In this photo essay, we cover the journey of the Carrier Strike Group as it passed through the Suez Canal heading east, taking a mostly direct route and arriving in the South China Sea less than three weeks later.
HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Limassol, Cyprus on 5th July and was joined by the rest of the group, forming part of a convoy of ships that transited the canal on the 6th July. HMS Diamond’s engine defect prevented her from going east and she left Cyprus for Augusta, Italy, later arriving in Taranto where work to repair her is ongoing at the time of writing.
After passing through the Red Sea, between 11-12th July anti-piracy exercises were held with the JMSDF destroyer JS Setogiri and a P-3 Orion MPA in the Gulf of Aden. Japan has maintained a naval presence in the region since 2009, deployed on maritime security duties and serving as part of the multi-national Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151). Other exercises will be held with the Japanese later in the deployment
On 12th July the CSG then met up with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group. Various exercises including precision manoeuvring, ASW, defence against simulated air and surface threats and long-range maritime strikes were held in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen, Somaliland and Somalia.
After activities in the Gulf of Aden, the group took a direct route across the Indian Ocean (and did not visit Duqm, Oman, probably a stop on the return leg). They rounded the southern tip of India to join exercise Konkan with the Indian Navy, held from 21 – 22 July in the Bay of Bengal. Konkan is usually a bilateral UK-Indian exercise held annually but this time included the US and Netherlands and on a much larger scale with the participation of 12 ships, 2 submarines and more than 30 aircraft. The Indian Aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is unavailable, being in refit at Karwar until at least the end of 2021. The CSG may make a visit to an Indian port and conduct further exercises with the Indian Navy on the return leg of the deployment.
HMS Richmond conducted an exercise with the Thai frigate HTMS Kraburi in the Andaman Sea on 24 July. Thailand is the first of the ASEAN nations to hold an exercise with the CSG.
On 25th July the carrier group conducted a PASSEX with two Royal Malaysian Navy frigates, KD Lekiu and KD Jebat in the Malacca Strait.
The main elements of the CSG passed through the Singapore Strait entering the South China Sea on 26 July. They were preceded by the Astute-class submarine, HMS Defender and RFA Tidespring.
RFA Tidespring loaded fuel, food, stores and mail while alongside at Sembawang Wharf with help from the British Defence Singapore Support Unit. Subsequently, while entering the South China Sea, the CSG vertically replenished 25 tonnes of fresh provisions and stores including F-35B spares and 2 tonnes of mail from Tidespring.
The CSG is now in the central South China Sea making its way towards Japan in what promises to be the most politically sensitive aspect of the deployment. The movements of the group will be monitored intensely by the Chinese, although whether they will interfere with the lawful passage of the ships through international waters remains to be seen. Should there be an incident of any kind, there is no guarantee it will become public. The UK Ministry of Defence has maintained a policy of “what happens in the South China Sea stays in the South China Sea” in recent years.