The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced today that HMS Albion will be deployed to join HMS Sutherland, already in the Pacific region. The primary purpose of this deployment is to help enforce UN sanctions against the North Korean regime which is attempting to continue prohibited trade by sea.
Illegal trade with other nations provides a major source of funding for North Korea’s nuclear programme. Over the last few years, it has been enhancing its missile capability and the Hwasong-15 ICBM, successfully tested in November 2017 has a 13,000 km range, which puts targets as far away as Europe within reach. Initially, the main interest in RN deployments to the region had been on the pre-announced transits of the South China Sea in response to illegal Chinese territorial claims. Assisting the US and other regional partners in keeping the pressure on North Korea is a more urgent priority.
The Royal Navy had been absent from the Pacific region for the last 5 years, until the arrival of HMS Sutherland in February 2018. After visiting Diego Garcia, she then made visits to the Australian ports of Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. A significant part of her mission in Australia was to exhibit RN Anti-submarine technology and, assisted by BAE Systems representatives, she hosted receptions to promote the Type 26 design as an option for the RAN’s SEA5000 Future Frigate competition. Departing Sydney on 16th March, she conducted exercises with the Australian Navy before sailing for Guam. Joint training exercises and defence diplomacy with allies and partners, including Australia, the US, the Republic of Korea and Japan, is a central part of these deployments.
HMS Albion sailed from Plymouth on 6th of February with around 300 Royal Marines embarked and has been in Meditteranean until recently. She was expecting to relieve HMS Duncan as the flagship of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) but this has not happened. The plan had been to relieve HMS Duncan so she could deploy to the Gulf on operation Kipion. HMS Diamond’s planned 9-month Gulf deployment was curtailed as she returned home prematurely before Christmas because of a serious propellor shaft defect. HMS Duncan remains in the Meditteranean with SNMG2. Should RAF Akrotiri be used as a base for strikes against Syria, HMS Duncan could provide a useful air defence platform to defend Cyprus against any reprisal. There is also considerable Russian naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean which needs to be monitored.
HMS Albion herself is not the ideal vessel to shadow, stop and search merchant vessels carrying illicit cargoes. Albion is a versatile ship and has a useful command facility that may be used to coordinate a multinational force of warships operating off Korea. The Royal Marines could be embarked on smaller ships to form boarding teams if needed. In the dire event that hostilities should break out on the Korean Peninsula, Albion would be a prime platform for landing friendly forces or evacuating civilians.
Albion was expected to return to Devonport in July for maintenance and the summer leave period. Late in the year, she was due to lead the JEFM (Joint Expeditionary Force, Maritime) deployment and be the centrepiece of a major amphibious and military exercise, Saif Sareea 3 which will involve 4,500 UK military personnel in Oman. Depending on how long Albion is deployed in the Pacific, there may be knock-on effects that would jeopardise these plans. Live operations obviously must take priority and change to ship’s programmes is a normal occurrence that demonstrates the flexibility of the Navy, although such a small fleet gives planners limited options. HMS Bulwark is non-operational and the Bay class auxiliary amphibious ships are already heavily utilised. RFA Mounts Bay is forward-deployed in the Caribbean for 3 years. RFA Cardigan Bay is also on a long-term deployment based in Bahrain, primarily supporting mine warfare vessels, although she could be involved in Saif Sareea 3. RFA Lyme Bay has just completed a major refit in Falmouth and is the only other available amphibious vessel.
HMS Albion, together with Bulwark still remain under threat of being axed but the “mood music” and leaks coming from Whitehall about the progress of the Modernising Defence Programme, suggest that political pressure will see the amphibious capability and most of the Royal Marines retained, possibly at the expense of other RN assets. The high profile deployment of HMS Albion to the Pacific could be seen as a useful ploy by the Defence Secretary to highlight her value and to maximise political embarrassment, should proposals to axe these ships remain.
It is interesting to note that, despite the opening of the new UK Naval support facility HMS Juffair in Bahrain, for various reasons, the number of RN warships deployed to the Gulf region has actually declined in the last 2 years. There is also currently no US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf right now since USS Theodore Rosevelt departed in March. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier Group left Norfolk this week and is expected to arrive in the region in May. For now, the threat from Russia and a new focus on the Pacific have forced the RN to make the Gulf a lower priority for its thinly spread fleet. At the same time, a new UK Joint Logistics Support Base is being developed at Duqm Port in Oman where the Queen Elizabeth class carriers will potentially be able to come alongside for engineering support. Duqm port will also provide a logistic base for Exercise Saif Sareea 3.
HMS Argyll is scheduled to arrive in the Pacific region in the later part of this year when she will participate in a Five Power Defence Arrangements exercise with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore before also travelling to North East Asia for further joint training and exercises. The deployment of HMS Sutherland, Albion and Argyll will mean the RN will have an almost unbroken presence there this year, representing something of a new strategic direction for the UK.