- By Lucy Fisher
- 29 minutes ago
Military chiefs have drawn up plans to base one of Britain’s new aircraft carriers in the Far East to play a part in countering an increasingly assertive China, The Times can reveal.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the two carriers to complete training, will set sail on its maiden grand voyage as the centrepiece of a carrier strike group early next year. The 3.1 billion pound ($5.6m) vessel is expected to visit the Far East, conducting military exercises with allies including the US and Japan.
It is also likely to spend some time as a “floating trade fair”, used as a platform for deals, according to a defence source.
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The carrier has a crew of about 700 personnel, rising to 1600 when fighter jets and helicopters are on board.
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Two squadrons of F-35B Lightning II stealth combat jets, likely to be a mix of RAF and US Marine Corps aircraft, are due to be embarked during its Far East deployment.
The carrier will be accompanied by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, two tankers and helicopters.
The ship will complete its training with allies this autumn. Its sister vessel, HMS Prince of Wales, is about 18 months behind Queen Elizabeth in the timetable for its first big deployment.
Defence chiefs have drawn up proposals to base one of the carriers in the Indo-Pacific region. One option is to invite allies with F-35s, such as the United States and potentially Japan, to contribute airpower to a carrier strike group.
A wider array of partners, including Australia and Canada, could be invited to provide escort warships or submarines to complete the flotilla.
A source said: “One carrier will support NATO in the North Atlantic. Where else are you going to put the other? On the main trade routes and to counter the emerging threat of China. It would be an allied task group, a British carrier, but a coalition of the willing. That’s how it’s being looked at.”
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research warned yesterday that a trade war with China would damage economic growth and lead to higher inflation and interest rates. Nathan Law, a leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, arrived in London after fleeing from a crackdown on freedoms in the territory imposed by Beijing.
Vice-Admiral Jerry Kyd, the fleet commander, served notice yesterday that the Royal Navy was “going to be coming back to the Indo-Pacific” region.
“Our ambition is to be absolutely persistent and forward-based there, maybe with a carrier strike group, or maybe not. We’ll see,” he said.
He raised the prospect of Britain’s F-35 stealth fighter jets disembarking in the region, adding that they could be sustained “through our US allies and through the hub in Japan”.
A British aircraft carrier could take them out there and bring them home again, he told a webinar hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. Another option is to base a smaller Royal Navy warship in the region, such as a frigate.
The plans are being examined as part of a review into foreign, defence and security policy, which is set to be completed this autumn. Insiders say that there is a “maritime orientation” to the defence part of the review.
Air Marshal Gerry Mayhew, deputy commander operations, suggested that allies in the region would welcome a larger British military presence. He said that alongside western partners, “colleagues in the Far East through the ‘five powers’ defence agreements and with Japan, and a whole host of others are really excited by the air and maritime opportunities that we bring.”
Britain joined the “five powers” alliance with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia in 1971.
Scepticism has been expressed from some quarters.
Vice-Admiral Jeremy Blackham, a former deputy commander-in-chief fleet, cautioned: “If you put ships out a long way from home with necessarily limited military and logistic support, you need to know what your reaction will be if somebody calls your bluff.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “HMS Queen Elizabeth and its escorts will offer the United Kingdom a world-class sovereign carrier strike capability. No decision has been made on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment.”