Royal Navy Headed Back ‘East of Suez’
In a reversal from the Admiralty’s policies since 1997, the British Ministry of Defense is planning on permanently stationing warships in the Pacific region.
During a two-day visit to Japan this week, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, met with Japan’s Prime Minister Suga and Defence Minister Kishi. The big news from that meeting, going past the upcoming visit by the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Group’s historic cruise through the area:
Following on from the Carrier Strike Group’s inaugural deployment, the UK will permanently assign two offshore patrol vessels to the Indo-Pacific region from later this year. It will also contribute a Littoral Response Group (LRG) in the coming years, thereby demonstrating the UK’s commitment to collective defence and security in the region in the decades ahead.
The nuts and bolts of the announcement, the RN’s River-class offshore patrol vessels, are constabulary/coast guard style vessels, running in the 2,000-ton neighborhood and mounting a medium 20mm or 30mm gun. The British are increasingly using the Rivers in the old “station ship” roles in low-risk areas around the world, a task formerly fulfilled by light cruisers before WWII.
Currently, HMS Medway (P223), a Batch 2 River, is the West Indies guard ship (Atlantic Patrol Tasking North) while her sistership HMS Forth (P222) is the Falklands guard ship and a third River, HMS Trent (P224), is forward-deployed to Atlantic Patrol Tasking South out of Gibraltar, with an area of operations than spans along the West African coast.
The British Littoral Response Group concept recently stood up is basically a dialed-down version of a U.S. Navy Amphibious Ready Group. The LRG established earlier this year for a Baltic cruise was made up of the 20,000-ton amphibious assault ship HMS Albion (L14), the 16,000-ton landing dock RFA Mounts Bay (L3008), plus Type 23 frigate HMS Lancaster, with embarked Wildcat helicopters from 847 Naval Air Squadron and a light battalion-sized element of Royal Marines from 45 and 30 Commando.
However, the Brits are platform poor. They only have eight River-class OPVs (with just five of them being the more advanced Batch 2 ships), two Albion-class LPDs, and four Bay-class landing ships. With that, the likelihood of a pair of Rivers heading to the Far East to assume a long-term station alone is going to be a heavy lift and the prospect of an LRG more likely to be a passing cruise every other year or so.
Nonetheless, the move stands to return the RN to the Pacific, which has only been visited by the occasional transitory unit once the post of Commodore-in-Charge, Hong Kong, was disestablished in 1997. Permanently based at that treaty port was a trio of Peacock-class patrol corvettes, which were roughly the same size as today’s Rivers but were at least armed with a 76mm OTO Melara gun.
The Peacocks were sailed to Manila and sold to the Philippines, warm transferred in a bittersweet handover.
Prior to that, the Singapore-based British Far East Fleet disbanded in 1971 after the expiration of the bilateral Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement, ending a station that was held since 1837.