After more than 7 months away, the carrier strike group has returned to the UK. While official channels rightly trumpet the many achievements of the deployment, here we provide a balanced assessment of the trip which has not been entirely plain sailing.
Away for around 244 days, the group traveled about 50,000 nautical miles, made visits to 42 nations and 3 territories, representing 47% of the world’s population and 53% of the UK’s trading partners. 18 set-piece naval and flying exercises were conducted involving 17 other nations. There was media coverage of the group’s activities in 99 countries and in 252 languages. The group hosted 66 government ministers, 106 ambassadors and around 500 senior officers of foreign militaries.
Crucially the MoD says the 3,700 personnel deployed consumed 25.5 tonnes of sausages, 190,000 potatoes and 2.01 million eggs. (HMS Defender alone got through 55,000 sausages, while HMS Kent consumed just 13,000). Such details may seem frivolous but do give an insight into the considerable logistical challenges of sustaining naval forces at distance.
The tailored air group embarked on the carrier flew a combined total of 4,723 hours of which 3,433 were by day & 1,290 by night covering a total of around 100,000 miles. The 18 F-35 jets of VMFA-211 and 617 Squadron flew 1,278 sorties, totaling more than 2,200 hours in the air. Exercises were conducted with over 60 other types of aircraft and 44 combat missions were flown in support of Operation Shader/Inherent Resolve over Iraq.
The deployment saw three pre-ICO Crowsnest-equipped Merlin MK2 deployed and their first opportunity to fly together in formation, an opportunity to practice airborne surveillance picture handovers, a key skill for the Observers to master. Although still not formally having achieved IOC, Crowsnest aircraft flew 362 hours in 179 sorties between 1st May and 22nd November. An assessment of the system’s progress to date is obviously not in the public domain but these figures would suggest a gradual ramp-up in capability but not yet offering complete round-the-clock coverage during periods of operational activity.
HMS Kent’s Wildcat helicopter, one of four 815 Naval Air Squadron cabs that deployed with the group, flew 239 hours and 15 minutes of sorties (the equivalent of almost ten whole days airborne). Notably, the first operational firing of the Marltet missile was conducted by a Wildcat from HMS Defender in the Bay of Bengal.
The view from the bridge
As would be expected, the comment from the officers leading the group has been positive and upbeat, Commodore Steve Moorhouse described the trip as “challenging but a hugely successful and rewarding deployment”. It is not spin or hyperbole to say those serving have made big sacrifices and generally come through tough times with good humour. Navy Lookout spoke to the COs of the two Type 45 destroyers on their arrival in Portsmouth. When asked about their experience in the Black Sea, Cdr Vince Owen, CO HMS Defender said their ethos of “train hard – fight easy had paid off”. When Russian forces hounded the ship on 23 June it was “Just another Day in the Royal Navy”, although he described Russian actions as “unprofessional”.
Despite the well-documented propulsion problems of the Type 45s, HMS Defender sailed the furthest of any ship on the deployment, traveling over 51,000nm. Asked what was the secret, Cdr Owen attributed the performance to the engineering excellence of his ship’s company and stated that they had not missed a single day of planned availability. Although Defender has proved to generally be the most reliable of the destroyers, she did suffer at least one total electrical (and propulsion) failure on the trip, demonstrating the urgent need to get these ships through the Power Improvement Package. (The first PIP for HMS Dauntless had encountered serious difficulty and has yet to leave the Cammell Laird yard on Merseyside.)
Cdr Matthew Marriott, CO HMS Diamond was extremely proud of the achievements of his crew. Diamond’s most notable challenge was a major propulsion defect suffered in the Mediterranean that resulted in 6 weeks alongside in Taranto having a Gas Turbine engine replaced. Marriot took a very positive view of the situation, pointing out the RN was only one of two navies that could change a GT while deployed and his MEs, assisted by BAES engineers had completed the job faster than it has ever been done in the UK. While the issue necessitated a major change to Diamond’s programme, Marriot said the ship had still fulfilled her main strategic objectives. She made it to Singapore for a key exercise but was unavailable to escort the carrier in the South China Sea on the outward leg, although the CSG benefited from having 3 other powerful air defence ships. Diamond also suffered a further minor breakdown which necessitated time alongside in Singapore dockyard, missing the Five Power Power Defence Agreement 50th anniversary fleet review.
