A Return to East of Suez? The Royal Navy and the South China Sea

By William Reynolds, a third year War Studies undergraduate. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William has worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum.


HMS Queen Elizabeth enters Portsmouth harbour for the first time

Back in late July our current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, stated to a crowd of reporters and defence officials in Australia that the UK would send at least one of the new QE class carriers on a Freedom of Navigation (FoN) patrol through the South China Sea. [1] While news of a Royal Navy (RN) patrol through the region was not particularly surprising, the UK has been pushing a more ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit after all, the fact that it would be conducted by a Strike Carrier (CVF) took many by surprise. This article hopes to articulate why such a move would be wrong from a military standpoint, as well as outlining some possible reasons for the UK’s announcement of the deployment. This article will not cover the diplomatic effect this deployment would have, nor will it discuss the response it would incur from China.

The Royal Navy and East of Suez

Before delving into the nitty gritty of RN maritime deployments in the South China Sea, one must first understand why a CVF being deployed is such a major shift in RN strategy. The Harold Wilson government of 1964 took stock of the economic climate and decided in 1968 to effectively pull the Royal Navy out from East of Suez in order to focus on a more European anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role within NATO. [2] Without entering into a completely different debate, it is worth noting that this 1968 move was as a result of the UK being incapable, or being unwilling, to pay for five new CVA-01 type carriers that had been on the drawing board. Without carriers, the RN could not operate independently in a power projection capacity East of Suez.

However, this is not to say that the RN just disappeared from the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Deployments continued in the Gulf, with the Armilla patrol around Iraq becoming a permanent fixture until the Gulf War. Further east the RN continued to operate in a more limited capacity. Currently there are five standing deployments being conducted by the RN around the Indian Ocean. [3] Though said deployments may only consist of a singular vessel being deployed, say a Type-23 frigate, Type-45 destroyer or Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship, this does not detract from the UK still taking upon responsibility to uphold Maritime Law and Security. Most of these deployments are of anti-piracy or humanitarian nature. It is for this reason that the deployment of a CVF RN group deep into East Asia would be a large departure from the norm. Though, any carrier deployment since the scrapping of HMS Ark Royal (of the Audacious Class, R09, 1979), to be fair, would be momentous for the RN.

As of writing this article the UK has just announced another RN deployment into the Far East alongside the Japanese in 2018. [4] HMS Argyll, a Type-23 frigate, will be the first non-US military vessel to operate alongside the Japanese in their home waters.


HMS Argyll, a Type-23 Frigate


Why Now?

So why has such a deployment been announced now? The announcement coincided with the meeting of both Foreign and Defence secretaries from both Australia and the United Kingdom. [5] This may indeed highlight a growing closeness and cohesion between Australia and the United Kingdom through the avenue of security. The announcement of such a large deployment may have been to display a firm UK presence in Asia.

Of course, the Brexit twist can also be spun here. Though entirely speculative, a cynic may state that this is a somewhat ungainly attempt to align the UK alongside Anglo-speaking states in the face of increasing isolation from Europe. Indeed, this coincides with increasing calls for a Commonwealth style ‘freedom of movement’ between Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand. [6] Security ties are always amongst the strongest on the international stage. This could simply be a UK reaffirmation of these ties with Australia.

A final factor, and in the opinion of this writer, is the Type-26 Global Combat Ship. The new ‘City’ class Frigates, for which the steel has just been cut, have always been hoped to be a powerful unit on the export market. A mass-exported British-made frigate brings back nostalgic memories of the ‘Leander’ Class for many ‘Cold Warriors’. Both Canada and Australia are being specifically targeted as potential procurers of the Type 26 to fill their new frigate requests. [7] The platform by itself is a strong contender. Its ASW capabilities, which have been lacking in NATO since the end of the Cold War and the GIUK Gap, are certainly near the top of world capabilities. Indeed, with a growing Chinese sub fleet of not only diesel boats but now nuclear ones too, Australia has placed ASW capabilities as a top priority on its shopping list. [8] Yet, the UK cannot solely rely on the Type-26’s perceived capabilities. It has yet to be made and seen in action, and the French have offered a strong and viable contender. Thus, the deployment of the RN into East Asia could ease minds in Australia that the UK is pursuing further deployments in the region. Further deployments equals more cooperation and cooperation always works best when platforms and equipment are similar. RN engineers could quite easily aid in Australian Type-26 maintenance and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ships who would have worked alongside British Type-26’s could do the same for the Australians. The UK has benefitted from RN personnel working on US CV’s in order to ‘work up’ both crew and Fleet Air Arm to a standard ready for the QEC’s. A similar thing could potentially be open to Australian personnel on British Type-26’s. Thus, it could be for this very reason that the UK has decided to send a CVF through the region.


A CGI Impression of the new Type-26 Global Combat Ship

What Will Actually Happen?

This part is merely speculative, so feel free to turn off at this juncture. Boris Johnson quickly back-pedalled on his statement, implying that he either received a very strongly worded email from the First Sea Lord, or that the UK has yet to develop a strategy for the Asian theatre in terms of hard power. [9] The latter would not surprise me.

The CVF is currently on a rather sketchy timetable. The first F-35’s are confirmed to arrive on deck for 2018, but a fully worked up and operational Carrier strike force will probably not be around until 2022. [10] Without getting into a different debate, it should be noted that this is not particularly new. Large ships take a long time to work up to spec, especially when they are part of a rejuvenated capability that has not been around for 40 years. Thus, this would place a deployment to the South China Sea around 2023. A lot can happen in that space of time.

