Sea Control 259 – Sea State with Madison Sargeant and Yash Khatavkar

By Jared Samuelson

If you’ve missed it, you need to read the new newsletter by and for junior officers, Sea State. Two contributors, Madison Sargeant and Yash Khatavkar, join the program to discuss the newsletter, its purpose, their editorial process and more!

Sea Control 259 – Sea State with Madison Sargeant and Yash Khatavkar


1. Sea State Newsletter

Jared Samuelson is Executive Producer and Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

For America and Japan, Peace and Security Through Technology, Pt. 1

By Capt. Tuan N. Pham, USN

This is part one of a two-part series on the urgent need for a bilateral technology roadmap to field and sustain a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting technology-enabled Joint Force that can seamlessly conduct high-end maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific…a fitting legacy for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his successor Yoshihide Suga, staunch champions of the enduring U.S.-Japan Alliance. 

In today’s strategic environment of Great Power Competition (GPC), global powers actively vie for preeminence. The growing competition is particularly acute in the technology domain, as evidenced by the ongoing technology race amongst the world powers. The global powers invest heavily in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to build national power, global influence, and international prestige and to prepare for uncertain economic and security futures. 

The United States and Japan are fully committed to national security technological innovation. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) and 2020 Defense of Japan (DOJ) White Paper call for the harnessing, investing, and protecting of their respective technology bases for competitive advantages. Both nations share the strategic imperative and urgency to develop and sustain a technology-enabled Joint Force (otherwise known in Japan as the Multi-Domain Defense Force) that can conduct synchronized, distributed, and integrated operations across the interconnected and contested battlespaces in furtherance of the alliance’s shared national interests. The changing character of warfare has made warfighting a transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional activity. The U.S. Navy (USN) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) must, therefore, better leverage emerging maritime technologies and developing concomitant naval warfare concepts and doctrines to adapt to the new way of fighting. Otherwise, the allied navies risk ceding the technology domain and consequently maritime superiority in the Indo-Pacific to the competing navies of revisionist China and revanchist Russia – People’s Liberation Army Navy and Russian Federation Navy, respectively.

How China and Russia View Technological Competition

For General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping, technological advancement is not only a means to economic, political, and military power and influence for the CCP; it is also the “Long March” (or way) toward regional hegemony and ultimately global preeminence and an ideological end to itself: the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. The Chinese Dream offers hope for and validation of China as a great rising power after decades of political, economic, and social struggles. The commitment to advanced technologies reflects Beijing’s longing for past imperial glory (Middle Kingdom), its wishful guarantee against another century of humiliation (19th-century colonialism), and steadfast ambition to surpass the United States and Europe (21st century of Asia preeminence). To that end, China endeavors to become a global leader in every sector and domain and dominate emerging “game-changing” technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, and blockchain in accordance with its Made in China 2025 and Internet Plus policy initiatives. To Xi, technological innovation, by all means, is necessary to surpass the West, and technological dominance is the path to realize global preeminence by 2049 – the essence of the Chinese Dream.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likewise understands and appreciates the disruptive potential of technology as he tries to restore Russia to its former greatness. In 2017, he presciently declared that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere [explicitly AI and implicitly technology at large] will become the ruler of the world.” The bold statement summarizes well the purpose and intent behind the 2017 Strategy for the Development of an Information Society for 2017–2030, one of Putin’s key policy initiatives to rebuild Russia to its past Soviet glory. The technology strategy supplements and complements the greater 2015 National Security Strategy which reflects a Russia more confident in its ability to defend its sovereignty, resist Western pressure and influence, and realize its great power aspirations. 

Bilateral Technology Roadmap

The Department of Defense (DOD) technological advantage depends on a healthy and secure national security innovation base that includes both traditional and non-traditional partners. (2018 U.S. NDS)    

Japan will enhance priority defense capability areas as early as possible – strengthening capabilities necessary for cross-domain operations and core elements of defense capability by reinforcing the human resource base, technology base, and defense industrial base. (2020 DOJ White Paper)

The U.S. NDS and DOJ White Paper call for harnessing, investing, and protecting their respective national security innovation and technology bases to better respond to the growing challenges to the rules-based liberal international order (LIO) by illiberal powers like China and Russia. Washington and Tokyo both want to develop innovative technological approaches, make targeted and sustained technological investments, and execute disciplined fielding of critical warfighting capabilities to the Joint Force (Multi-Domain Defense Force ) – a force that can protect national and allied interests, advance the bilateral military-to-military relationship, strengthen the strategic alliance, promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and uphold the LIO. 

