions and committed to increase defense spending by some 24.1 billion pounds over the next four years. The pledge did not eliminate outstanding funding problems, but it did highlight how the government viewed the role of the Royal Navy as the frontline means of British international influence. This point was not fully explored in the initial commentary on the integrated review, which focused instead on other significant features, such as the increased cap on the nuclear stockpile, reductions for the army, and the cyber and space capabilities that the government planned to pursue. From a strategic perspective, however, whilst the carrier strike program — including its related support capabilities — took center stage in the review’s emphasis on the “global” nature of British power, the defense document related to the integrated review, the Command Paper, articulated how carrier strike was going to be the cutting edge of an altogether very different national sword. British strategy was getting more maritime, and its core posture more mobile, forward-deployed, and operationally active to mitigate the risk of war through a mix of deterrence, engagement, and presence missions. Their specific mix would be tailored to the theaters in which British forces would be operating, from the Euro-Atlantic area, to the Gulf, Eastern Africa, and in the Indo-Pacific. Carrier strike was intended to be the punch of a longer reaching arm capable of performing different tasks beyond fighting in a crisis.
In the Indo-Pacific, Britain was to “tilt” — not pivot — resources to achieve just that: a nimble, shaping posture focused on engagement activities regarded as “campaigns” with specific aims in capacity building, maritime security, and disaster prevention and response. Since Britain’s main fighting capabilities will remain concentrated in the NATO area of responsibility, the tilt focused on maritime stability and good order at sea as the key missions to reassure partners and maintain the regional order whilst, if needed, still being able to push back against the many revisionist attempts at undermining it. In this respect, the British choice regarding what capabilities to assign to these roles is far from irrelevant and is a key to the success of this strategy. Forward-deployed offshore patrol vessels and littoral response groups — centered on converted Bay class-support ships and commando forces — indicate a focus on presence types of missions to meet commitments outside of the Euro-Atlantic area. The new response group idea, in particular, was already put to the test during this year’s Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise with NATO partners in the Baltic Sea, with initial results suggesting that it can generate force packages able to undertake a range of tasks, from counter-terrorism and limited interventions to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In the Indo-Pacific, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that two River-class Batch II patrol vessels will permanently operate in the region, whilst the first sea lord reaffirmed that one response group will be based in Duqm, Oman, with a similar area of responsibility, albeit with a greater focus on the Indian Ocean and East African sub-theaters.
One significant factor in the strategic value of these capabilities pertains to their light logistical requirements and high operational flexibility. Such presence capabilities lend themselves to being supported by a system of “places, not bases” with more affordable and less demanding requirements for maintenance and logistics which, as the London-based think tank Policy Exchange has highlighted in an influential report, has support from senior political leaders within the region. In particular, for the patrol vessels, this also means that their limited environmental footprint — they are the “greenest” ships in the fleet — would allow them to pull into any port with the most demanding environmental regulations. Patrol vessels and support ships can also easily be integrated with other British forces in the region, not least the army component permanently based in Brunei. Indeed, against this background, British military facilities in Oman, Singapore, and Brunei stand, in the economy of this strategy, as the primary pillars of a network of nodes. Over time, additional access agreements with key regional allies — notably Japan, Australia, and India — are likely to complement this network to further enhance sustainability and availability. The recent restructuring of the U.K. defense network around a series of British defense staff in Africa, the Gulf, and the Asia Pacific regions should also be regarded as an inherent part of the “integration” of the defense diplomatic levers of national power needed to implement a global posture.
Logistical support to maximize a persistent form of engagement goes hand in hand with the recognition that British action is designed to be fully interoperable with that of Britain’s major partners. Given sensitivities within the region about Britain’s colonial past, a return that is favored by, and embedded with, key partners is essential to a successful implementation of current ambitions. This is the second aspect of Britain’s new strategy. British activities — both constabulary and security — are based on the assumption that the maritime order is central to peacetime connectivity and wartime maneuver. It is the center of gravity of regional stability and the fulcrum of peacetime competition. This is a concern shared by other regional partners — the United States, Japan, and Australia, to mention a few — and organizations, notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Britain’s presence is therefore optimized to be seen as an integral component of a concerted effort to convene regional action, including with other European partners with continuous presence in the region like France. Cooperation with allies is bound — the integrated review made clear — to become a distinctive feature of U.K. policy. In the Indo-Pacific, this means greater interoperability with a wider group of partners, demanding regular training to develop a shared understanding of doctrine, command and control functions, and, ultimately, what is needed to produce effect through combined efforts. The carrier strike deployment is, in this region, a statement of the wide array of possibilities ahead. It shows how far a network of partners can combine their resources together to maximum effect by experimenting an enhanced level of interoperability through the concept of “interchangeability.” The actual integration of foreign combatants in the strike group and in the mixed air wing of U.K. and U.S. F-35Bs on HMS Queen Elizabeth is a case in point.
