HMS Queen Elizabeth and the UK Carrier Strike Group are due to set sail in late May. Here we outline the geographical and practical aspects of what is known about this landmark, 26,000-mile operational deployment.
The deployment has many objectives these include; enhancing partnerships and conducting multi-lateral naval exercises and visits to many nations. Although only a transient presence in the Indo-Pacific, it will act as a reminder that the RN is back in the carrier game and post-Brexit Britain is interested in renewed trade partnerships in what is now the most dynamic region of the world. It is a signal to China and other potential adversaries that, in coalition with allies, the UK is willing to uphold international law. For the MoD, it is a chance to prove the carrier, its escorts, aircraft and supporting logistic chain can deploy over long ranges and operate in diverse environments. It will also further deepen interoperability and integration with US allies.
The Carrier Strike Group will conduct pre-deployment work on exercise Strike Warrior, as part of Joint Warrior 21-1 which will take place off the Scottish coast between 7th and 21st May. It has been confirmed that USS The Sullivans will join the group for the entire voyage, being the only asset that has anti-ballistic missile defence capability. The Dutch government have also confirmed the participation of the air defence frigate HNLMS Evertsen, both ships have previously been integrated into the CSG, participating in exercises during September 2020.
Other pre-deployment preparations that have been publicised include exercise Virtual Warrior held in February, where CSG battle staff and warfare personnel conducted synthetic training at HMS Collingwood. HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed on a short workup and embarked munitions at Glen Mallan in March, while RFA Fort Victoria is currently loading stores and munitions at Crombie Jetty in the Firth of Forth.
Some details of the route that the CSG will take are public and detailed in the map below. This is only an indication of the outward leg of the voyage, a venture which represents the culmination of decades of work and an enormous amount of planning by various arms of government. Somewhat controversially it seems to have been decided the CSG will not make the most provocative route through the Taiwan Strait. FONOPS in the South China Sea are one thing, but the decision to avoid adding to the tension between China and Taiwan has probably been made after long consideration and in consultation with allies, including Taiwan and the US. The Americans have sent warships through the Straits on a regular basis but have not sent an aircraft carrier since USS Kitty Hawk made the transit in 2007.CSSG21-Map-4
Subject to change…
One of the great strengths of naval forces is their inherent flexibility and plans may be changed at short notice in response to political requirements or other events. Other issues such as weather conditions, logistical or mechanical problems may also require the plan to be revised. Only a limited number of people will know the exact course for the deployment and for security reasons the RN never gives precise details about the timing of port visits more than about 48 hours in advance. There may also be sensitive missions planned to be conducted within the voyage that will not be mentioned before or after. For example, the RN has provided virtually no detail of its operations in the South China Sea during the last few years.
It should also be remembered there are many separate moving parts to the enterprise. The carrier group will not remain together for the whole time and ships are likely to be detached to make port visits on their own. Aircraft may be flown off for visits to airbases and if complex maintenance is needed, there is now a global network on nations that can support F-35 and Japan provides this option. The USS The Sullivans and HNLMS Evertsen may also temporarily detach to conduct missions in support of their nation’s interests. Other vessels from partner nations are likely to join the group for periods for exercises, familiarisation and for the purpose of making a political statement.
Many ports cannot accommodate HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside and she may anchor a little way off in deeper water. She is well equipped for this scenario, carrying 3 dedicated passenger transport boats that are lowered from bays in the sponsons that overhang the side of the ship. Convenient passenger access can then be provided via pontoon lashed to the purpose-built platform and companionways at the stern of the ship.
The ships will go into a COVID-secure state prior to sailing for exercise Strike Warrior and then will remain so until they returns home at the end of the deployment. This means visitor and media access will be limited and strict protocols have to be adhered to regarding who can leave or come onboard the ship. This is a considerable frustration as it will limit the diplomatic impact that would normally be achieved by hosting guests on the carrier and reduce the media coverage. It will also restrict the opportunities for runs ashore which would are a big part of the excitement for the sailors when going on a global deployment.
It has been confirmed the CSG will return home via Suez and the Mediterranean.
Watch this space for further coverage of the deployment (And follow the Twitter hashtag #CSG21).