Now is the opportune time to build a bilateral technology roadmap to field and sustain a lethal, resilient, and adaptable Joint Force, enabled by technology, that can seamlessly conduct high-end maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific – a predominantly maritime fight in a maritime domain. To do otherwise is a missed opportunity to strengthen the enduring U.S.-Japan alliance, increase the stabilizing regional security, and reinforce the weakening LIO that has provided global security and prosperity for over 70 years.

The technology roadmap should leverage extant USN and JMSDF technology strategies and plans to identify and prioritize joint projects for collaboration across the respective governments, private industries, and academia. By doing so, the allied stakeholders can identify current, proposed, and potential collaborative projects. Stakeholders must assess the cultural, institutional, organizational, and legal challenges of each country to determine how best to promote and incentivize bilateral collaboration. They must also expand the framework to all the joint services, and eventually extend the framework to other key allies and partners in the region and beyond.

Proposed Roadmap Framework

Purpose and Scope: In alignment with the defense strategies of the United States and Japan, the roadmap should examine the strategic environment in the innovative technology domain through the lens of GPC. This roadmap should:

  • Characterize the current state, development, and employment of disruptive technologies across the USN and JMSDF.
  • Envision the future integration of these emerging maritime technologies and developing concomitant naval concepts (doctrines) into the Joint Force.
  • Identify the barriers to realizing that joint future.
  • Outline the proposed actions to overcome those barriers.
  • Leverage the pervasive technological innovations happening in government, private industry, and academia within the United States and Japan.
  • Inform the actions of stakeholders who possess limited resources (human capital, money, and knowledge), incongruent cultures, and sometimes conflicting priorities to effectively and efficiently accelerate the development, fielding, and integration of joint warfighting capabilities in a fiscally constrained budgetary environment across the current U.S. Future Years Defense Program and Japan Mid-Term Defense Program.

Vision and Goals. The USN and JMSDF should contribute to the development and sustainment of a technology-enabled Joint Force. In the near term, both allied navies should develop a bilateral technology roadmap to deliver joint warfighting capabilities and increase joint warfighting capacities to the Multi-Domain Defense Force. In the long-term, each allied navy should modify its respective Doctrine, Organization, Training, Material Solutions, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities, and Policies (DOTMLPF-P) to provide the infrastructure and systems required to support the development, fielding, integration, and sustainment of these new joint warfighting capabilities and capacities. 

The broader U.S. DOD and Japan Ministry of Defense (MOD) should also modernize their respective defense infrastructures (to include ecosystems of technical professionals, research facilities, and partnerships) to better support cutting-edge Science and Technology (S&T), realize the technology-enabled Joint Force, and maintain technological superiority over a rising China and resurging Russia, which are also making rapid technological advancements and incorporating them into their respective modernized forces. Long-term strategic success requires focused investment in four fundamental S&T areas – fundamental research, technical workforce, defense laboratories, and partnerships with the private sector and key allies and partners.

Objectives: The USN and JMSDF should consider broad and interlocked objectives to realize the aforesaid vision and goals. These include:

  • Define and prioritize emerging maritime technologies and developing concomitant naval concepts (doctrines) to maintain warfighting superiority.
  • Be technically and fiscally capable of fielding and sustaining maritime technologies at will.
  • Be interoperable and cyberspace-secure, and have adequate infrastructure and logistics support in both nations.
  • Be consistent with the programmatic principles of affordability, interoperability, agility, and resiliency.
  • Leverage emerging accelerated acquisition processes to enable the rapid development, demonstration, and fielding of maritime technologies.
  • Develop policies to allow the implementation of new bilateral warfighting capabilities and advance mutual naval interests.
  • Promote joint warfighter’s trust in these new maritime technologies.
  • Build on the Navy-to-Navy technology exchange and collaboration to extend to the other services and expand to other key allies and partners as and when appropriate.

