UK Maritime Policy: The Role of the Carrier Strike Group

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: UK Maritime Policy: The Role of the Carrier Strike Group

DATE: 11 February 2021, 3:00pm – 4:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Commander Tom Sharpe OBE, Dr Sidharth Kaushal, Dr Alessio Patalano




Robert Clark  00:00

Thank you, everyone, for being able to join us virtually this afternoon for what hopefully will prove to be an illuminating discussion regarding Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike groups made in deployment in around three months time. Only last year, Vice Admiral Jerry Kitt, the former Fleet Commander, stated the Royal Navy was going to be back into the Indo-Pacific region, and the ambition was to be absolutely persistent and forward-based for the next few years. Now, of course, (inaudible) deployment heralds the return of the Royal Navy to the global stage or rather the global seas. This is not just a triumph for the senior service. In truth, this has been a project 11 years in the making up since the strategic fencing security view of 2010 identified that the UK required to return to great power capability and force projection on the international seas. It’s been a long 11 years, overcoming delays incurred at various stages to the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, surviving both numerous rounds of cuts in defence and the naysayers also proclaiming the aircraft carriers are now redundant and maybe a waste of time. This could not be more wrong. UK maritime time strategy is increasingly more forward-deployed than it has been since the end of the Cold War. HMS Montrose is currently on a long-term deployment in Bahrain for three years as part of our (inaudible) Royal Navy’s ongoing mission to provide safe passage, the maritime traffic passing through the vulnerable Strait of Hormuz, obviously, which is vital to UK economy international interest. In addition, the Royal Navy has undertaken five freedom of manoeuvre exercises across the contested South China Sea since 2018, actively demonstrating to regional allies and partners that UK is firmly committed to assisting maritime security for our inner Pacific region. The commitments (inaudible) enforced by the UK is membership of the five parts defence agreement and often-overlooked pillar of the Southeast Asian security architecture, one in which a more active role and ensure sustainability for future Carrier Strike Group points to come. All of this is occurring, of course, in the midst of the largest review of UK defence and foreign policy conducted by the government in over 30 years. While the details of the integrated review will be revealed in due course, certainly the nature of a more forward-deployed UK military presence is now absolutely irrefutable, complementing and indeed reinforced by the Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter’s integrated operating concept, and also in the autumn of 2020. Now, with increased opportunities also comes increased risk and challenges associated with those risks. Not least is the role in which an increasingly expansionist China and the PLA Navy, in particular, are going to try us in the vital sea lanes and the South China Sea. How the UK lead terrorist Strike Group will deal with these challenges posed by an assertive PLA Navy will shape future deployments and set the conditions for naval policy going forward. As deployment as a tribe for the Royal Navy for the hard-working men and women who have worked to deliver the capabilities required to get to this stage, it is also a triumph for Britain, seeking for the blue posture, operating increasing of like-minded allies and partners, including on this deployment with the United States, the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. This deployment visibly demonstrates how the UK armed forces will operate in shaping a truly global Britain. Now kindly joining us this afternoon to share their thoughts and insights into this fascinating and timely topic, we have three highly distinguished speakers. I will now introduce each intern in the order in which they’ll be speaking. First, we have Commander Tom Sharpe OBE. Tom is a senior communication consultant specialist looking into capacity building and planning for complex and often contested organisations. Tom served 27 years in the Royal Navy, the last five of which was spent in military plans and communications. His last deployment was as the Defence Secretary spokesman for naval matters in the Ministry of Defence. The previous 20 years were spent at sea on a variety of warships. Tom commanded four, including UK patrol vessels, for which was appointed the Order of the British Empire for his role in saving (inaudible). His frigate command saw him acting as an anti-submarine commander for two US carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and closer time protecting UK nuclear deterrent. Next, we have Dr Sidharth Kaushal, a seapower research fellow at the Royal united services Institute. And finally, but not least, we have Dr Alessio Patalano, reader in East Asian warfare at King’s College London. Alessio specialises in maritime strategy and doctrine, Japanese military history and strategy. I’ll now hand over to commander sharp to share his views on historic naval deployment. Tom, over to you and thank you very much.

