Britain will send the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group (CSG) east of Suez, including possibly to the South China Sea, in the coming months for its first operational deployment. There has been much debate over the nature of the deployment (known as CSG-21). Will it conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in disputed areas of the South China Sea? Or will it be a 21st-century, British version of the Great White Fleet? These are some of the likely questions being raised and discussed within the British Ministry of Defence (MoD). That said, the defense chiefs would do well to consider British naval historian Geoffrey Till’s requirements for a naval diplomacy mission, three in particular: an appropriate plan of campaign, capabilities suited to the task, and a conformable media.1
Discerning Main Objectives
According to Till, an appropriate plan of campaign for a naval diplomatic task “should have clear and credible objectives and their actions should seem to the target designed for their accomplishment.” On 23 July 2020, the MoD addressed this matter:
The UK has enduring interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and the Royal Navy has maintained a near persistent presence there for a number of years, conducting numerous activities promoting security and defence relationships with our partners and upholding the Rules Based International System. Building on this, the Royal Navy intends to continue to operate across the region, including in the South China Sea.2
Enhancing defense ties could be done by port calls and related outreach activities; the contentious bit is how far London is willing to go to show it is seeking to uphold the global rules-based order.
For the U.K. to satisfy its international ambitions, it not only must possess military capabilities that would allow it to project power, but also must be able to influence other actors’ behaviors in the way it wants. Would CSG-21 generate that level of influence? Realistically, a projection of strength could mean the Queen Elizabeth task force executing a FONOP within 12 nautical miles of some of China’s artificial South China Sea islands. How this would translate to “influence” is another ballgame.
To be sure, a FONOP by CSG-21 should telegraph to China that Britain is standing with the United States in the Indo-Pacific. However, the effectiveness of FONOPs in pushing back Chinese advances in the South China Sea has been mixed at best.3 What is worse, CSG-21 could invite a disproportionate response from China. On this note, retired U.S. Navy Captain Robert Rubel’s words could not be truer: “Those who advocate ‘sending messages’ lack true understanding of the use of force. The simple old axiom used by many gun owners seems appropriate here: Don’t point your gun at someone unless you intend to use it.”4
Capabilities Suited to the Task
According to Till, another requirement of naval diplomacy is “offensive and defensive power both sufficient for and appropriate to the task.” While the deployment of CSG-21 east of Suez is unlikely to spark military hostilities, the force nevertheless needs to possess significant “teeth” for the target audience to view it as credible. As Naval War College professor James R. Holmes puts it, “Naval diplomats’ words carry no weight absent combat capacity.”5 Indeed, British maritime doctrine holds that credible hard-power capability provides the foundation for the key softer peacetime roles of maritime security and defense engagement.6
Given their size and capability, the Queen Elizabeth–class carriers would be the ultimate item in London’s toolkit for naval diplomacy. Captain Simon Petitt, a former commanding officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, contends that “the bigger the capability, the more influence you have to bear.”7 There is some truth to this statement, and it reinforces Till’s argument that “big, powerful ships do seem to deter better.”
Prima facie, the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group consists of “big, powerful ships”: the 65,000-ton flattop, as well as a couple of Type 45 air-defense destroyers and Type 23 antisubmarine frigates. A closer look, however, reveals substantial capability gaps.
For one, the raison d’etre of the aircraft carrier is its air wing, and HMS Queen Elizabeth’s will not be large: The U.K. F-35 inventory for the foreseeable future stands at some 15 operational jets. This number is simply too small to send a message that Britain is a credible carrier power. Under a recent U.S.–U.K. agreement, U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, which flies the F-35B, will join Queen Elizabeth on her deployment; this will be critical to CSG-21 being taken more seriously as a carrier force.8
In addition, her escorts lack credible long-range strike capabilities. Armed with only the relatively short-ranged Harpoon antiship missile and no land-attack systems, the Type 45 and Type 23 are suited almost exclusively for defensive tasks. Platforms so equipped cannot send a message as strong as those possessing significant offensive weaponry.