This concludes part one of a two-part series that calls for a bilateral technology roadmap to field and sustain a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting technology-enabled Joint Force that can seamlessly conduct high-end maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific. Part two underscores the imperatives to do so and describes the ongoing technology competition within the region through the lens of GPC in the 21st century.    

CAPT Pham is a maritime strategist, strategic planner, naval researcher, and China Hand with 20 years of experience in the Indo-Pacific. He completed a research paper with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) at the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC) in 2020. The articles are derived from the aforesaid paper. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Government, USN, ONR or USNWC.

Featured photo: RADM Winter and RADM Saito discuss Science and Technology partnerships between the U.S. and Japan, aboard Japanese JS Izumo (DDH-183). Photo credit: Office of Naval Research, released.

Countering China’s Maritime Insurgency with Coast Guard Deployable Specialized Forces

By Lawrence Hajek

Losing the green water sea control challenge in the South China Sea could sideline US-led efforts in Asia. The US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces can step up to provide strategic support for INDOPAC command.

As tensions continue to build between the United States and the People’s Republic of China/Chinese Communist Party (PRC/CCP); the United States finds itself increasing blue water naval activities in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and Indo-Pacific. Often-publicized Freedom of Navigation Patrols, or FONOPS, are just one of the many tools available to ensure the rule of law at sea is maintained to counter the aggressive insurgency tactics of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia in the South China Sea. China’s aggressive actions directly affect the maritime security of neighboring nations, who struggle to retain control of their sovereign Exclusive Economic Zones. 

Hunter Stires, a fellow with the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the U.S. Naval War College, describes this maritime insurgency as 

“a campaign to undermine and ultimately overturn the prevailing regime of international law that governs the conduct of maritime activity in the South China Sea. The key dynamic at work is a ‘battle of legal regimes,’ a political contest of wills that manifests itself in a duel between two competing systems of authority—the U.S.-underwritten system of the free sea, versus the Chinese vision of a closed, Sinocentric, and unfree sea.” 

This PRC/CCP maritime insurgency is focused on two key items within the South China Sea; firstly is enforcing unlawful maritime claims and developments of reefs and island territories and second is the use of those claimed territories as logistical launching point for the exploitation of South China Sea nations through aggressive tactics, unregulated exploitation of natural resources, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

This type of maritime insurgency is rooted in what Christian Bueger and Timothy Edmunds describes as ‘Blue Crime’: 

“…distinguished by its particular relationship with the sea and the objects of harm that require protection. These include first, crimes against mobility; second, criminal flows; and third, environmental crimes. Crimes in the first category target various forms of circulation on the sea, particularly shipping, supply chains and maritime trade. In the second category, the sea is used as a conduit for criminal activities, in particular smuggling. In the third category, crimes inflict harm on the sea itself and the resources it provides.” 

Maritime insurgency plays into the CCP’s larger strategic goal for the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) adopted by Beijing in 2013, an ambitious bid to put China at the center of global trading routes. Dominance and control of the South China Sea is simply a milestone in the overall strategy. This year alone, the CCP has made headlines by passing into law the authority for the CCG to fire upon foreign vessels and destroy foreign infrastructure built on reefs claimed by the CCP.

As of 2016 $3.37 in trade passes through the region annually, further highlighting global dependence on the safe shipment of these goods to and from their intended ports. A major disruption in these transit routes would cripple America’s allies in northeast Asia, as they rely heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through South China Sea shipping lanes, including more than 80 percent of the crude oil to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. 

The PRC/CCP’s use of the PLAN, CCG, and militarized fishing fleet to wage a ‘Blue Crime’ maritime insurgency within the ”green-water” of the South China Sea degrades maritime security and the overall stability of South China Sea nations. This increases these countries’ susceptibility to the PRC’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) by way of coercion or persuasion

To counter this Blue Crime maritime insurgency, the United States must position itself between the CCP and the South China Sea nations by establishing a Maritime Counterinsurgency (M-COIN). This type of counterinsurgency requires nimble means that disrupt the CCP’s intentions without firing a shot (for the purposes of this article, “without a shot” refers to avoiding open naval combat). 