Commander Tom Sharpe OBE  04:06

Thanks very much for the introduction. What a privilege to be invited amongst such a distinguished panel. I’m going to split my 10 minutes roughly in half as we discussed; the first half will fit naturally into my experience as a naval officer or warfare officer with 20 plus years experience at sea. And then the second part, we’ll talk more about the communications of the Carrier Strike Group and how I can see that playing out and where some of the strengths and weaknesses will lie. I promise you to pose more questions than solutions, and that’s why if I rattle through it, it will give us more time in the end. So, you know, what is this Carrier Strike Group? We – Rob talked a little bit about the history behind it. But how do you define what it’s going to do when it deploys? I think Commodore Steven Moorhouse made it very clear, and one of his quotes earlier in the year, ‘Carrier Strike, offers Britain choice and flexibility on the global stage. It reassures our friends and allies and presents a powerful deterrent to would-be adversaries.’ So global choice, reassure and deter, four pillars around which these units will operate. Interestingly, it doesn’t say anything about fighting in there. Should it? That’s the final 1%, and that’s really what this thing is built to do, which also absorbs, of course, 99% of the cost. But those are what those are the pillars around which Carrier Strike will be built. So, when it came to this new capability coming online, and the discussions about where she should deploy to have been circulating the bars of boardrooms in the Navy for a very long time. But it really started to take shape formally in around about 2016. As various groups started to sit down and think about what they were going to do with the – with this group of ships or this ship plus whatever was going to be attached, assigned to it at the time. And there were really two front runners right from the start. And I think the Mediterranean was in there, perhaps the Baltic, though there was an option for global deployment, but that was probably going to take too long. So, the front runners were the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific. And that went backwards and forwards for some time. And I think for a long time due to various issues with the aircraft, etc. I think that the Gulf was probably the front runner. But anyway, about 2018, the joint commitment strategic Steering Group, which is a high-level military group, but with input from the Foreign Office, and the Home Office, all sat down, and from that moment on 2018, the Indo Pacific started to gain momentum. So once that decision was made, you’ve then got to try and work out what the ships are going to do when they get there. And I’ll keep this very high level because we don’t have time for anything else. But this is the great joy of a naval task group is it can conduct operations across the entire defence continuum of operation, starting with diplomacy and ending up with warfighting if you want to use those as left and right art. The diplomacy thing, of course, is as old as the Navy itself, port visits, high-level engagement, all those sorts of interactions, which the Navy is already very, very good at. Gunboat is often inserted in front of the word diplomacy, which inevitably drags any conversation into an unhelpful direction. This is just a floating embassy, visiting parts of the world and doing what embassies do. Freedom of navigation is going to be part of this. I won’t dwell on it, but a fascinating debate last night on Twitter about the nuances for freedom of navigation versus on class, what’s the Royal Navy’s posture in this task versus what the Americans have intended to do in the region? More on that later, I’m sure. Then there’s the deterrence. You know, that’s the most intangible of all of this. It’s very, very hard to quantify the strategic deterrent being a really good example where advocates say it’s used every day. Opponents say it’s a waste of money, it’s never been used. So, deterrence is hard to measure. But there’s no doubt that the exercises and the interoperability that QE will do with other nations will form part of that deterrent package. Then, those courses humanitarian aid, that goes without saying, well, which task groups and in fact, even just individual ships are very, very good at and Angus Escena, who’s in command of Queen Elizabeth was there in 2013, and HMS Daring, doing just that we’re (inaudible) higher and the logistics and command and control support that the ship’s provider invaluable when that happens, and let’s hope it doesn’t. Now we get into the low-intensity conflict and into the warfighting, and I’ll leave that because I suspect that will be covered by the next two speakers. But that’s what I mean by the left and right of arc. And once you’ve decided where you think the ship should sit on that arc, then you need to start working out who you’re going to send, which ships you’re going to send. And that was done by well – a number of different ways. But the defence science and Tagalog DSTL ran a bunch of wargames and algorithms that came up with the answer if you’d like – they call it the national sovereign minimum, what is the what is the group to look like in order to be able to conduct tasks across that continuum? And the answer was, I suppose quite predictable, in some respects, the carrier obviously, two type-45 destroyers, two type-23 frigates doing the anti-submarine warfare, predominantly an astute class SSN hunter-killer submarine, and a Thai class roll fleet auxiliary. That was the package. Now obviously, four Victorias were going to be in this as well. She’s a solid support ship. So that’s a bonus if you’d like over the top. That’s the group, and it’s actually really nicely balanced in many ways. If you compare it to the what the US carriers have in Okinawa, the Nimitz and the Reagan, they really just have a couple of cruisers and three destroyers. And that’s it. Okay, they have a lot of aircraft, I’ll concede that. But in terms of balance, that task group is very, very strong, particularly the anti-submarine threat, you know, two type-23s, and an Astute that’s going to keep everybody on their toes. So, it’s nicely balanced. Now, that’s not to say it’s all, you know, it’s all a bed of roses. There are holes in this capability. And I’ll come back to that. (inaudible) When Rob alluded to previous deployments of how their album being won in 2018, she cheated this with one frigate, sometimes too, that’s it. So, when people start upping the threat concerns, it is worth remembering that that group on its own is really very, very capable. And that’s before you start bringing in allies and other capabilities. And all of this is such that it can move around in various configurations. It won’t be in a task together as a task group for a lot of the time, it’ll spread, it’ll come