Between the 26th of July and 1st of August, the UK-led Carrier Strike Group sailed north through the South China Sea. Details of what transpired during that week are limited but here we assess what is in the public domain.
The passage of RN warships through the SCS has been the source of controversy since the UK government announced the intention to send HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region as far back as 2017. The deployment was very much perceived as sending a message to China that the UK is committed to upholding international law in the face of illegal claims to territorial waters by China (and other nations). In particular, Freedom of Navigation Operations, (FONOPs) sailing within the 12 mile limit of islands, rocks and reefs claimed by China was considered a possibility and a potentially provocative option. (UNCLOS, international rules, which have been ratified by the UK and China allow the right of innocent passage through such waters and any artificially created features do not create a territorial sea.)
Not a single official photo of the CGS was published between 27th July and 1st August and until now there has been limited official comment from both the Chinese or British governments. The UK MoD told Navy Lookout today that the Carrier Strike Group “took the most direct route through international waters to conduct exercises with allies and partners in the Philippine Sea”. This and the time taken to travel from Singapore to the Luzon Strait, implies that no specific FONOPs in the disputed Spratly or Paracel islands were undertaken. This was corroborated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which has said the “British warships didn’t enter within 12 nautical miles of Chinese islands in the South China Sea”.
As expected, there were evidently some efforts to shadow and monitor the group, but when asked for details, the MoD would only say that “all interactions with Chinese vessels were safe and professional”. They added that “wherever the Royal Navy operate, they do so in full compliance with international laws and norms, and exercise their rights to freedom of navigation and overflight provided for by UNCLOS”.
What is certain is that both the CSG and Chinese forces will have watched each other closely and attempted to gather electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). This age-old game is played by forces worldwide, information is compiled into libraries of electronic and acoustic signatures for future use in classifying potential targets as well as making assessments of capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, both sides try to reduce and constrain electronic emissions so as not to reveal too much to the opposition.
Prior to the CGS entering the SCS, Chinese state media had issued dire warnings that the UK should not carry out any “improper acts” or “tempt fate”. Some hawkish commentators in the US and elsewhere have claimed that the CSG failed and they “chickened out” by skirting the artificial Chinese islands. China’s excessive and illegal claims in the SCS include a ‘ten dash line’ encircling the vast majority of its international waters so any transit by a warship through the central SCS is by definition helping to uphold international law. The CSG will also return home the way it came so further interactions cannot be ruled out.
On 8th August the Daily Express published an unverified article claiming that as they left the South China Sea, ASW frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond detected two Chinese Shang class SSNs. Adding that “An Astute-class submarine is understood to have identified a third Shang boat as it patrolled ahead of the task force”. Despite being written with typical clumsy tabloid hyperbole, the piece has a ring of plausibility. China is likely to have sent submarines to attempt to shadow the CSG and the RN’s towed-array equipped frigates and Merlin helicopters are well capable of detecting submarines at considerable range. While Chinese naval forces are increasingly formidable and have a numbers advantage, they are still qualitatively out-matched by RN boats and experience in the underwater domain. The Type 093 Shang class are modern SSNs but the Astute is almost certainly considerably superior in most regards.
Chinese media has claimed that their submarines may have “intentionally revealed themselves after having accomplished their missions, sending a warning to the UK carrier group”. In a unique and rare show of bravado, a previously undetected Chinese boat famously surfaced close to a US Carrier Group in 2006, but it is against all tactical wisdom and the instinct of every submariner to allow themselves to be detected and very unlikely in this case. Chinese ‘expert’ Song Zhongpin further torpedoed the Global Times article’s credibility by adding “UK warships anti-submarine capability is limited”.
The source of the Express article can only be a leak / ‘off the record briefing’ by someone from within the MoD in London as such specific operational details are never made public, especially when concerning submarines. If the MoD wanted to signal the RN’s ASW successes, there are more respected publications that might have been chosen to carry the story with more gravitas. Alternatively, Mr Giannangeli would not be the first journalist to have simply employed an informed imagination to make up a story.
The CSG subsequently entered the Philippine Sea in early August and is currently alongside at the US Naval Facility in Guam after 5 weeks at sea. (With the exception of HMS Richmond, now in Sasebo, Japan), The group will conduct further exercises before dispersing for visits to a variety of Japanese ports in September.
Main image: HNLMS Evertsen accompanies HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea, 26th July (Photo: US Navy).