Crucially, the strategy behind this posture builds upon existing direct experience, a point often missed in media commentary. From 2018 to 2020, consecutive and, at times, overlapping British deployments in the Indo-Pacific enabled defense planners to test the requirements the integrated review adopted. This is why this carrier strike deployment to the Indo-Pacific matters. It is Britain’s first taste of things to come in terms of reassurance and cooperation, a commitment that will be followed up by a consistent presence, if not a large one. The carrier group showcases what support to stability will demand of Britain and what this might mean for its partners. It will indicate how far cooperation can go, and what difference it can make. The experience of the past three years has been invaluable to provide the Royal Navy with the raw materials to develop a desirable and affordable regional posture and the importance of daily presence missions. It is notable that the patrol vessels for Indo-Pacific have received “dazzle” camouflage color schemes of wartime vintage. This is a striking tactical choice that can make visual detection more difficult whilst delivering a strong visual political message. It is a statement to crew members and external audiences alike that the Royal Navy will be conducting its activities as part of what the integrated operating concept regards as the mindset and posture of “campaigns” in an age of coercion and competition. Whilst the strike group is setting the scene by drawing attention to the wider changes in the British military posture, the patrol vessels and littoral response groups will follow up to consolidate an engagement optimized for presence more than sustained high-end combat missions. The possibility of an additional frigate being forward deployed later in the decade would add kinetic muscle to Britain’s network of military partnership.
The integrated review has brought about a fundamental reset in the way in which the British government regards military power as a tool of statecraft. With the land campaigns of the last two decades drawn to a close, the new document proposed a shift away from stabilization operations against non-state actors toward a proactive, shaping and deterrence-oriented posture to maintain and strengthen the maritime order and reduce the risk of major war. It has done so by restating the strategic value of a maritime-centric and forward-leaning posture. In the key area of the Indo-Pacific, this means committing resources optimized to promote regional stability and convene action over shared objectives by means of greater integration with other levers of national power and interoperability with partners. Britain is sending its carrier to the Indo-Pacific to set the tone of a conversation over a presence that is intended to coalesce and not divide, to show how cooperation can be elevated to produce greater military effectiveness, and to demonstrate why stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime order is of great relevance globally. Crucially, as the first phase of deployment indicated, the carrier group’s main playground will remain the Euro-Atlantic area to meet Britain’s standing commitments to NATO and Europe.
On this point, two major criticisms raised against the carrier strike deployment and against the Indo-Pacific tilt more generally do not seem to hold to closer scrutiny. Britain is not diluting its commitment to Europe or the Euro-Atlantic. Whilst the strike group was exercising in the Mediterranean region with NATO partners, other U.K. forces were also conducting their annual major exercise in the Baltic Sea. From an operational perspective, no NATO commitment was affected by the carrier heading east. Nor is this likely to happen in the future since additional deployments of assets — currently including a Type 31 frigate — will be dependent on procurement plans meeting current timeline projections. This does not mean that the forces committed to the Indo-Pacific are irrelevant, or of little use. On the contrary, offshore patrol vessels and support ships with marines and army units are ideal choices to address issues that are relevant to daily risks to regional order: fishery patrol management, sub-threshold maritime coercion, disaster relief, crimes at sea, and humanitarian support. For this reason, these are assets that can favor the appeal of a British role as a security provider in crucial constabulary areas whilst lending support and filling in gaps in the mission spectrum of allies like the United States and Japan. This is also what the carrier strike deployment embodies. It is not a show of force to potential adversaries, but a force to show what a country can pursue together with like-minded partners.
This is why Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt matters to the United States and key regional partners, most notably Japan, Australia, India, and, indeed, France. Britain’s integrated review is evidence of an intellectual shift that recognizes the structural challenges of revisionist regimes and endeavors to proactively dedicate relevant resources to meet them. It is a shift that, in the Indo-Pacific, draws upon a positive agenda to shape the security environment, promote broader partnerships, and enhance operational effectiveness in a way that naturally interacts with the themes of the Biden administration’s notion of “integrated deterrence.” It is a shift that the carrier strike group is showcasing in all its possible ramifications, with subsequent forward-operating capabilities set to provide much needed support to American and partner activities. Yet, for all its significance, British commitment to the region will only work if partners ensure support to deliver on the intended tasks and, above all, if Britain procurement plans are met. In particular, base access agreements with partners like Japan and Australia will go a long way to ensuring greater British availability to conduct constabulary operations essential to stability. Similarly, Britain’s ability to deliver key future procurement projects, notably the type 26 and 31 frigate programs, will set the boundaries of stated ambitions. How far the implementation of the integrated review goes will depend, therefore, on ensuring that the maritime shift of British posture is supported by relevant policy action nationally and by key partners. As the United States continues to recognize the need to work more and more closely with allies, a longer reaching British arm should be seen as most welcome assistance. Still, what is certain is that post-Brexit Britain has entered a new phase in security policy, one in which the use of its maritime posture as a tool of national statecraft will determine the global nature of its international standing.
Alessio Patalano, Ph.D., is a reader in East Asian warfare at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the director of the King’s Japan Programme at the Centre for Grand Strategy and senior fellow at the think tank Policy Exchange, and he specializes in Japanese military history and strategy, and maritime and defense issues in East Asia.