back, and it’ll spread, some ships will depart over to one country, other ships – I don’t know, I don’t know any of this, this is all assumptions. But this is likely to be what happened. And then they’ll converge into the sort of ring of steel, if you like, for various bits of the passage, various bits of their tasking, particularly when they feel like they might need to up their self-protection of it. And that really is just based on the principles of lead defence, I won’t dwell on that, except to say that those layers start a long way out, they include intelligence gathering, and satellites and cyber, some of which the submarine can do in terms of intelligence gathering there, there are things that lie outside the immediate perception of the capability of a group of ships, but they form this network that’s going to move around gathering information, and if necessary, able to protect itself. Worth bearing in mind, then, at this point, what, you know, what do we think the Chinese response to this might be militarily? I won’t really dwell too much, sort of politically, but militarily, what are they going to do? I don’t want to make this whole thing about China. Inevitably, it is, but what would they do? Well, I can guarantee you that they’ll overfly the group in aircraft – that’s a given, they’ll close, they’ll descend, and they’ll test our responses; they’ll close the group with surface ships. And there’ll be an exchange on various radios that is part and parcel of this sort of get out of this business of cat and mouse. They will almost certainly send that what they will send their submarines out. I mean, you know, perhaps there’ll be one Easter series waiting for us as a nice surprise. And, our task will need to be alert to this the whole time. You know, they want to cause mischief, of course, they just need to repeat what they did in 2006, with a Song class and surface in the middle of the task group. Because that causes absolutely messaging chaos, irrespective of whether you knew it was there or not. So, they have lots of options, all of which do lend themselves potentially to the risk of miscalculation, and that’s there and naval operations across the globe. And all these ships, captains will have operated in the Persian Gulf, at some point where the risk of miscalculation is perhaps even more immediate and that’s ever-present – it’s there the whole time. So, we’re very used as a country, as a Navy to dealing with that higher heightened level of miscalculation, and I expect the interactions to be entirely professional and entirely cordial, both sides get gathering as much information as they can from the other and then being on their way. The rhetoric out of Beijing could be rather different, be very interesting to see. They’ll probably call us bullies, and they already have; they’ve already started that sort of rhetoric. So that will be interesting to see how that picks up. And that brings me on to my next couple of minutes, which is the communications element of this, and it is worth remembering that (inaudible) for most of Kiwi’s life, she will be a tool of influence and not one of hard power. Her job is to is going to be influencing the attitude and behaviour of other stakeholders that matter most of the future strategic success. In order to do this communications campaign, in order to make sure that it works, there are a couple of things that need to be in place in any communications campaign. The first is you need some pretty rock-solid objectives. I haven’t seen these articulated yet. And one of the difficulties with defining an objective for deployment like this is the number of stakeholders involved. I’ve grouped mine into five columns, and each for political poll, mail, Navy, Defence and allies, each of them has five or five within them. And they’re all interested in this, and what it means to that, and their priorities will all be different. I mean, for the Navy, this is obviously going to be top of the shop for the entire year. For Defence, will the RF be interested? there’ll be elements of Defence with the internal review coming up that perhaps, you know, aren’t interesting, in fact, maybe not so keen. So, everyone has different priorities; I think, be very interesting to see how focused the political classes are on this deployment. It’ll be photo ops and, etc. (inaudible) are interested they get if something goes wrong? That’s when suddenly all eyes on so. So that’s it, once you’ve set your objectives, you can then work out who your audiences are. And again, 20 plus audiences, we got the UK domestic pillar, we’ve got our allies, and we’ve got our potential adversaries and again, all within our 20 plus of these audiences. So, this plan needs to bring the objectives to those audiences. And to do so, it’ll come up with a bunch of – with some key messages, and they’re starting to formulate as various articles are produced around, into the press. Very interesting part of the control of this is that UK defence communications are still very centralised; they’re still held very tightly within the Ministry of Defence, which is a debate and another debate to be had about how relaxed or how tightly that should be controlled. The trend at the moment is centralise, perhaps more. I personally see this opportunity, this task of deployment, as a potential to relax that, but I understand that there’s risks associated with that. So, to summarise my section, then, I mean, this is a really exciting deployment in a number of ways. There’s lots and lots of discussion being generated already. It’s going to bring the Navy into the public eye in a way that we haven’t seen recently. What follows it will be very interesting how often is the Navy going to do it. Is this pre-warning for forward basing out in the region? Again, another interesting conversation to be had, the naysayers tend to point out (inaudible) ask what’s the point? If we can’t, what’s the point if we can’t defeat China? That, to me, misses the wider utility of the Navy; you know that in any way, this whole trip isn’t about China; there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done. And some say it’s too risky. Well, of course, it’s risky. You know, it’s a Navy, we’re at sea, ships are vulnerable. They always have been if we were worried about the missile threat to the point of not sailing, then we would never sail. We certainly wouldn’t spend the last 20 odd years in the Persian Gulf. So again, slightly missing the point. So, it’s a tremendous operation opportunity. I hope that the communications elements of it catch up, and really optimise every opportunity and don’t lose opportunities by being risk-averse. I hope that happens. And then finally, you know, to those getting the thousands of people deploying led by Commodore Steve, Captain Aeneas, and everybody and their families who they leave behind, you know, again, wish them I wish them all the best.