A perfect candidate to execute a low-profile/low-kinetic M-COIN strategy is the US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF). The DSFs comprise seven various sub-capabilities but the ideal capabilities for M-COIN are the Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) and Tactical Law Enforcement Teams (TACLET).  Furthermore, the MSRT includes two critical components: the Tactical Delivery Teams (TDT) and Direct Action Section (DAS), which can be either pre-positioned within a theatre of operation or rapidly deployed for higher risk operations. The TACLETs are comprised of smaller teams called Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDET), which carry out drug interdiction, maritime intercept operations (MIO), and security force assistance/foreign internal defense missions. Both MSRTs and TACLETs have carried out a mix of well-executed joint operations with DoD counterparts to combat smuggling of drugs, weapons, money, and humans worldwide. 

OFF THE COAST OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (July 6, 2018) U.S. Coast Guard deployable specialized forces (DSF) assigned to Maritime Security Response Team – West (MSRT-W) and Royal Canadian Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians assigned to Fleet Diving Unit Pacific conduct maritime interdiction operations training in support of counter-improvised explosive device and mine warfare operations as part of Commander Task Force 177 during the force integration phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Southern California (SOCAL) exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Matthew A. Stroup/Released)

The counter-drug mission is a joint operation led by the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) which coordinates DoD, Intelligence, and USCG assets to interdict vessels suspected of illicit maritime trafficking. The United States can use JIATF-South’s Pacific counterpart, JIATF-West to oversee a Maritime-Counter Insurgency (M-COIN) mission by way of a coordinated US Navy 7th Fleet task force to support its activities. USCG DSF forces are uniquely suited for the M-COIN mission as their capabilities are purpose built to fight ‘Blue Crime’ and ensure maritime security. With the inherent ability to carry out law enforcement actions, support special operations, and provide intelligence collection, the DSF is the right choice to lead the strategic green-water sea control campaign in the South China Sea and broader INDO-PAC region. 

This campaign would require three key factors to effectively counter the PRC/CCP insurgency, counter aggression in the South China Sea, and disrupt the People’s Liberation Army’s expeditionary goals. The first is expanded Indo-Pacific partnerships and alliances, next is the proper employment of USCG DSF teams, and lastly is the choice of cost-effective naval platforms to support the mission. 

Through this strategy, the United States can counter the PRC’s aggressive insurgent tactics while still maintaining a low profile and reducing the odds of a kinetic naval engagement. Successfully carrying out a USCG DSF-led M-COIN operation against PRC/CCP maritime aggressions would turn the tide against further PRC expansion in the South China Sea. 

The United States National Defense Strategy outlines the need to expand America’s Indo-Pacific partnerships and alliances. Cooperation and coordination with South China Sea and Indo-Pacific nation partners will ensure maritime security, maintain the rule of law at sea, and ensure that the region is not susceptible to PRC/CCP influence and control. 

The South China Sea nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, must band together in the interest of free and open seas for the benefits of their citizens and economies. Although some of these nations, such as Cambodia and Brunei have already succumbed to pressure from Beijing, buying heavily into the BRI and staying quiet on Chinese maritime claims, other nations such as Philippines, hang in the balance as their internal politics shift from pro-Beijing rhetoric to firm opposition of China’s illegal South China Sea actions, as Philippine citizens see little benefit from BRI

Critical Indo-Pacific strategic arrangements such as the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines are just some of the many reasons the United States should be racing towards providing some level of maritime security assurance. Nations like Taiwan have fantastic working relationships with the United States and can work as a model for empowering other South China Sea nations. 

Forming bilateral and multilateral agreements similar to counter-drug trafficking agreements in the Western Hemisphere can signal a shift in how South China Sea nations can respond to the PRC insurgency. These agreements provide a host of mutually-beneficial capabilities such as embarking USCG DSF personnel onboard host nation vessels to assist in LE action or vice versa, with host nation personnel aboard US vessels to enforce international or local laws. Other benefits include patrol aircraft operations in host nation territory and extradition of suspects of international or domestic crimes.