A ‘Conformable Media’
CSG-21 marks the return of the U.K. as an aircraft-carrier power, but more crucially, with it, the Royal Navy hopes to present itself as a modern navy concerned about projecting a forward presence and increasing its reach.9 Deploying the Queen Elizabeth CSG to the Indo-Pacific fits this new strategic narrative, signaling the return of an engaged Britain with a naval force that is “operationally very busy and in demand.”10
Yet, narratives can and do spin out of control. The idea of a “conformable media” as put forth by Till, where the fourth estate is sympathetic to things military, is arguably oxymoronic. The CSG-21 deployment was extensively reported, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage largely has deviated from the strategic narrative that stresses the key international role the Royal Navy would play in the Global Britain agenda. Instead, the dominant narrative is increasingly binary and belligerent, pitting the U.K. against China. Headlines such as “Britain Set to Confront China with New Aircraft Carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth” and “China Warns Britain over Basing Aircraft Carrier in the Pacific” paint an undesirable picture of the British “gang[ing] up with the United States on the Chinese.”11
Moreover, the British return east of Suez might resonate badly with audiences who could be quick to draw parallels with London’s imperial past. Even if such an unfortunate (and inaccurate) comparison does not take root, the concern of smaller countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the increased militarization of the region can hardly be ignored.12 Even as ASEAN welcomes great powers’ commitment to protecting freedom of navigation and an international rules-based order, the presence of U.K. forces in an already crowded and tension-filled region could make it harder for these smaller states to continue coexisting with China.
The focus on hard-power narratives and the deployment of CSG-21 to the Indo-Pacific as a show of strength also detracts attention from the soft-power benefits such a monumental deployment could bring for Britain. The media’s predilection in messaging the deployment of CSG-21 as largely a military tool setting sail to the contentious South China Sea can be problematic. As “naval diplomacy is so much a matter of perception,” how the media reports on an operation can significantly affect its outcome.13
Instead of playing up the military capabilities of CSG-21, the U.K. would be wiser to consider how it can engage the media in recapturing its original strategic narrative. A preliminary but important step would be to clearly communicate upcoming deployment plans as soon as it is possible, rather than leave it for the media to speculate. It is also imperative that the emphasis of the deployment of Queen Elizabeth shift to naval diplomacy, with a clear political aim and discussion of the geopolitical context.14
Regarding the Queen Elizabeth deployment, it will be no easy task for London to “get it right” in the three main areas of naval diplomacy. The months ahead will be monumental for Britain’s strategic future, as the integrated review of its national security and foreign policy takes shape. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and its fiscal implications, the review is likely to still advance the Global Britain agenda to some extent. That said, the overarching question for the British government is whether its attempt at reengaging the Indo-Pacific through CSG-21 will be military focused or will bring diplomacy to center stage. The last thing the United Kingdom wants is to have its return east of Suez be deemed a Pyrrhic victory in geopolitical maneuvering.
1. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 392.
2. Baroness Goldie, “HMS Queen Elizabeth: South China Sea: Question for Ministry of Defence,” 15 July 2020, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-07-15/HL6914.
3. Zack Cooper and Gregory Poling, “America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations Are Lost at Sea,” Foreign Policy, 8 January 2019.
4. CAPT Robert Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Antecedents to Strategy: The Use of Force,” Infinity Journal 6, no. 4 (Summer 2019): 37.
5. James R. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 97, 100.
6. U.K. Ministry of Defence, Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10: UK Maritime Power (Swindon: U.K. Ministry of Defence, 2017), 52–53.
7. Oliver Steward, “The Impact of HMS Queen Elizabeth on British International Relations,” UK Defence Journal, 6 April 2018.
8. Megan Eckstein, “U.S., U.K. Sign Agreement on Upcoming Deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth with American F-35Bs, Destroyer,” USNI News, 19 January 2021.
9. Harry Lye, “First Sea Lord’s Five Priorities for the Royal Navy,” Naval Technology, 4 November 2019.
10. Tony Radakin, “First Sea Lord Speech to Defence and Security Equipment International,” 11 September 2019.
11. Lucy Fisher, “Britain Set to Confront China with New Aircraft Carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth,” The Times, 14 July 2020; and “China Warns Britain over Basing Aircraft Carrier in the Pacific,” The Straits Times, 18 July 2020.
12. William Choong, “The Return of the Indo-Pacific Strategy: An Assessment,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 73, no. 5 (July 2019): 423.
13. Till, Seapower, 392.
14. J. J. Widen, “Naval Diplomacy—A Theoretical Approach,” Statecraft 22, no. 4 (December 2011): 727.