Robert Clark  18:12

Absolutely, I think we all share that sentiments. Thank you very much. Interesting relationship; new teas out there between objectives and an audience, and the strategic communications needed to deliver that. To our audience watching. please remember, if you have questions, feel free to type them into Zoom. We’ll get those through, and we’ll open up to Q&A at the end, I’ll pass over to Sidharth Kaushal. Sid, thank you so much.

Dr Sidharth Kaushal  18:40

Right. Well, thanks very much, Rob, and to the Henry Jackson Society for the invitation to speak at this really fascinating and timely event. And thanks very much to Tom, my fellow speaker, for a really great sort of opening salvo from the panel. So today, what I’d like to talk about is how the Carrier Strike Groups can sort of contributing to a long-term maritime strategy for the UK in the Indo-Pacific and where they can add value in the context of an operational environment that is characterised by persistent competition that will likely escalate to periods of high-intense de-conflict and back with rapidity and in a fairly limited way. And if there are two major takeaways, I would sort of point to, it’s first, the idea of integration that the Carrier Strike Groups will increasingly need to have their activities integrated with the work of littoral readiness groups within the Royal Navy, as they very much are doing under the aegis of the UK strikeforce and across echelons, with organisations like Stratcom to generate information advantage in persistent competition, which is an often sort of understated but I would argue the particularly critical function of Carrier Strike Groups and one that will be even more important is due to the peculiarities of the Indo-Pacific operating environment. The second point I’d suggest is that in the high-end warfighting bit of what the CSG does; the sort of operating model will likely need to shift from a sort of steady-state expeditionary support to what you might call a strategic rating model that sort of emphasises short sharp pulses of power at the periphery of an opponent’s position that really emphasises the strengths, the manoeuvrability of naval forces. And this is really where I’d argue the CSG can complement the capabilities of allies that bring more mass to the table like the United States in the Indo-Pacific. So first, a quick word on the operating environment. You know, the Indo-Pacific is a vast region, of course, and I’m one with multifarious interests. But really, the elephant in the room is the rise of China. So, I think the Chinese maritime strategy has to be the touchstone for how the UK engages with the Indo-Pacific. And when Chinese naval strategists look at their maritime operating environment, they see what Admiral Liu Huaqing, the sort of founder of the modern PLAN, described as an inherently constrained maritime environment. China is hemmed in by the first island chain running from Japan through Taiwan to the literal straits – the states of the South China Sea, which means not only does the PLAN have to traverse potentially contested choke points to break out into the open ocean, but also its own key SLOCs, like the Straits of Malacca, are potentially sort of patrolled by its own maritime rivals. They also see an opportunity; however, what they sometimes refer to as China’s Caribbean. If one examines the area running from Taiwan through the South China Sea, one will immediately note the geographical and strategic similarity it bears to the Caribbean. And of course, as many of you will recall, it was dominance of the Caribbean which allowed the United States to turn into a two-ocean Navy capable of rapidly redeploying between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Today, that complex running from Taiwan to the South China Sea represents potentially a safe – if it was dominated by China – would represent a safe maritime bastion where the PLAN could gather in a central position, capable of breaking out through a variety of state streets like Cinder, Lombok and Malacca into either the central Pacific or the Indian Ocean more rapidly than a maritime competitor has. But mindful of that geography, Chinese strategists have been very careful not to emulate Admiral Tirpitz’s mistake of building a Navy before they fixed their maritime geography. The primary emphasis of China’s maritime strategy rather has been to sort of finlandize the states of the South China Sea, and it’s here really that their territorial disputes with the states have the greatest significance. It’s not just that these disputes pose a challenge to international rules or potentially, or matters of, you know, sovereignty and resource allocation. It’s rather that these disputes can be utilised to socialise regional states into a model of engagement whereby all roads go through Beijing when states play by Chinese rules as the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte started to a few years ago. Then Philippines fishermen got fairly generous access to the Scarborough Shoal. When they don’t, as the Vietnamese government has, you have incidents like the Bangkok bank incident. In effect, these disputes are less important as ends in themselves than as means to a wider strategic and changing the maritime geography of China’s immediate periphery. Now, alongside this, you have the second component of Chinese maritime strategy, which you see in more recent documents, more recent additions of doctrinal documents like the science of military strategy, the idea of forward-edge defence, that the blue water component of the PLAN is forward-deployed in regions like the Indian Ocean could play a role a competitive if not necessarily preponderant role in doing some of the things Tom talked, slowing down the deployment of globally postured naval forces to the first island chain, harassment, and effectively hermetically sealing the South China Sea, ensuring that local wars under high-informatised conditions, as the Chinese refer to them, remain local and underpinning all of this, of course, is the so-called joint firepower strike system, what we would call an anti-access system of land-based anti-ship missiles like the DF 21 D anti-carrier missile, which China has built since the 1990s to offset US maritime dominance. Now, you will notice that there is a sort of positive feedback loop between the Finlandization of the South China Sea by a series of limited steps up to and potentially including a short, sharp local war with a littoral state of the region, and a sort of competitive posture beyond this region, a competitive posture in the Indian Ocean ensures that localised clashes in the first island chain remain local. The strategic effects achieved by these localised clashes can ensure that the PLAN is in the long term freed from its maritime shackles to play a wider role beyond its immediate region. Now, what does all this mean for the UK policy and the Carrier Strike Group? Well, there are two or three things I would point to. The first is a model of operations in peacetime that delivers effects in the context of persistent, we might describe it as sub-threshold or grey zone, competition is key. And I would argue that gestures like freedom of navigation operations, although they’re quite important and valuable, do not really solve the core problem that China poses to the state of the region. It is the ability to say to regional powers that external nations may come and go, they may deploy, and they may leave, but we are there forever. And this is really a challenge that the US is faced with its freedom of navigation operations. Rather, I’d argue where the CSG can really deliver strategic effects within the first island chain even without necessarily having the mass of, for example, the US Navy, it’s in its capacity as an information hub. For example, if the – and this will require a great deal of integration with other branches of both the Navy and the wider military – for example, the first island chain is an inherently defence dominated environment. Many of the anti-access capabilities that China has built to hold off a stronger US Navy can be replicated by smaller regional powers to hold off the PLAN, and many of these capabilities are being developed. What these nations currently lack is information and the so-called reconnaissance strike systems to cue these capabilities. The littoral readiness groups, particularly the southern littoral readiness groups, which are primarily being built for engagement, could certainly play a role in abetting regional actors in developing their own anti-access bubbles. And the CSG, which is more than – in addition to all its other functions has a splendid capacity for gathering information whether in the form of the onboard sensors of its type-45 destroyers, or indeed the F-35 themselves could play a really important role in gathering the information needed to deliver maritime domain awareness to regional powers, in conjunction with, for example, the work being done on engagement with by little readiness groups; this, of course, requires inter-organisational integration within the Royal Navy, but also probably all inter-organisational engagement with organisations like UK Stratcom, to decide except to sort of work through the technical details of exactly how information is shared and delivered with partners. But really, this is where the CSG can add real strategic effects rather than transient ones by creating, by exploiting its capacity as a maritime information hub in the context of persistent competition. The second point I’d like to talk about briefly before I end my remarks is about the high-end fight. Now, I’d argue that – you know, it’s possible to overstate the dangers posed by China’s anti-access system, it is not the case that nonetheless case that as the decades progresses, the waters within the first island chain will be increasingly denied a high-end scenario. But China’s own doctrine, its forward-edge defence, provides the answers here. Increasingly, China’s network of economic interests along the Maritime Silk Road, its dual-use facilities which are frequented by the PLAN and then (inaudible), which may evolve to become military bases in the future, much is thought to state for the Russians, represent not just the base for power projection, but an extended periphery, the periphery that is not nearly as well defended by a dense layer of anti-access capabilities in the way that the first island chain is. It’s really here that in a really high-end scenario, a UK CSG could deliver significant tactical effects against the overstretch periphery of the PLAN potentially exit utilising peripheral pressure, rather than challenging and upon it at the core of its strength, which, after all, is in many ways, going back to the classical tenets of maritime strategy utilising the sort of the manoeuvrability and the global flex and the flexibility to choose the time and place for an engagement that maritime forces sort of enjoy. So really, those would be the two big take-homes for me; the idea of – sort of retooling the way they see the CSG operate from a sort of exclusive focus on symbolic interaction to exploiting what I’d argue is its core sub-threshold capability its ability to act as an information gathering and aggregator. And in the context of short, sharp limited was utilising its ability to set the time and place of a competition to decide where it is prosecuted to, perhaps compliment US actions within the first island chain with peripheral raiding activity across the wider Indo-Pacific. And with that, with that, I’ll terminate my remarks.