OFF THE COAST OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (July 6, 2018) U.S. Coast Guard deployable specialized forces (DSF) assigned to Maritime Security Response Team – West (MSRT-W) and Royal Canadian Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians assigned to Fleet Diving Unit Pacific conduct maritime interdiction operations training in support of counter-improvised explosive device and mine warfare operations as part of Commander Task Force 177 during the force integration phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Southern California (SOCAL) exercise.  (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Matthew A. Stroup)

In the fight for a ‘rule of law’ at sea, these calculated steps provide a foundation to see that vision through. DSF’s teams can seamlessly integrate within host nations’ maritime force structure to contribute to law enforcement scenarios from the most basic boater safety inspections across the spectrum to high-risk joint operations with special operations. Compared to naval forces’ focus on combat at sea, the DSF’s law enforcement mission set combines a highly operational skill set with a very low threat of escalation. 

The M-COIN strategy pits the United States against a multi-tiered Blue Crime system in which Beijing uses both conventional naval assets and civilian vessels, requiring a measured response that ensures naval presence while focusing on day-to-day international maritime security. Law enforcement presence will pave a pathway for each host nation to build an appropriate and scalable maritime force with the ability to assert control over its sovereign waters. 

Other existing US Coast Guard programs such as the International Maritime Officers Course, which hosts commissioned international naval officers, and the Mobile Training Branch program, which sends active duty US Coast Guard personnel to host nations in a training capacity to improve their maritime forces, compliment this capability-building strategy. This international footprint builds credibility with other regional partners that can provide support in the form of vessels and aircraft. 

These partners like Taiwan, Australia, Japan, and India, can be chief enablers in this counterinsurgency strategy. An approach such as a combined maritime law enforcement task group could shake Beijing’s South China Sea strategy to its core. The international community is a key stakeholder in the M-COIN strategy to counter PLAN/CCG aggressions in the South China Sea. With host nation and international support, the United States could quickly exert some green-water sea control, while enabling local states to improve their own capabilities. 

A green-water sea control mission under JIATF-West supported by a 7th Fleet Maritime Combined Maritime Force offers Task Force and Commandant Command leadership a versatile maritime response capability in the Indo-Pacfic region while maintaining a broader mission aligned with the National Security Strategy. 

Coupling a very broad Federal Law Enforcement Authority and with the ability to act as a branch of the armed forces, USCG DSF are a force-multiplier on the water providing reach back to virtually all US Government inter-agency partners. DSF teams have proven themselves time and again, whether interdicting narco-subs in the Eastern Pacific, or seizing Iranian missile components or large caches of weapons in the North Arabian Sea. DSFs can seamlessly integrate with US SOF counterparts for high-risk maritime missions, or operate as self-contained security advisory teams for port facilities in remote areas, unique capabilities that bring a collaborative approach to security when compared to heavy-handed PRC bullying.

Furthermore, as a member of the US intelligence community since 2001, the USCG is charged with carrying out intelligence activities in the maritime domain, filling a unique niche within the Intelligence Community by supporting Coast Guard missions and national objectives

Integrating US Coast Guard intelligence personnel with DSFs bridges several organizational gaps by allowing the US Coast Guard to be the primary collectors and analyzers of intelligence with the support of both JIATF-West and the larger Intelligence Community. This flat and efficient structure can drive DSF teams into continuous sea-control operations against the PLAN/CCG insurgency while maintaining a strategic advantage for the region through enhanced partnerships and performance. Integrating USCG DSF in the South China Sea is part of a comprehensive, whole of government approach to countering PLAN/CCG insurgency.

A highly successful M-COIN strategy must be fiscally sustainable. The deployment of USCG DSF teams aboard host nation or coalition naval assets empowered with bilateral and multilateral international agreements is a cost effective first step. 

High-cost platforms like US Navy cruisers and destroyers are not ideal for M-COIN missions in green water areas like the South China Sea. With the time, cost, and red tape required to build large grey/white hull vessels, the US Navy and Coast Guard should look towards commissioning more adaptable platforms such as the US Navy Mk VI, US Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter, and the US Navy Littoral Combat Ship. These platforms are associated with relatively low costs of ownership and high capacity for a green-water sea control mission. 

The South China Sea’s nearly 1.351 million square miles require a large quantity of vessels to assert sea-control. Furthermore, the mere size of the vessels employed can signal the intent to escalate or deescalate the situation. Using smaller, cheaper craft is not only cost-effective, but also signals a commitment to peaceful law enforcement, rather than a tendency towards armed conflict.