Most of HMS Diamond’s battle honours from centuries past were won fighting the Dutch while HNLMS Everstsen’s were for battles with the English fleet. Having put historical rivalries aside, Cdr Marriot said he enjoyed a fantastic working relationship with Evertsen’s captain and similarly close ties and mutual trust was developed with USS The Sullivans. During exercise Bersama Gold in the South China Sea, Diamond met up with the Australian, New Zealand and Singaporean ships. Marriot explained: “We met in the night about 0300, by 0700 we had refuelled, exchanged helicopters and were in the midst of a complex in a multi-threat exercise with no integration time whatsoever. We are partners in the FPDA who are capable of entering a theatre and being combat-ready in minutes”. Similarly Diamond was impressed by the speed with which the Italian Destroyer ITS Andrea Doria was seamlessly integrated into the air defence of the carrier group during the final exercise in the Mediterranean.
This interoperability with other navies is key to the RN having a credible military effect, especially in the Pacific. While it exercises frequently with NATO partners, the CSG21 deployment helped build and improve the ability to integrate with forces of other nations beyond the European theatre. The visible presence, even if relatively transitory, demonstrates to allies and adversaries that the RN is able to turn up and contribute to combat power. Although hard to quantify exactly, the strategic effect of enhanced partnerships, together with the deepening integration with the USN, is perhaps one of the most important achievements of the deployment.
The effects of COVID around the globe impacted the deployment in many ways but most significantly it severely curtailed the opportunities to get ashore. It was galling to be alongside in exotic places, most notably Japan, but not be allowed ashore to explore or meet other people. The advertised “trip of a lifetime” did not come to fruition and on many occasions, the ships’ companies had to make their own entertainment on board. For example, HMS Diamond was kept entertained by the ship’s in-house band and held a memorable crossing the line ceremony. Improvised leisure opportunities were the order of the day – in a few places the crews were able to go ashore to secluded beaches or places where they would not interact with the local population.
Two visits to the Pacific Island of Guam provided the highlight of the deployment for many and included adventurous training opportunities. On the final leg, HMS Defender visited Jordan and Barcelona while Diamond went to Crete, Alicante and A Coruña and were able to have almost ‘normal’ runs ashore. Overall the trip will not be remembered especially fondly by the majority of sailors because of the extended time confined on board, although there have been some definite highlights.
For many casual observers, the deployment will be seen as a ‘failure’ due to the loss of the F-35 jet. (Eg. no-context hatchet job by City AM) Early indications are that the accident was caused by human error. The MoD announced this week that the wreckage of the aircraft has been recovered from the seabed by a joint UK, US and Italian salvage effort. Whoever leaked the footage of the accident onto social media has been arrested. There is no doubt this is an embarrassing episode and a costly error but one that will be learned from. It is a reminder of the complications and risks of naval aviation. The Fleet Air Arm lost many aircraft through accidents over the years but these airframes were generally much cheaper (even in real terms), simpler and more numerous. The problem with modern combat aircraft is that all your eggs are in a few very expensive baskets while the risk of loss through accidents remains.
Despite the dangers and risks of life at sea, the professionalism of the sailors and airmen saw everyone return safely except one sailor that did not make it home. A young rating committed suicide on board HMS Kent on 10th July. This was a very traumatic event for the ship’s company and the medics who tried to treat him. The issues around mental health are a challenge that goes well beyond the navy, suicide being the biggest killer of men under 45.
Overall the deployment has been a success. In hard power terms, the group delivered a powerful presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the Russians reacted strongly in these regions they would like to dominate. Carrier-based F-35s conducted combat operations over Iraq. Operations in the South China Sea demonstrated a small UK contribution to upholding international law. Despite strong rhetoric in Chinese state media, prior to the deployment, the response to the group’s presence appears to have been very limited and low-key. HMS Richmond conducted patrols off Korea in enforcing UN sanctions against the North Korean regime and was the only ship of the group to make a very public transit of the Taiwan Strait.
The diplomatic and economic impacts of the deployment are another major prize. Making a great first impression and promoting Britain’s political, trade and military interests is a core Royal Navy function and this trip was no different, although the impact may have been blunted slightly by COVID restrictions. Critics may complain at the cost to the taxpayer of sending the navy overseas but in the grand scheme of things is small change compared to the value of trade deals and the promotion of ‘brand Britain’ the CSG will help to deliver.
Global deployments of an RN task group is nothing new but CSG21 has been called “the largest in a generation”, marking the end of the RN’s convalescence from the effects of the disastrous 2010 SDSR. Although the RN cannot mount deployments on this scale every year, it can now be described as a carrier-centric navy and has proved it can operate anywhere although some obvious caveats, notably the fragility of its destroyers and heavy reliance on allies. Future CSG deployments will see much-needed growth in capabilities, particularly as the UK F-35 fleet grows and the jets have the full range of weapons integrations.
The majority of those who served on the deployment will go straight on leave for Christmas with friends and family and up to 5 weeks of well-earned rest. HMS Queen Elizabeth and her escorts will need significant maintenance and will go into Fleet Time Support Periods but will technically remain at ‘high readiness’ to deploy for most of 2022.