In his foreword to the Policy document, the UK Prime Minister had also laid out an ambitious sailing plan for a Carrier Battle Group based Task Force under the Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth.
By Milind Kulshreshtha
UK’s March 2021 policy document ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ set forth the UK 2030 vision. In his foreword to the Policy document, the UK Prime Minister had also laid out an ambitious sailing plan for a Carrier Battle Group based Task Force under the Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth. HMS Queen Elizabeth (Pennant number R08) is a 65,000t aircraft carrier which is the largest and latest warship ever built by the Royal Navy. In May 2021, the warship commenced sailing for this 28 week Eastbound deployment from its homeport at Portsmouth as a part of a multi-national Carrier Strike Group comprising two Royal Navy Frigates, two Destroyers, two supply ships and an Astute Class Submarine. The multinational ship component participating includes an US Destroyer and a Dutch Frigate.
This Carrier Strike Group represents the UK’s first such large global deployment in the last two decades, navigating through Mediterranean, Middle East and the Indo-Pacific waters to reach Japan and South Korea. The 26,000 nautical mile Eastward deployment with visits to 40 countries is the first ever long term deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth since its 2017 commissioning. In June 2021, during the early part of its sailing itself, the aircraft carrier gained its maiden combat experience by carrying out aerial missions against ISIS. It flew the US and UK F-35B fighter jets from its deck for combat missions over the Middle East. It was the first time since WWII that US warplanes took off from a foreign warship to participate in a combat mission and these Tasks also demonstrated the UK’s interoperability capabilities with allies and partners, especially the US military.
Aircraft Carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
The 280 meters long aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has been constructed for USD 4.13 billion with a service life of 50 years. The aircraft carrier is a modern engineering technology demonstrator with an integrated Full Electric Propulsion (IFEP) system. The unique shape of the carrier with twin island superstructure (forward for navigation and aft for flying control) instead of the conventional single island superstructure makes the carrier shape distinctive.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth led Carrier Strike Group under sail presently packs a formidable punch with its onboard complement of fully weaponized eighteen F-35B deck launched stealth fighters from the UK and US. These Lockheed Martin manufactured F-35B Jets are themselves a part of one of the most ambitious and expensive US DoD programmes to acquire latest generation F-35 fighter jets for a planned life-cycle of 66 years. The F-35 fighter jets have three variants for Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps roles. The F-35B aircrafts onboard Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier differs from the other two variants viz. F-35A (Airforce version CTOL – Conventional Take-off and Landing) and F-35C (Naval Carrier Version) in terms of a flexible swivel duct Convergence/Divergence (CD) Nozzle for STOL (Short Take Off and Vertical Landing). The overall estimated acquisition cost for 2500 F-35 jets manufacturing programme stands at USD 400 billion, with the life-cycle sustainment cost exceeding USD 1.27 trillion. The costs per tail per year are estimated to be USD 6 billion by 2036. However, the F-35Bs are formidable air assets and aircraft carrier versions are a real game changers in the maritime deck launched aircrafts.
Indian Aircraft Carrier
The ongoing PASSEX exercise on the high seas between the Carrier Battle Group and the Indian Navy is an opportunity for India to observe the capabilities of one of the most modern Carrier based Naval Task forces. India’s own Aircraft Carrier construction capabilities are at a nascent stage, with the 45,000t Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) christened ‘Vikrant’ slotted for a delayed commissioning in next one to two years. India’s own sole aircraft Carrier INS Vikramaditya is the 45,400t ex-Groshkov which flies the Russian MIG-29K fighter jets and India is already looking for the replacement for these sea launched fighter jets. Since the induction of ex Viraat in 1987, India had maintained sea dominance in the IOR by maintaining two Aircraft Carriers; however, it is now left with only one operational Aircraft Carrier. Though indigenisation of the Aircraft Carrier by any nation is no mean task, the launch of the second indigenous aircraft carrier shall ensure that the present situation of only one operational carrier is avoidable. Each of the Aircraft Carrier undergoes periodic maintenance routines in the docks for keeping the ship seaworthy, with some of these refit durations extending to several months, which may include dry-docking to carry out the underwater repairs. Overall, with a vast region of responsibility in the Indo-Pacific, the reach and power projection which an aircraft carrier Task Force can bring with its deck launched fighter jets has no substitute in the modern era.
The Indo-Pacific is slowly and surely emerging as a dispute zone involving islands and maritime claims and influences by several sovereign states, especially in the South China Sea, with the China factor predominant. Indian Navy requires major battleships to pack a punch and may look at closer ties with the UK for a mutually beneficial proposition in the maritime security dimension. More corporations in the field of high end technologies like the recently concluded MT-30 Gas Turbine MoU to provide support in installation and services support for Rolls-Royce MT30 marine engines shall be advantageous for India’s warship construction industry. The MT30 propulsion engines are also used onboard the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier presently deployed in the Indo-Pacific.
With the long range global reach, this UK Carrier Battle Group is a prime example illustrating sea power as a decisive instrument to achieve overseas national security objectives and conveys unambiguously the UK’s intent to re-establish itself as a global military and economic power. To fulfil this objective of global supremacy, the UK plans to exceed its commitment on military spending beyond the planned 2.2% of GDP, especially for developing and acquiring advanced military technologies for Space and Cyber domains. The UK already maintains an effective global influence with partner nations via various channels like through permanent membership of the UN Security Council, member of G7, Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network member (along with US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and leading the Commonwealth initiative.
Risky Waters Ahead
The UK actively participates in the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the Indo-Pacific. It has already announced permanent deployment of two Royal Navy warships in the Asian waters in September 2021 as a follow-up to the Carrier Battle Group visit to Japan. The UK has though stated that the intent of the Carrier Battle Group is not to be entangled in any form of confrontationist approach, however, the sensitivity of the region in the past has already seen multiple sea skirmishes of various kinds. The Aircraft Carrier shall be bringing a potent Naval force with Air power closer to China and its regions of interest. In the coming months, the UK’s power projection through a Naval Task Force deployment to gain measured military, diplomatic and trade influence in the Indo-Pacific region shall be the focus of observation. Once the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Battle Group crosses the IOR towards the East, it’s movement shall be keenly and closely monitored by Chinese PLAN warships and aircrafts, with the rest of the world carefully observing the forthcoming events.
(The author is a Strategic Analyst with a keen interest in technology related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF). He can be reached at Email: email@example.com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)