Base a Carrier in East Asia? Brave Decision Minister….

‘Brave decision Minister’. Those were the words of Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister when he wanted to put the fear of God into Jim Hacker and kybosh some hobbyhorse scheme the minister had dreamed up over the week-end. ‘Brave decision’. Does the idea of habitually basing one of Britain’s new aircraft carriers somewhere in the Indo-Pacific region fall into this category?

By Michael Clarke

The grand Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign and security policy is back in full swing again, reportedly to conclude in the autumn, in step with the Comprehensive Spending Review. By that time, we will be deep into the Covid economic crisis while most of the rest of the world is still somewhere in the peak of the virus itself, not to mention the approach of a no-deal – or minimal deal – Brexit outcome at about the same time. It won’t be a good moment to draw long-lasting political conclusions.

So, if it reports so soon, many of the conclusions of the review are likely to be aspirational, or themes for further work, or each-way bets if they appear somewhat risky – or ‘brave’.

What to make, then, of the briefing out, presumably from somewhere near the centre of the review process, that one of Britain’s aircraft carriers might be based, semi-permanently, in an area with access throughout the Indo-Pacific region? A basing option in Bahrain for one of the carriers has been on and off the agenda for some time; but this briefing was reportedly quite clear that the ‘Middle East’ was not the option under discussion, but rather something more intrinsically Indo-Pacific. Singapore is the most obvious possibility, with excellent maintenance facilities at the US base in Okinawa and – after some US/Australian re-development – also at Darwin. That would be a pretty impressive Indo-Pacific maritime triangle for a 70,000 tonne carrier, its aircraft and necessary escorts.

The Context

The context of this story is not hard to define. Those charged with creating some substance around the ‘global Britain’ slogan have been thinking about the importance of the Indo-Pacific region to Brexit Britain for some time. By 2030 around 90% of all global economic growth – with or without Covid – will be outside the European Union and most of it generated across Asia. More than half the world’s population already live inside a circle that could be drawn around South Asia, China and South East Asia. So, the hard economic case for having some national presence, even leverage, in these areas makes itself. The issue is what sort of presence is most effective and affordable.

Then, too, there is the timing of these maritime musings, as the international charge sheet against China mounts up – Tibet, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, debt-for-equity traps around the world, duplicity over the Covid outbreak, renewed threats to Taiwan – and now the Huawei decision in Britain.

The carrier basing thought is probably a bit of Integrated Review kite-flying to gauge Parliamentary and public reaction at a time when Sino-British relations are entering their lowest ebb since the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960s. Any such carrier-basing decision would certainly enrage Beijing, who would pretend to dismiss it as a foolish irrelevance, but actually regard it as a security affront to their own presence in the ‘first’ and ‘second’ island chains.

The Pros 

The potential advantages of a basing policy like this would be in demonstrating in a very hard-edged way the commitment of Brexit Britain to play a useful global role.

It would also, as the briefing apparently said, provide a ‘floating trade fair’ for Britain. In addition, there is every chance that Britain’s friends and allies in the Five Power Defence Agreement – Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand – would welcome so clear a commitment to military capability in the region. Britain already contributes regularly to ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPS) in the South China Sea along with the United States and other allies, to demonstrate to Beijing that its ‘Nine Dash Line’ that self-proclaims Chinese sovereignty across most of the South China Sea is illegal and regularly challenged by all other powers with a maritime interest. A semi-permanent carrier deployment would offer a big potential boost to FONOPS throughout the area, as well as being able to use its extensive capacities for standard patrolling, counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, disaster relief, and so on.

A British aircraft carrier would probably normally deploy up to 24 F-35B Lightening II aircraft in two squadrons and a squadron or more of Merlin helicopters. It would be a powerful command base, and capable of landing on and getting off aircraft from other air forces who operated the F-35B (the STOL maritime version) aircraft. That could include the US Marines and Japanese squadrons, and might include other allies if the British carrier became a regular feature in the area.   

Such a deployment would be expected to become a focus for very specific lines of military and security cooperation between Britain and its allies and, it would hope, for new friends in the region.

The Cons

The cons in this idea revolve around two main issues. One is the logistical weakness and potential expense in basing so crucial a military asset so far away from its natural centres of support. Carriers are floating cities in themselves and require a lot of back-up. And if they are to be sovereign assets, capable of acting independently, they can only draw so much from allies and friends. A ‘basing option’ abroad (even a semi-permanent one) really implies a significant British base in the Indo-Pacific region; exactly the sort of commitment Britain withdrew from in the late-60s on grounds of expense.

Carriers need to be well-protected wherever they go. In Britain’s case, its two carriers will have the effect of trailing the rest of the Navy with them wherever they go – certainly if they are both at sea at the same time. A basic carrier group requires two frigates, two destroyers, two tankers/replenishment vessels, at least one submarine, Royal Marine detachments and a good deal of intelligence back-up and often, shore-based aircraft assistance. And all these military assets require port and basing facilities for themselves at some point.

One of the bright ideas behind this proposal is that a British carrier could draw its protection from allied nations and become the focus for standard multi-national operations. But this could become both logistically and politically tenuous. Elements of this sound plausible and attractive but an Indo-Pacific basing operation could only really be sustainable if it can ultimately be operated through the sovereign control of the home country. Again; possible, but expensive.

The second con point is political. A carrier deployment like this and all the symbolism of it would pitch Britain into the security politics of the whole region – welcomed by the US, Australia and others, no doubt. But probably less welcome to India and certain, in any case, to be interpreted by Beijing as specifically anti-Chinese. Economic and cyber retaliation would be likely, and militarised clashes of a hybrid character – or even straightforward ‘maritime’ and ‘maritime/air’ incidents could not be ruled out.

As in the case of any Bahrain carrier basing (given the Iranian threat) there is a conundrum – a critical point of decision – (given the Chinese threat), that is impossible to ignore. When security tensions are low, carriers can do many useful and diplomatically productive things and show real support for allies and friends in many different ways. But when security tensions are high, a carrier is both a symbol and the heavy-metal nexus of offensive intent. They also become big potential targets themselves that take quite some protecting.  The sensible reaction is to withdraw carriers from potential conflict areas to avoid the problem. But that is not a good message to send to allies – we will keep this great engine of war in your area unless it looks as if we might have to use it; then we must leave.

The alternative is to stay when the tension rises and tough it out. In Europe and the North Atlantic that is exactly what we would do, because it is our home territory and our own direct security at stake. But in the Indo-Pacific? With Beijing as a potential adversary – huffing and puffing as it increasingly now does?

Brave decision Minister.     

Michael Clarke is author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester University Press, 2018, and co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, Bloomsbury / IB Tauris, 2019.