Britain’s HMS Montrose is crossing the Pacific Ocean en route to New Zealand. The anti-submarine frigate, which made a port visit to Chile in mid-December and is ultimately bound for Bahrain, has been the fourth British warship to reach the Pacific Rim since January last year – the direct result of the European power’s renewed focus on fast-growing Asia.
UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has made it clear that the Royal Navy will keep an “unbroken presence” in the Indo-Pacific in 2019 and beyond. The British government says such a deployment is aimed at protecting the rules-based global order, including freedom of navigation, seen as the underpinning of Britain’s “security and prosperity as an island trading nation.”
But without the support of French naval units, some believe the UK navy will not be able to sustain operations both in Europe and the Indo-Pacific area.
An undersized navy
Speaking to Asia Times, Yale historian Paul Kennedy expressed concern about the current size of British naval forces, despite the fact that their future warships will be more powerful than those being retired.
For the author of the widely known The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the picture could become even bleaker if the Labor Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn were to win the next general election in Britain, and then pass large cuts in military spending.
Iain Ballantyne, the editor of Warships International Fleet Review magazine, noted that last year’s deployment in East Asia was unusual and a sign of the Royal Navy’s renewed commitment to the region after a lull in presence following disastrous defense cuts in 2010.
“With the level of British naval forces that is a third what it was at the end of the Cold War, there is deep concern in some circles about ‘over-reach’ being layered on top of ‘over-stretch’ on existing commitments,” he said.
Ballantyne said that despite a historic low in major warship numbers, the Royal Navy was energized by new aircraft carriers, with one in commission and another which soon will be. “There is also a commitment to new support bases east of Suez and new agreements with allies like the United States and Japan for joint naval operations,” he added. “We have seen evidence of those partnerships at sea.”
However, he admitted that the Royal Navy’s tentative revival in the Indo-Pacific region was still far short of past eras and relied very much on working with allies “who make up for lack of numbers and also certain capabilities.”
The French connection
The British navy has operational shortcomings, and in the calculus of UK leaders, the French should help offset them in the Indo-Pacific. Britain and France have indeed agreed to strengthen the crisis management capability of their combined expeditionary force by 2020.
Their navies have also increased coordination from the Gulf of Aden to East Asia over the past two years. Still, they have conducted freedom of navigation missions in the disputed South China Sea in recent months – London and Paris have both been critical of Chinese efforts to militarize the area.
France has overseas dependencies in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The vast region is evidently of strategic interest for Paris.
The French Defense Ministry told Asia Times that “as the only European nation with a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific, France participates in regional cooperation with the aim of guaranteeing respect for international law without interfering with regional disputes.”
The ministry pointed out that French military assets regularly exercised their right of free navigation and overflight throughout the area, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said last October that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its air and sea support units would be sent to the Indo-Pacific zone in 2019 to assert freedom of navigation.
In a document released last September, the British Ministry of Defense claimed that when the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers would be ready for operations in the early 2020s, including in the Indo-Pacific region, Britain and France would be able to deploy a combined carrier strike group incorporating vessels and assets from both naval forces.
But while the French are ready to deepen naval cooperation with their ally on the other side of the English Channel, UK expectations of seeing a Franco-British aircraft carrier strike group deployed east of Suez in the foreseeable future, with the Charles de Gaulle, the HMS Queen Elizabeth or the HMS Prince of Wales rotating as the formation’s leading warship, appear premature.
“The cooperation between our naval forces and the Royal Navy is expected to continue in all regions where they are engaged, particularly across the Indo-Pacific, in the coming years,” the French Defense Ministry said. “However, at this stage, no joint projection of French and British aircraft carriers is planned for the early 2020s.”
Kennedy much approves of UK cooperation with France, if it can be sensibly done, from shared shipbuilding ventures to logistics support, to perhaps even French destroyers working as the escorts for a long period with a new British carrier.
However, even if France and Britain were to agree on joint naval operations in the Indo-Pacific, they should deal with very extended lines of communication and supply. The French Defense Ministry explained that the country’s naval bases in the Indian Ocean had the capacity to accommodate the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its supporting vessels. So they could also service a Franco-British strike group.
Kennedy was more cautious on this point. “I think it would be a strain for either one of the two medium-sized European powers to put a sizable naval group into the Indian Ocean for a lengthy time,” he said. “The question is whether they would use a base in the Persian Gulf, or Diego Garcia, or get pally with an East African country.”
Access to Indian naval bases would help expand the range of operations of a UK-France task force. Paris signed a logistics support agreement with Delhi last February that would allow their navies to use each other’s military facilities. But the French Defense Ministry emphasized that this arrangement applied only to the two signatories’ armed forces.
Apart from logistic issues, it is doubtful that Britain will have enough frontline warships to face an increasingly aggressive Russian navy in Europe, if it permanently stations a strike group in the Indian Ocean and the China seas.
Professor Kennedy wondered what would happen if there were new pressures in the North Atlantic from Russia, with a call for British long-range aircraft to keep a closer eye on Russian naval deployments, and it became clear that there was no longer a Royal Air Force Coastal Command of the olden days, and the best frigates were positioned elsewhere.
“Some feel the British navy would be better off maintaining focus on the growing Russian threat in European waters, so a commitment of carrier battle group to the Indo-Pacific is possibly unwise,” Ballantyne said.
He believes the UK has substantial global interests and must do its part. “Potentially one of the two future aircraft carriers in service could operate in the Atlantic region, and another elsewhere,” the British naval expert suggested.
However, he also acknowledged that with the country’s defense budget under strain, destroyer and frigate numbers limited, no plans to expand the construction of escort vessels or submarines and personnel levels struggling to be met, “there have to be serious concerns about coping with a resurgent Russia at sea and operations in the Indo-Pacific at the same time, plus commitments to the Falklands and the Persian Gulf.”
“It is a lot to do all at once for a highly capable, but overstretched Royal Navy,” he said.