Robert Clark  30:23

Okay, thank you very much that I think the idea of the new information hub based on the Carrier Strike groups is our capabilities fascinating and hopefully wants to be picked up in the Q&A. I’ll hand it over quickly to Alessio, just before I do, Alessio, just a reminder to the audience watching the Q&A will start in around 10 minutes. So please do feel free to engage and submit questions, and we’ll address those in about 10 minutes. Time. Alessio, thank you very much.

Dr Alessio Patalano  30:46

And, Rob, thank you very much for the opportunity to join the conversation this afternoon. I’m delighted that we finally get a chance to follow up on all of the exchanges that we’re having here, and we were also having on social media. So, I’m really grateful, for example, that we’re gonna have a conversation with Tom and Sid and yourself and everybody else tuned in; I can see already many questions coming up. So, what I’ll do, I’ll try to sort of summarise my main comments around one premise and three main points. The premise really starts from how the debate around the Carrier deployment is being – sort of coming out of particular across the media. And I’ll refer for the purpose of the conversation to the latest commentary, which is not Tom’s excellent piece in Nine-Dash Line, but it is something that was published in the Prospect magazine about a week ago. And what I want to tackle from that article is his two points, the fact that’s, and it’s been mentioned already by Tom and Sid, the security and the risk landscape and how it fits into the considerations of the deployment. And but I think really the two main takeaway from it for me from that article, which I think need to be addressed when it comes to the carrier deployment is one whether this discovery deployment is a part of an (inaudible) that doesn’t take into sufficient consideration, the danger of exposing the spine group in that part of the world, and number two, how the very nature of the Counter-Strike Group, which comes with some limitations in terms of capabilities, is symptomatic of either dependence on the United States or overall isolation and sort of struggling to cope with this isolation that comes from a post-Brexit world. So, the premise that I want to engage in this; and I’m going to add a couple two small notes, first of all, because I’ve seen some of the questions. So, let me reassure everybody, the deployment is not about the signal that the Royal Navy will be formally deployed in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future. It’s the deployment. It’s not that we’re moving the entire fleet down that part of the world. So, you know, all the sort of questions are implicit innuendos there’s about the fact that that, you know, the sort of Russia, there are still all sorts of other bits and bobs. Yes. It’s not that, you know, the carriers are disappearing forever because it’s going to be forward-deployed in that part of the world. It’s part of the conversation that is taking place. That’s the key point. This deployment is the beginning of a conversation that once the integrated review comes up and it’s released, we’ll need to consider and review how the balance of the forces and British military capabilities is best served in terms of meeting the requirements of national security. And the second point, that is sort of subsection of this premise, really is about the naval professionalism aspect of that Tom mentioned before. We tend to forget that the Royal Navy is by any metrics and any standards – and I do this job as an academic – is probably the best or one of the best naval organisations on the planet. And the fact is that we only hear about the nature of professionalism of seafarers only when something doesn’t really go well. The fact that most of the time, we don’t hear about it, it’s because they are professionals, right? So, in that sense, this idea of risk and dangers and also a balance of forces needs to be sort of contextualised against the context that what we’re talking about. Is it a deployment? Therefore, we need to place the deployment into a bigger review of overall posturing, which is not that when the point of hopefully some other parts of the world. And number two, that professionals are actually looking at the risk and dangers. If I know that the South China Sea is fairly complicated and tricky, please, I’m pretty sure that defence plan is at MOD and they got an idea, they got wind of that. Right. If anything, I think a few of them follow me on Twitter. So worst-case scenario, they know as much as I do, right? So, let’s place these in context before we crack on. The three points to address this question of risks, danger isolation, or indeed the opposite of dependency, miss out on what the carrier deployment really is going to be doing, and that’s three things. First, providing a concrete sign and signal or the change from a reactive type of posture in regards to crucial issues in international security to the beginning of the shaping posture. I’ll come back to this point in a minute. Second, it’s the beginning of a conversation, which will then continue under the aegis of the integrated review once it’s released on this nature of persistent forward engagement as one of the key delivery tools of future British strategic posture, or which we know a little bit of about because the CVS talked about this integrated operating concept in which really the emphasis is peacetime activities will be planned, understood and engaged with as continuous campaigns in which we set particular objectives, and we try to meet them, and that persistent forward engagement really is part of that equations. And the third point is how the Strike Group is not about dependency from the United States or, indeed, is trying to overcome the problem of increasing post-Brexit in isolation. It is about placing an emphasis on partners-centric enabling presence. The UK is lucky enough to be at the centre of a number of bilateral and multilateral structures and organisations which deal directly with threats that are in security, that sort of challenges that are the primary interest of the UK. And the key question is not what just the United Kingdom will do on its own terms, particularly in places like the Indo-Pacific, but how the United Kingdom can manage and leverage its own capabilities in order to enable itself and its partners together to achieve a bigger objective. And British Carrier Strike Group is not just about Britain; it is about how Britain manages to work with Australians, Canadians, Japanese, Singaporeans, Americans, you name it. So, three points, let me break them down very quickly, a little bit more because I could see that Lord West asks a specific question that I’m on to covering the in the shaping aspect. And I think he asked a very, very legitimate question; we tend to forget that, whether we like it or not, the UK still retains some treaty obligations, whether it is in Korea, whether it is in relation to the Firepower Defence Agreement, whether it is integration, as part is part of the Five Eyes community, which plays the Indo-Pacific as a central question in terms of national security interests. So, the question is not whether we’re interested or not, because you know, you might not be interested, but the Indo-Pacific is definitely interested in you, by default. The question is, how do we deal with it? And so, shaping is a much better way to avoid war from happening. A lot of the questions and criticism about the Carrier Strike Group are about D zero or D plus. The Carrier Strike Group deployment, it’s about D minus. It’s everything that happens before that. And we really need to think about that shaping; how do we shape an environment so that D zero is pushed down the road as far as possible, and indeed, may never come. And so, in that sense, reassurance to your partners, as well as sort of creating the conditions for testing and improving existing and new partnerships. It’s absolutely essential, right? So, I won’t cover the parts about deterrence, because it caught in signalling because they’ve been very well covered by Sid, then Tom, and I want to move to this persistent forward engagement because without a persistent forward engagement, a degree of that, there is no shaping posture, there is no focusing on D minus, we’re getting a lot closer to that D zero. So, a persistent forward engagement is not an act of vanity; it’s not a piece of theatrics; it’s about understanding what is the minimum baseline necessary in order for that shaping activity to elicit the intended success. And in this respect, that will allow together with a political agenda in foreign policy that aims at regenerating, invigorating and indeed enhancing an expanding framework of which the United Kingdom is part, offering which the United Kingdom is thinking of joining. And most notably, at the moment, for example, the Quad that remains a really important sort of new reality within which to engage with and the members of the Quad have been very open about sort of, in considering other actors – that persistent forward engagement is essential to understand what it would extend and how capabilities available in the UK can be brought to bear in order to enhance and increase this interaction with others. And this leads to my sort of singular point about the persistent engagement that really is about that shaking capacity and that capacity building. The system forward engagement allows you to understand what the conditions in the ground are and to identify the best way forward to deploy and employ your capabilities in order to create a capacity building process that also enables the locals to get better. So, this is a very important part of that Carrier Strike deployment. When Tom talks about a network that is aggregated function of the pieces of the Strike Group, at the moment going out there and doing different stuff, it is about going out there and understanding what others are at, where they’re planning to go, what their concerns are, and whether there’s something you can do with them with the capabilities that you have at your disposal. This is about, if you want an almost discovery mission, to understand the extent to which this persistent forward engagement needs to be populated. And this last point that I want to go on so that I can close into this; that partner-centric enabling presence. Why the carrier group and not something else? As Tom and Sid have so clearly pointed out, we’re looking at a spectrum of missions that goes from kinetic high-ends to surveys to help South Pacific islands to understand how climate change is going to make the islands disappear and everything in between. But in order to call it the high bet, you need to go there with your best and most advanced capabilities and start working with your partners in order to create the conditions for those capabilities to actually be able to perform to the best of their capacity if and when required. So military integration and interchangeability to new notions that have been used within the United States and the UK are not created out of – this is not about Singapore and Djibouti before you do a counter-piracy operation. This is about developing the capacity to have components of different fleets from different countries using most of the time very different doctrines and Combat Systems to come together and create a one performing sort of united task group that can do everything, including that high-end of the spectrum. So, for me to conclude, the key issue is not to the point itself; the deployment is coming up at the right time. It’s sort of set out to do all these things. The real question is, what is next?  The worst that can happen, and this goes back to the point that Tom was making about political communication and Stratcom, is nothing happens after that, you don’t invest in something like this unless you’re ready to follow up. And that follow up can take whatever format in shape that is neither necessarily desirable or indeed possible, but it needs to have a follow-up. Without that, then this forming will be, in retrospect, sort of tracing those which are very critical for it’s happening in the first place. Thank you very much, over from here.

