British warships will return to the Asia-Pacific region in 2018, after a hiatus of four years. The announcement came last Tuesday during conversations between British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson and his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne. London wants a larger naval fleet to expand its global footprint, but it will have a hard time achieving its goal.
HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 anti-submarine-warfare frigate, will visit Australia and conduct joint exercises with the local navy in the new year. Its deployment in Indo-Pacific waters had been anticipated by Williamson on November 24 while addressing the ship’s crew. In his words, the frigate will represent British interests “across the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific.” It will be dispatched to work with allies and partners, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, as tension on the Korean Peninsula threatens regional stability.
In response to North Korean nuclear and missile provocations, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced in late August that HMS Argyll – another Type 23 frigate – would be sent to Japan to take part in joint training and drills. The warship will set sail for the Asian country in December 2018. Earlier in the year, it will participate in military exercises with the navies of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia under the Five Power Defense Arrangements.
Expanding trade, protecting sea routes
Last August, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) would be deployed in the South China Sea upon entering service. He said they would be sent to the area to promote a rules-based regional order.
In London’s plans, the Royal Navy’s largest ever vessels will have to boost the country’s influence around the world. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be formally commissioned on December 7, Britain’s minister for defense procurement, Harriett Baldwin, said on Saturday. The new aircraft carrier is expected to be fully deployable by 2021.
The United Kingdom is negotiating its exit from the European Union. As Brexit may have a negative impact on its economy, London aims to hedge its bet by boosting trade relations with fast-growing economies such as those in the Asia-Pacific area, where it has to regain ground lost recently. British exports to Indo-Pacific countries stood at US$63.4 billion in 2016, but they had reached $78.3 billion the previous year, according to the World Bank.
A new strategy in the offing
As 95% of British trade goes by sea, protecting maritime routes is vital for Britain’s future. The resumption of Royal Navy’s operations in the Indian and Pacific oceans is viewed through this lens by strategic planners in London.
Admiral Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, made this point during the Maritime DSEI (Defense and Security Equipment International) Conference in September. In talking about ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and other claimants in the region, he emphasized that naval presence was needed to assert “freedom of navigation and the rule of law” in those waters.
Jones went further and tried to outline Britain’s possible naval strategy from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Rim. This is based on the deployment of the nation’s prospective aircraft-carrier strike group in this area in the 2020s. The Royal Navy could use the new joint logistics support base at Duqm, Oman, as a “springboard” for missions across the Indian Ocean, and could base its future Type 31e frigates in Singapore, where the UK has berthing rights and recently established a defense staff office.
To support this logistic and operational framework, Britain should continue to upgrade its military-to-military exchanges with regional friends. Currently, the UK is committed to bolstering defense relations with India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. And arms trade plays a significant role in this effort. British leaders make no secret of the fact that Royal Navy operations in the Indo-Pacific space are also intended to showcase the nation’s cutting-edge naval technology, especially with regard to the anti-submarine warfare.
Too few warships
The question is whether this geo-strategic construction is backed up by sufficient and credible weaponry. At first glance, the answer is no. “The newer warships are more powerful than those being retired, but this is the smallest Royal Navy, in ship size, since the early Tudors,” argued Yale historian Paul Kennedy, writing in British daily The Times recently.
Britain now has 13 frigates and six destroyers. In the early 2000s the total number of these warships amounted to 32. Current numbers will remain unchanged until the 2030s, as the Royal Navy is simply working to replace older surface vessels. The UK has to revive its gasping economy, and budget constraints undermine the country’s naval modernization.
Even if the Royal Navy deploys just one of its two new aircraft carriers at a time, its presence in the Indo-Pacific waters in the form of a strike group will mobilize s large part of British deployable naval forces. This risks weakening Britain’s military capabilities at home and in the rest of Europe.
London commands two of of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s four standing maritime groups at a time when Russia is stepping up its naval activism in the Baltic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Further, the Royal Navy is cooperating with the EU to prevent illegal immigration into the European continent.
The reality is that Britain has too few frontline warships to embark on a permanent deployment in the Asia-Pacific waters. And given that British military presence there will inevitably irk China (the UK’s primary trading partner in the region), it seems reasonable to think that Her Majesty’s Government could be miscalculating Beijing’s reaction to its new naval strategy as well.