One must also wonder why a CVF would be deployed for such an operation. Carriers tend to be deployed on what is coined as ‘Naval Diplomacy’ (think Gunboat Diplomacy with a twenty-first century name) as a show of force to remind the recipient that not only can said state afford to utilise a carrier in such a role but that it has the full attention of the acting state. James Cable would define this as ‘expressive force’, that being “…the use of warships to emphasise attitudes, support other unconvincing statements or to provide an outlet for emotion.” [11] While it pains to admit it, the Royal Navy, and thus the UK by extension, can no longer field fleets to a sufficient size to really play this sort of game.

Furthermore, a CVF would not be the right tool for the job in this particular geographical location. Around the straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, there is little room for manoeuvre, and the proximity to the Chinese coast negates the advantage of the stand-off weapons in the form of CV air groups. The modern term for operations in close proximity to land is ‘Littoral operations’. [12] Carriers do not perform well where they are in easy range of coastal artillery/anti-ship missiles. This is not to say that one should view Naval Diplomacy through the prism of what is militarily sound, after all, as previously mentioned, carriers do provide a big statement. But with that avenue already discounted for the UK, why bother?

Thus, what is likely to occur is the deployment of a Type-45 Destroyer. These anti-air platforms are not be confused with the destroyers of the mid-twentieth century. They tower over their Type-23 frigate cousins and indeed act as an imposing statement by themselves. Furthermore, while not designed as a general-purpose combat ship, this actually works in their favour. They still possess a formidable forward gun, but more importantly their capability to track aerial targets is arguably second to none. The Type-45 is able to track over a thousand air movements an hour, which essentially means they can sit in the Thames in London and track all take-offs and landings from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Charles De Gaulle airports. [13] This in conjunction with its Sea Viper system, which can hit a cricket ball sized target at Mach 3, makes it more than able to defend itself against the Chinese main threat, that being anti-ship missiles. [14] Indeed, for the military nerds among you, in 2006 it was even claimed that the Type-45 could intercept the dreaded Chinese SS-N-27 ‘Carrier Killer’. [15] As a result, the Type-45 ticks all the necessary boxes for a Freedom of Navigation patrol. It has the imposing size to act as a physical reminder to the Chinese of Maritime Law, it has the capability to track and defend itself against any possible threats, and we have enough of them to deploy quite quickly. Ultimately, if this fails to convince the hard-core carrier lovers among you, simply look at the Americans. The US has rarely deployed CV’s into the South China Sea for the explicit purpose of a Freedom of Navigation patrol. Instead they use the Arleigh-Burke Class destroyer. If it is good enough for the Americans, it should be more than good enough for us.


Type-45 HMS Daring (Far Left) posing for a PHOTOEX with USS Abraham Lincoln

In Conclusion

Ultimately, it is welcoming to see at least the consideration of a small return to the Pacific. Whilst I would never advocate for the return of the ‘Pacific Fleet’ with five RN Carriers patrolling the Asian seas, the UK should do all in its power to uphold maritime law, which was set up and based around the Anglo-American tradition. The announcement of a carrier deployment should be seen more as an affirmation of the importance the UK government places upon the Asian region rather than a purely military thought process. After all, the UK has been without a strike carrier capability for forty years now and the first deployments of HMS Queen Elizabeth should be seen as prioritisations. If not by the Admiralty then certainly by the UK political caste. However, as has been discussed, this author does not believe that the Far East is the place for British carriers anymore. With only two to operate with, and even then it is debatable if they will both be at sea at the same time, closer theatres such as the Gulf or the Mediterranean may be better selections for their deployments. Rather, as has been laid out, vessels in the escort fleet are no slouches in combat and their presence would still go a long way in enacting naval diplomacy in the region. Indeed, the main beneficiary of this whole series of announcements may be the Royal Navy itself. As the government continues to use ships as tools of diplomacy and posturing, rather than Squadrons or Brigades, it may become quite apparent that a British maritime strategy, and thus budget increases for the Royal Navy, should become a priority.

The basis of the Navy’s case remains that, for a country like Britain, with its traditions and its modern circumstances, a relatively small but very wealthy nation reliant on globalisation and global trade, naval forces – perhaps more than any others – provide the greatest range of possibilities, options, and flexibility in deciding whether, when and how to exercise influence…” – Nick Childs [16]



[1] https://www.ft.com/content/70e7b27e-72a2-11e7-aca6-c6bd07df1a3c

[2] Duncan Redford & Philip D.Grove, The Royal Navy: A History Since 1900, (London: Tarris & Co., 2014), p. 257.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_Royal_Navy_deployments#Combined_Task_Force

[4] https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/hms-argyll-join-exercises-japan/?utm_source=TW&utm_medium=Twitter&utm_campaign=social

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/27/britains-new-aircraft-carriers-to-test-beijing-in-south-china-sea

[6] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/free-movement-proposed-between-canada-u-k-australia-new-zealand-1.2998105

[7] https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/bae-systems-australia-chief-hopeful-australia-will-opt-type-26-frigate/

[8] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/future-frigates-todays-challenge/story-e6frg8yo-1226936447532

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/27/britains-new-aircraft-carriers-to-test-beijing-in-south-china-sea

[10] https://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/liz-georges-first-playdate.html

[11] Ian Speller, Understanding Naval Warfare, (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 79.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Littoral_zone

[13] Nick Childs, Britain’s Future Navy, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2014), p. 108.

[14] Ibid, p. 108.

[15] Ibid, p. 109.

[16] Nick Child, The Age of Invincible: The Ship that Defined the Modern Royal Navy, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2009), p. XV.





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