Robert Clark  42:58

Thank you, Alessio. I’ll think the final point you just made about the follow-up is absolutely critical to what happens next and surely shape the rest of maritime policy going forward. I’ll go straight into the Q&A. The first person I can ask is Lord West. Lord West, please, if you can unmute yourself and ask your question, please.

Admiral Lord West of Spithead  43:20

Yes, first of all, Tom, my best wishes to both your parents. And I wonder, do you think we can, or will – we certainly will have to, but do you think we can rely on the US to provide the AW and Quad capabilities that one needs? I know from my time running a battle group in the Far East some 20 years ago for about six months. And then, for all of everyone, do you think that the UK should join the Quad? And what relevance does the Firepower Defence Agreement have to organisations in the region? And bear in mind all of I can catalogue all the things China doing which are really against the global order? Should we be thinking about reforming SEATO but making it powerful in the sense that NATO was? That’s my question.

Robert Clark  44:17

Thank you very much, Lord West. This round will be three questions. So, I’ll go straight to the next question. That’s from Carl Patrick Hunter. Carl Patrick Hunter, if you could unmute yourself, please and ask your question. Thank you.

Carl Patrick Hunter  44:53

Thank you so much for a wonderful presentation, everybody. Come on, come on at home. I just know you say we mustn’t worry about the threat. But if I’m right, I think there are about 75 submarines in the Russian and Chinese Asian fleets. So just if it did get to an attack stage, you know, how would the Strike Group manage? And I know that we have a huge amount of allies and everything, but I just say, the striking that you can figure, it seems to me, you know, it’s a challenge, and I just wondered how you would consider that.

