This photo and video essay cover the activities of the UK Carrier Strike Group in September and October. Having gone as far east as planned, the group began its westward journey home, including participation in three major exercises during this period.
After more than 120 days spent at sea since leaving Portsmouth in May, units of the CSG arrived in Guam for a period of mid deployment maintenance and rest on 13th September ahead of the next phase of the deployment. This second visit to the island was because the time spent in Yokosuka, Japan was curtailed by COVID restrictions confining crews to ships. While in Guam, personnel were able to get ashore for well-deserved rest and relaxation.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and the CSG units sailed from Guam on 27th September and conducted their first exercises with the Royal New Zealand Navy. HMNZS Te Kaha has just had a major upgrade and HMNZS Aotearoa’s is on her first operational deployment to the South East Asia region. The ships later accompanied the group through the South China Sea en route to participate in exercise Bersama Gold 21.
Having previously been deployed on operations to support the enforcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes, HMS Richmond made a direct transit through the Taiwan Strait. Only a single frigate of the CSG made this journey but it was clearly a signal to China that the Strait must remain an international waterway open to everyone. There can be no accusations of any sinister intent as the transit was publicised in a Tweet from the ship and Richmond’s AIS was activated allowing her progress to be monitored by all.
Exercise Bersama Gold 2021 included the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) nations – Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. (The biennial Bersama Shield exercise was renamed to Gold for the 50th anniversary of the FPDA). Air and naval exercises were conducted in the South China Sea between Malaysia and Singapore and included anti-air and anti-submarine exercises, gunnery firings and manoeuvring. A total of 2,600 personnel, 10 ships, 1 submarine, 6 helicopters, 3 maritime patrol aircraft, 25 fighter aircraft and 3 support aircraft joined the exercise. Planned participation by RAF Typhoons and a Voyager tanker was cancelled due to the complexities of COVID restrictions at airbases in Asia.
Besides HMS Diamond, participants in the naval aspects of Bersama Gold (8-18th October) included Malaysian frigate Lekiu and corvette Lekir, Australian LHD Canberra, New Zealand frigate Te Kaha and auxiliary Aotearoa. At the conclusion of the exercise, Malaysia hosted the 11th FPDA Defence Ministers’ Meeting at the RMAF Subang airbase. Unfortunately, HMS Diamond suffered an undisclosed technical fault (not propulsion related) and arrived back in Sembawang for repairs on 16th October, missing the FPDA review and flypast held off Singapore Marina South on 18th October. Diamond completed a week of repairs and sailed on 25th.
Quad Carrier Operations
Meanwhile, at the beginning of October, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and CSG units met up with three other aircraft carriers in the Philippine Sea for the largest assembly of sea power seen on the deployment. USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan & JS Ise undertook combined exercises. The assembled ships from 6 nations totalled half a million tons with an equally impressive air wing.
After passing westwards through the Luzon Strait, the CSG re-entered the South China Sea bound for Singapore. Commenting on the passage COMUKCSG said; “It is a big piece of international water, so lots of nations were flying and sailing there. There was lots of Chinese activity, but it was absolutely safe, professional, and due distances and ranges were kept”. On 9th October the main units of the CSG conducted a PASSEX with the Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Formidable and corvette RSS Vigour.
Following the completion of the PASSEX, HMS Queen Elizabeth called into RSS Singapura – Changi Naval Base, Singapore for a brief 3-day defence engagement visit.
Maritime Partnership Exercise
After passing through the Singapore Strait, between October 15 – 18, the CSG participated in another major set-piece – Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX 2021) in the Bay of Bengal, including the Royal Australian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the US Navy. The exercise was designed to increase interoperability between the four navies. Notably, a day later a joint Chinese-Russian naval exercise saw 10 warships sail through the Tsugaru Strait into the North Pacific.
Welcomed in India
While HMS Richmond was in Goa, HMS Defender arrived in Mumbai. 15 officers from the Indian Navy visited the ship to learn about the Integrated Electric Propulsion system that India is keen to embrace. A UK Defence & Security Industry Day was held onboard and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss later hosted Indian business leaders and guests from the world of education, film, sports and politics for an evening reception. The Minister also visited HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea off the Indian coast.
From 24-27 October exercise the CSG participated in bi-lateral exercise ‘Konkan Shakti 2021’ with the Indian Navy and Airforce off the Konkan coast in the Arabian Sea. The Indian MoD were more forthcoming about the details of this exercise than other nations have been, stating that participating units formed up as two opposing forces with the aim of achieving sea control to land troops on the coast. One force was led by the Indian Western Fleet commander on the flagship INS Chennai, INS, NS Kolkata, INS Kochi INS, INS Talwar INS Teg, the tanker INS Aditya and HMS Richmond. The rest of the CSG formed the opposing force.
Each force exercised replenishment at sea approaches, air direction, strike operations by fighter aircraft, cross control of helicopters (Sea King, Chetak, Merlin and Wildcat), gunnery and a simulated landing of troops. Simulated airstrikes were made by Indian Navy maritime patrol aircraft and MiG 29Ks with Indian Air Force SU-30 and Jaguars. An Indian Scorpene-class submarine and RN-operated Expendable Mobile Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Target (EMATT) also participated.
On 19th October USS The Sullivans left the Carrier Strike Group in which she had served for more than a year to make the long journey home to her base at Mayport in Florida. “The destroyer and her 280-strong crew have made a significant contribution, both in the pre-deployment exercising off the coast of Scotland last spring and throughout the CSG’s deployment since May,” the MoD said in a statement. She was given a big send-off by the CSG as she made a high-speed sail past of the ships in line astern in the Arabian Sea.
The CSG will head to Oman to begin exercises in the Gulf region before heading back through the Suez canal on the final leg of the deployment that will see them return to the UK in mid-December.