UK Deploys Aircraft Carrier in the Indian Ocean

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security

UK Deploys Aircraft Carrier in the Indian Ocean

The upcoming “global deployment” is intended to reinforce the U.K.’s tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region.

UK Deploys Aircraft Carrier in the Indian Ocean
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from the main Quad countries – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – many European countries are demonstrating a keener interest in playing a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, with the United Kingdom being the latest. Earlier in the week, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that the British Carrier Strike Group (CSG) led by HMS Queen Elizabeth will undertake a “global deployment” that would include visits to 40 countries including India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. The deployment is also intended to reinforce the U.K.’s new position in the Indo-Pacific region. The group will include, on the surface, two Type 45 destroyers, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; two Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring. Also joining the mission will be a Royal Navy Astute-class submarine, fitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles.  

On board HMS Queen Elizabeth will be eight RAF F-35B Lightning II fast jets, four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters, and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters. The CSG is planning to visit more than 40 countries, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea, and from the Indian Ocean to the Philippine Sea. During this time, it has planned engagements with India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, which are an indication of the U.K.’s recent “tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region.”

A statement from the British High Commission said the CSG “will engage in several joint exercises with the Indian military in the Indian Ocean aiming to broaden the scale of our interoperability and enhancing our capabilities to defend against shared threats and protect our democratic values.” Commenting on the CSG deployment, Wallace reportedly stated that “The U.K. and India are natural defense partners… The deployment is a symbol of Global Britain in action, and powerfully demonstrates our commitment to India, the Indo-Pacific region, and confronting threats to international order.” The British High Commission spokesperson, echoing similar sentiments, stated that the deployment “provides the ability for the U.K. government to react quickly to a variety of emerging security and humanitarian situations with partners, as well as upholding international maritime law in support of the rules-based international system.”  

Clearly, the U.K. is making its intentions toward the Indo-Pacific clear, but London’s endorsement of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept or its policy approach toward China has neither been easy nor straightforward. For instance, in the case of 5G technology, the U.K. had initially planned to have Huawei “maintain a foothold” in its telecom infrastructure, which had strangely got the go-ahead from the country’s intelligence agencies in January 2020. But strong objections from the U.S. changed the U.K. decision. 

The U.S. in recent years has been making efforts to ensure that American partners did not allow Huawei into their telecommunication infrastructure. These efforts were pervasive under the Trump administration. As President Donald Trump said, “We convinced many countries, many countries – and I did this myself for the most part – not to use Huawei because we think it’s an unsafe security risk.” Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made similar calls as well. In fact, he stated that “the State Department will impose visa restrictions on certain employees of Chinese technology companies like Huawei that provide material support to regimes engaging in human rights violations and abuses globally.” One of Trump’s secretaries, Mark Esper, also conveyed a similar message: “If countries choose to go the Huawei route,” he said, “it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

All of this led to the U.K. government’s decision to exclude Huawei from its telecommunications infrastructure. The U.K.’s Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden stated, “This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the U.K. telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run.”  

But the U.K.’s position on China and the Indo-Pacific has become a lot clearer. In March this year, the U.K. released its first comprehensive security and foreign policy review, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” which described China as “the biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security.” It also characterized China as “an authoritarian state” with different value systems that pose challenges to the U.K. and its allies. Even as the document noted that the U.K. will continue to work with China on certain global issues, “we will increase protection of our [critical national infrastructure], institutions and sensitive technology, and strengthen the resilience of our critical supply chains, so that we can engage with confidence. We will not hesitate to stand up for our values and our interests where they are threatened, or when China acts in breach of existing agreements.” The Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific received adequate attention in the review, including the mention of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Director General, who will remain responsible for the Indo-Pacific.  

Nevertheless, as Rahul Roy-Chaudhury of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) points out, the review was silent on its plans for defense and security engagements with India as well as the broader region. That the review made no reference to the Quad also stood out. This is not to suggest that the U.K. and India do not have much by way of cooperation. In addition to many bilateral joint exercises, it is reported that the two countries are close to signing a logistics support agreement, similar to the ones that India has with the U.S., France, Japan and Australia.

The U.K. reportedly also agreed to collaborate with India on development of sixth-generation fighter technologies and has offered the design of the Queen Elizabeth carrier for the Indian Navy’s proposed second indigenous aircraft carrier. The U.K. is also interested in posting a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Center for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR). The IFC-IOR is a key information sharing hub of maritime data in the Indian Ocean Region undertaken in a collaborative fashion involving like-minded partners of the Indo-Pacific. The CSG global deployment and the upcoming defense and security engagements and exercises with the key Indo-Pacific powers are a reiteration of the U.K.’s changing security compulsions, which will see it strengthen its presence and role in Indo-Pacific strategic affairs.