Robert Clark  45:27

Okay, thank you, Carl. And the final question in this round is from excuse pronunciation. Peter Verbrugghe, Peter Verbrugghe, if you could unmute yourself. Yes. Hello,

Peter Verbrugghe  45:43

Yes, my question is very simple. Is it to be expected that the Carrier Strike Group will travel through the South China Sea? Thank you.


Robert Clark  45:54

Okay. Thank you. I’ll put those three questions back to our panel. So, Tom, would you like to address those first, in any particular order? And I’ll move to Sidharth and then Alessio.

Commander Tom Sharpe OBE  46:07

I’ll start with the Admiral; that’s customary. Lord West, good to hear from you. My understanding is that the interoperability with the US in the run-up to this has been as tight as it’s ever been, even during the discussions about whether we could contribute to their activities in the Gulf or global force posture. And of course, they’ve got their jets embarked, so it’s in their interest to ensure those capability gaps where we have them are plugged to the best of your question was, can we rely on them to do so? Yes, I think we can. How do we continue to fill those gaps, as you know, airborne early warning air to air refuelling, fleets, solid support ships, even F-35 numbers. These are all crows nasty, while I said, you know, these are all holes. This is why the points I made in my pitch. This wasn’t all roses yet. But to answer your direct question about whether or not we could we can rely on the Americans to plug those gaps this time around? Yes, I genuinely believe we can. All the chats I’m hearing is absolutely up close. Of course, most of those conversations are kind of behind the wire, so I didn’t get to hear them. Carl, in answer to your question. It’s only 52 nuclear submarines. It’s fine. We’ve got this. No, I mean, it’s a really good question. And it comes back to what I think Alessio was saying is that, and I think partly what I said, you know, we’re not there for D plus one. And just because we can’t do D plus one on our own, or even that group, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go. Back to my point about the Persian Gulf, you know, if the Iranians were to go hard and fast as they – as it’s called in planning terms, where they unleashed their 30 ballistic missiles across the Persian Gulf, and then everyone would come unstuck almost immediately, and yet, we’ve been there for years. So, I don’t think, you know, ideally, you shouldn’t go just because of that. And then Peter, to your question. Yes, I mean, I don’t know the movements of the task group. I wish I did. But they will be kept under wraps. Generic sort of big hand small maps will appear over the next few weeks and months, I would imagine. But there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that that group will transit the South China Sea, without a shadow of a doubt.

Robert Clark  48:35

Thanks, Tom. Sid, do you have any thoughts on those questions, please?

Dr Sidharth Kaushal  48:38

Sure, absolutely. So I’ll start with the Admiral’s; I won’t sort of run over the ground on AWS because I think Tom has done their very ably. On the question about SCA, or a multilateral sort of response to China. I think one of the major problems one has to consider is that for many of these nations in the South China Sea, there is a certain sort of apprehension of China’s rise, but also fear of being caught in the crossfire of great power competition, particularly if they believe that their partners will not be there for them forever. And you know, you see this in, for example, the recent standoff between the Malaysian Coast Guard and his Chinese counterpart in waters that both claimed was the US Navy, made a stand in the region that joined the Malaysian Coast Guard and then departed and a lot of statements made by Malaysian policymakers off the record as well, now they’ve left us to clear up the mess. So, there is a certain ambivalence about joining any multilateral that would really preclude any multilateral response to the issue. Rather, I think what the most viable way forward is what you might call a porcupine strategy, enabling each regional power to perhaps not sort of defeat the PLAN which they couldn’t but impose unacceptable costs on it, in particular those sorts of limited localised bilateral clashes, which in many ways are the PLAN chosen modus operandi, and in which its aggregate strength against a local bar may not always be apparent or may not always be brought to bear precisely because it’s meant to be short, sharp and localised. So really engaging local powers and you know, as Alessio said, helping them help themselves, and reinforcing that defence dominated sort of operational environment in the South China Sea will be critical, sort of inverting the anti-access problem, as it were. On the question about, you know, how vulnerable is the carrier? I mean, it’s worth mentioning two things. Firstly, you know, China has other concerns as well, all of its attack submarines, and all of it’s enabled acid to hardly focus exclusively on the UK, it’s got a string of sort of interests along the first island chain that are consuming its resources, its Navy’s resources and time and assets. So you know, the amount of sort of additional, sort of slack it can generate to save targets UK carry, leaving aside all the questions of you know, the political risks that were that are entailed – it is an open question, I certainly think the Carrier Strike Group could defend itself against a localised attack in the South China Sea for a period. I do worry not just about the UK CSG’s capacity to operate in the first island chain and the long term, but the ability of sort of external surface vessels to do so in general, but this is where I’d argue, you know, the sort of the peripheral strategy emphasising the indoor portion of the Indo-Pacific region is quite key, particularly as you know, China’s strategic interests expand beyond its sort of anti-access net. And on the final question, the South China Sea, I would just, you know, repeat what Tom said I would expect so as well.

Robert Clark  51:39

Thank you, Sid. Alessio, do you have any thoughts, please?

