Ben Wallace – 2021 Statement on the Carrier Strike Group Deployment

The statement made by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 26 April 2021.

I would like to make a statement on the forthcoming deployment of the carrier strike group. Before I do, I wish to send my condolences to the Indonesian navy and the families of the ship’s company of KRI Nanggala following the tragic news that the submarine has been lost. I know the sorrow is felt particularly strongly within our own Royal Navy submarine community, who understand the risks faced by their friends all too well. The United Kingdom stands ready to help our Indonesian colleagues in any way we can going forward.

The UK has a long history of involvement in the Pacific. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our five power defence arrangements between the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Few outside military circles are familiar with the relationship despite the fact that it is Asia’s most enduring military multilateral arrangement. It is a partnership that has grown in scope to cover everything from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to counter-terrorism and maritime security. It is a partnership based on the common shared values of tolerance, justice and the rules-based order. But even as the Pacific’s importance to our future economy continues to rise, so the challenges to the freedom of navigation in that region continue to grow. Our trade with Asia depends on the shipping that sails through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points, yet they are increasingly at risk whether from hostile state actors or from piracy on the high seas.

We have to be clear to any who wish to challenge our international rules-based system that the laws must be upheld. But our partnership gives us strength. Friendship is the one thing that our adversaries lack and we deliver a powerful message of strength when we show our solidarity. That is why in recent years we have begun returning to the east. The UK now has a persistent presence in the region through British Forces Brunei, a regional and logistics hub in Oman and our maritime component command in Bahrain.

Our carrier strike group gives us something different. HMS Queen Elizabeth is a floating piece of sovereign territory that can sail over 70% of the world’s surface. It is probably the most guarded UK airfield to be found. It gives the Government unprecedented options to act independently against hostile forces on land or at sea for months without having to access bases ashore. It is a warship, a mothership, a surveillance reconnaissance ship, a convener of allies and partners, and a great projector of Britain’s soft and hard power.

The UK has a proud history of being a carrier nation. Those legendary second world war vessels HMS Courageous, Glorious, Illustrious, Ark Royal, Formidable and Indefatigable are synonymous with the unquenchable spirit of our people. Carriers have also continued to play a defining role in our nation’s history well into the modern era. Those who recall the Falklands war will not forget the fundamental role that HMS Hermes played in providing air cover for the vulnerable taskforce while 8,000 miles away from home. Our last carrier HMS Illustrious’s career spanned some 900,000 miles and took in service from Bosnia to the Gulf and Sierra Leone.

British ingenuity has long driven carrier innovation forward, from the angled flight deck to the ski jump developed for the Sea Harrier, but our newest carriers provides a true step change in capability. One can only appreciate the sheer enormity of each vessel when standing on its vast deck, as I did this morning. At 65,000 tonnes, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, are the most powerful surface ships ever constructed in Britain. Longer than Parliament and taller than Nelson’s column, she has a range of more than 10,000 nautical miles and can fly 72 fast jet sorties per day. This is British engineering at its best: a supreme example of a national endeavour, built by six dockyards—Appledore, Birkenhead, Govan, Portsmouth, Rosyth and Tyne. A cast of more than 10,000 took part in the construction. Some 8,000 apprentices helped complete the major construction in almost five years. Hundreds of small companies lent their niche capability, and 90% of those suppliers came from the United Kingdom.

The carrier does not operate alone, however. She will be surrounded by a ring of capability: Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; and, tanker and storage ships Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring. We will also be accompanied by the Dutch frigate, HNLMS Evertsen, and the US Arleigh Burke destroyer, The Sullivans.

Our carrier’s cutting edge is located on the flight deck, with the renowned RAF 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, operating eight world-class, fifth-generation, F-35B Lightning II fast jets, partly made, I am proud to say, in Lancashire. While 815 Naval Air Squadron will pilot four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, 820 Naval Air Squadron will fly seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine and airborne early warning helicopters, three of which will be fitted with the new Crowsnest, and 845 Naval Air Squadron will operate three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters. Below deck, a company of 42 Commando Royal Marines will be embarked, while in the ocean depths, a Royal Navy Astute-class attack submarine will deploy in support.

Over the coming 28 weeks, from May to December 2021, we will see our carrier strike group travel over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Red sea, from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian sea and from the Indian ocean to the Philippine sea. Besides the full integration of units from the UK, US and the Netherlands, the carrier strike group will operate with air and maritime forces from a wide number of international partners including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel, India, Oman and the Republic of Korea.

The deployment will see the units of the strike group visiting more than 40 countries and undertaking more than 70 engagements, visits, air exercises and operations. Critically, these events will provide excellent opportunities for the UK to develop new and existing trade and political links, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Not only will we meet our commitment to UN-mandated operations in the region but, 50 years on from the creation of the five power defence arrangements, we will further augment our friendship by participating in Exercise Bersama Lima. Meanwhile, units from the strike group will visit Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners as part of our commitment to a more enduring regional defence and security presence. Four major stops on the Indo-Pacific leg of their journey will be Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Japan and India. It will help tighten our political ties in the region. In late summer, we will host our first Pacific future forum in Korea.

Meanwhile, China is increasingly assertive, building the world’s largest maritime surface and sub-surface fleets. However, we are not going to go to the other side of the world to be provocative. We will sail through the South China sea. We will be confident, but not confrontational. More often than not, the carrier group will be in the eastern Mediterranean or the Atlantic, carrying out our duties in support of NATO. As part of this deployment, our strike group will be in the middle east, conducting bilateral exercises and engagement with our long-standing defence and security partners, confirming our commitment to a lasting stability.

Critically, in Europe, our carrier strike group will demonstrate the UK’s enduring commitment to the NATO alliance—the cornerstone of our defence—by participating on this deployment in NATO-level exercises such as Exercise Steadfast Defender. Not only will there be a period of dual carrier operations with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean, but elements of the strike group will support NATO missions in the Black sea region, demonstrating that we do not go alone to deter a tier 1 power; we go as NATO.

The contribution of the United States to the rebirth of UK carrier strike has been immense, but our carrier strike group will take our integration with our US partners to a new level. We will have the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans providing the strike group with air defence and anti-submarine capabilities, not to mention a squadron of 10 US Marine Corps F-35B Lightnings—the Wake Island Avengers—flying side-by-side with their UK counterparts from the decks of the Queen Elizabeth. This is the largest air group of fifth generation fighters ever put to sea, as well as the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single taskforce in a decade.

It has been a year since the last Royal Navy ship deployed to the Pacific. It has been more than seven years since the last carrier—HMS Illustrious—deployed there as well. It has been more than 20 years since the last carrier strike group deployed to that region. Our carrier strike intends to return us to that presence.