HMS Tamar and HMS Spey sailed from Portsmouth on 7th September 2021 to be forward deployed in the Pacific for at least the next five years. A year on from their departure we look at what has been achieved and the benefits of a permanent Royal Navy presence in the region.
Officially called Task Group 326.03, unofficially called ‘SpeyMar’, the RN’s two newest OPVs left Portsmouth to considerable fanfare. They are the most tangible representation of the UK’s new ‘Pacific tilt’ policy and the deployment has been subject of some misunderstanding and controversy. OPVs armed with a 30mm gun and other light defensive weaponry are neither capable of, nor intended to, affect the military balance in the region. Notably, neither ship was assigned to RIMPAC 2022 – the world’s largest multi-national naval exercise held in July. Underlining that they are not intended as combat vessels, they have instead concentrated on constabulary, humanitarian, conservation and diplomatic work.
These ships may, however, significantly contribute to the RN’s future effectiveness by rekindling a network of relationships which includes other militaries, diplomats, friends and partners in the region. What may be dismissed as merely ‘showing the flag’ has a deeper value, should the RN want to deploy more capable combat ships to the Pacific in future the, RN is already on the front foot with allies and partners who can help with logistical and base support. As Pinstripe blog notes, for navies that aspire to global reach such as China, this can only be achieved with access to local airports and harbours. “China lacks much in the way of meaningful access to do this – beyond Djibouti, there is no military base that hosts Chinese forces in the Indian Ocean, and no known arrangements to share fuel and supplies from third-party nations. By contrast, the Royal Navy enjoys excellent global logistical arrangements thanks to decades of defence diplomacy helping ensure that when an RN vessel pulls into ports, it can carry out the full range of resupply and storing. This isn’t something that can be taken for granted”.
The RN is also growing a small cadre of officers with recent operating experience in the very different conditions of the Pacific beyond the usual areas of operations. For the sailors, there is now a chance of a varied assignment that offers the opportunity to see exotic and unusual places beyond the more commonly visited places in Europe and the Gulf. Both ships have also hosted Officers Under Training for their initial sea time, lucky enough to be selected to get their first experience at sea in the Pacific.
The RN’s specialist adventurous training team were deployed to Hawaii to provide 6 days of AT opportunities for both Ship’s Companies including mountain biking, stand-up paddle boarding, hiking and snorkelling. The ships embarked some of the kit before sailing from the UK which makes it easier and cheaper to deliver AT courses without reliance on local providers. Sport and AT have always been encouraged in the forces and these kinds of perks are an important part of maintaining morale, are an incentive for recruitment as well as a chance to build physical confidence and fitness through a range of activities.
In January both ships sailed from Pearl Harbour after almost three months spent conducting maintenance, crew changes and defence engagement in Hawaii. HMS Spey headed for the southern Pacific while HMS Tamar carried out a patrol in the East China Sea in support of sanctions imposed by the United Nations target the North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and ballistic missile programmes. Despite encountering rough weather, Tamar gathered evidence of a ship believed to be have been in breach of those sanctions, passing intelligence to the Enforcement Coordination Cell, based in Yokosuka, Japan.
On 15th January the submarine volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai erupted in the sea north of Tonga. Parts of the island were blanketed in ash and suffered a tsunami. HMS Spey arrived in Tahiti on 20th January to collect relief stores and subsequently offloaded 30,000 litres of bottled water, medical supplies and sanitation and baby care products alongside in the Tongnan capital of Nuku’alofa. Due to COVID restrictions the Ships company was unable to go ashore to provide further assistance.
Exercise Bersama Shield is the first of two exercises in 2022 and in the autumn, Singapore will host another exercise in the series Suman Protector. During Bersama Shield, a joint naval task group trained closely together, working on surface and anti-air warfare techniques as well as live firing drills.
HMS Tamar arrived in Palau in July – the first time an RN vessel had visited the island since 1925 and the President of the Republic of Palau, Surangel Whipps was hosted on board, demonstrating how the OPVs can also reach the smaller nations of the region. Tamar joined Australian, Japanese, the US vessel gathering to participate in Pacific Partnership 2022 – the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific. PP22 began in Koror, Palau, on 12 July, activities and projects are specifically related to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and medical exchanges and cover the nations in the Western Pacific.
The more immediate threat from Russia means the RN is already far too stretched to permanently deploy major combatants or submarines in the Pacific region. The OPVs are not going to ‘deter China’ but are an effective low-cost, low-risk way to enhance relationships with the UK’s Pacific partners in an ongoing way that occasional transient Carrier Strike Group deployments cannot sustain. The vast distances of the Pacific mean the OPVs spend long periods at sea in transit for which their size and comfortable accommodation make them well suited. The austere messdeck accommodation for up to 50 personnel under the flight deck allows them to easily embark cadets and sea riders for short periods and is proving very useful in the Pacific. In the short time the ships have been deployed, a great deal has already been achieved, most notably HMS Spey being on hand to help provide aid to Tonga after the volcanic eruption and tsunami.