Dr Alessio Patalano  51:45

I will be very, very brief. Quad, I think the Prime Minister of India is going to be quite an interesting moment. The Quad is already a living organisation. So, it’s for them to decide whether the UK in what format the UK can and should join; I think the Prime Minister and the Government has been sort of open to that idea, quite rightfully. And that speaks to this idea of addressing the third, the third point of CTO; I didn’t think anytime soon, anyone within the region sponsoring the type of organisation of the NATO was, especially at the beginning when it was created. And because there is no intention to create that sort of effect of dividing lines, draw a line in distinguish yourself from the Chinese, in this case. I think what we’re looking at, it’s a former format that we’ll see a multi-layered approach, and different organisations will do different things in different parts of the broader Indo Pacific, so Quad is really interesting to look at. And I completely agree with you, I will die on the field of the firepower defence agreement as being one of the best formats by coincidence, in a way, historical circumstances, because the only obligation is to consult with each other in case of a crisis, which is brilliant because it gives the organisation incredible amount of flexibility. How to revitalise it, I think it’s an important question. How to create a ministerial-level regular meeting, and then underneath that, think about ad-hoc type of exercises that address things that all the various members would be happy and content with to start creating that layered approach of that forward presence that I was talking about. And the other point about the South China Sea, being a dangerous place, I can happily provide eight years of complex military task groups going in and out of the South China Sea, not a single one was ever sunk, mot a single one had like a ship going south. There’s lots of naughty stuff happening, I’ll give you that, but we’ve got data with that. So again, I would caution against raising this question of what if that happens, because the last ten years suggests that anyone, the Japanese, the Australians got stuff in there, the French go there regularly, the Americans go regularly, you know, we’re special, that we’re not that special that the Chinese will risk World War Three to take the Carrier Strike Group down. I hope that I can make this point over and over again, again, now that is a hill I’m happy to die on. And the last thing about going through the South China Sea? Yes, I would find it very hard for any task group to go into this danger in the Indo-Pacific to bypass the South China Sea. In any particular, we know already there will be stops in Japan, for example. So I doubt that you can go there without really going to the South China Sea. So from that point of view, again, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here.

Robert Clark  54:37

Yeah, no, I completely agree. Thanks, Alessio. Nice to have you. We got time for one last question. I’m going to take it from Captain Paul Mandziy. If you could unmute yourself and please ask your question. Thank you.

Captain Paul Mandziy  54:51

Thanks very much. I’m currently the Australian naval attaché here in London. My question is in relation to the sustainability of having this forward presence, knowing the current economic environment. It’s very expensive to have a task group of that size continually forward-deployed on a regular basis. So, after the CCA (inaudible) ‘21, your thoughts about maintaining a forward presence and remaining engaged in the region.

Robert Clark  55:22

Sure. Great question. Thank you. I think I’ll take the chair prerogative and just address this very slightly myself first. Sustainment is quite easily one of the biggest company comprehensive considerations going forward. And I think Alessio touched on it briefly earlier. And I really see the five powers coming more into play here. And again, this was raised just a moment ago by Alessio, but particularly with regard to sustainment. If we consider the naval base at Darwin in Australia that can be used to help sustain and obviously, that’s the logistic support base at Singapore, and more can be done with Malaysia as well in that sort of corruptive environment of five powers. So, I think that’s an area that’s, that’s underexplored. And I think for certain there’s definite, definite bandwidth to expand that. And Gents, I can open up to you and have your thoughts. I think do you want to go first this time, Alessio?

Dr Alessio Patalano  56:10

I think that is a key issue, and I think this being – if you look at the way in which the sort of messaging around not just the carrier deployment, but the overall sort of debate over the UK Indo-Pacific strategy, there has been a shift, I think I was very careful in using the word persistent and not regular or permanent. And because the new one is in there, it really depends on the type of support that partners will be able to provide for a UK sustainable presence in that part of the world. In this respect, I think that the  UK-Japan relationship and how in defence terms, it’s an oldie. It’s an absolutely interesting sort of type of format. It links with the work that Japan and Australia are doing together. So I think that type of conversation among partners like the UK, Japan, Australia will be very important in how this sort of nature of persistence comes to terms. And by the way, as I said, this could very well mean that in some cases, you have limited capabilities disaggregated across the region, but with the ability to network and aggregate together if and when required. So, in that sense, don’t think about the Carrier Strike Group as a monolithic entity and body that needs to sort of ‘once goes there requires every single piece all the time’. Yeah, what we’re talking about, it’s really this idea of aggregation and disaggregation and networking, absolutely essential for this sustainability piece to become relevant. Over.

Robert Clark  57:42

Thank you. And I’ll pass it over to Tom and Sid just very briefly. Gents, can I just ask you to give just a very brief thought to my question. Tom, would you like to go first?

Commander Tom Sharpe OBE  57:52

I think the persistent thing is key; as highlighted, I don’t want to finish on a gloomy note. But we do have to inject a tiny bit of realism here. When we’re looking at this fantasy to task group deployment of ships. We’ve got to remember what it takes to support that and generate it and just how fragile the surface fleet has been for the last ten years. Now that the optics are good, but they’re not there yet. And, you know, we just got a little bit of realism here. This did not take away from this deployment. But the idea of throwing our ships forward, I know Montrose is now in the Gulf. And that’s, that’s fantastic, and part of this discussion. But there is a realistic part of this that we need to bear in mind when it comes to far-flung corners of the world.

Robert Clark  58:33

No, I agree. Thank you, Tom. Sid, did you have final thoughts on that last question?

Dr Sidharth Kaushal  58:38

So just two points. One is kind of building on Alessio’s point, building sort of scalable formations that are detached from the CSG; things like surface action groups will be quite critical to generating the mass needed here. And integrating the CSG with the littoral readiness groups of the UK, the amphibious forces will, I think, be the second component at the operational level, at a more political level about generating the political will to sustain that sort of a long-term commitment to the region. I think that’s really where the CSG and its work needs to be integrated with a wider whole of government approach that demonstrates to the public back home precisely why the Indo-Pacific is a critical region for the UK economic future.

Robert Clark  59:20

No, I completely agree. I think that’s a very important point that we’re not really touched on. But on that note, gentlemen, thank you so much for your time and your contributions. I’ve been fascinating. To the audience watching, thank you again for tuning in and for your participation. And if you like this event, then there’ll be more following on the HJS website; you can check out the coming events. There’s quite a few coming up in February or March. So, for myself and from the speakers, thank you so much for your time, and I’ll catch you next time. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.


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