With a price tag of $7.5 billion per Zumwalt-class destroyer and $800 million as the target cost of the Constellation-class frigate, a fleet of Mk VI boats costing $15 million per copy is a much easier sell in the defense budget. Other platforms from coalition partners such as Australia’s Cape-Class patrol boats are already used for fisheries protection, immigration, customs, and drug law enforcement operations. The Royal Norwegian Navy’s Skjold-class corvette conducts maritime security and sea control operations while still being capable of supporting special operations forces. 

A positive outcome using an M-COIN strategy in the South China Sea may not signal the end of an aggressive PRC/CCP. Ultimately, the PRC/CCP would like to see a completely expeditionary overseas military force that has logistics bases throughout the world to keep its interest protected. China is positioning itself to operate militarily on a global scale as the center of the world’s economic power. No reasonable observer wants to test this rise through open war, however, the United States and its allies must recognize the economic, political, criminal, and informational warfare the PRC/CCP is waging. 

Focusing on the nations that border the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region and ensuring their economic and political viability are not part of China’s plans for hegemony, but they are vital to the United States’ resistance to the rising global power of an authoritarian regime. Building the capacity of local nations to stand up for themselves will provide a check on Chinese ambitions locally, while signaling America’s commitment to preserving the global rule of law. The United States must look at sea-control in both blue and green water, as a long term strategy for the security of our world’s oceans so that free and open commerce may persist for generations to come, benefitting emerging nations and providing stability for all people.

Lawrence Hajek is the Director of Future Operations at Metris Global, an Arizona based defense contractor focused on Special Operations training and support. He is also the owner of Pinehawk Consulting, a consultancy focused on high tech innovation in the defense and commercial industry. He is a veteran of the US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specified Forces and member of CIMSEC. 

Featured image: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)

U.K. Carrier Capability Returns To The Indo-Pacific

By David Scott

Toward the end of May 2021, first the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and then the Queen visited the British flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth. In effect this was their wave-off as, amid much commentary and following much anticipation, the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) set off from Portsmouth for a seven-month long deployment, its first maiden operational deployment. One Australian newspaper ran the headline: “Rule, Britannia! UK deploys carriers to Indo-Pacific.”

In April 2021, the British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace set out the aims of the CSG deployment:

“It will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Engaging with friends of course raises the questions of who is not being engaged with, who is not a U.K. friend, and is there any common enemy in sight – all of which points to China.

Global Britain reflects this reorientation of a post-Brexit UK away from the European Union and outwards to other parts of the world. It is no surprise that the U.K. is now talking, in its Integrated Review, of a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” given the increasing economic weight of this region. This economic shift brings with it a greater focus on sea lane security, protecting commerce flows, and freedom of navigation in international waters. Admiral Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord, said in a speech at the Sea Power Conference, that the Integrated Review “signaled a maritime resurgence” for the U.K., operating through “the lens of classical geopolitics” in which the U.K. operations in “Mahan’s World Ocean” were aimed at “countering Chinese activity in the Asia-Pacific.”

This British naval deployment gives both political and operational support to the bigger U.S. efforts in the Indo-Pacific. The unstated rationale is sharing the burden against China. This was admitted as much by the British Defense Secretary Wallace admitted as much when he told the IISS think tank on the eve of the CSG setting forth, in a revealing China-application of the mission, that: “the UK’s fundamental strengths across the world is our friends and allies and that’s how we are going to force-multiply.” and that the “dawn of China on the USA is that USA is coming across a power it unilaterally cannot challenge and it realizes it needs alliances.”

Structure and Itinerary

The structure of the Strike Carrier Group is two-fold. First it is a powerful deployment of British assets, namely:

  • Aircraft Carrier: HMS Queen Elizabeth
  • Type-45 destroyers: HMS Defender and HMS Diamond;
  • Type-23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond
  • Astute-class nuclear submarine
  • Royal Fleet Auxiliary logistics ships Fort Victoria and Tidespring

Two offshore patrol vessels, HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, have also been dispatched westwards across the Pacific where they will join the Carrier Strike Group. Such a deployment accounts for a significant portion of the U.K. surface fleet, which currently totals only 19 frigates and destroyers. As well as various stealth fighters, four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters were embarked – the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single British Task Group in a decade. A company of Royal Marines was also carried.

Second, while the British component is substantive, it also involves allied support. In part this is with non-British ships embedded into the CSG, namely:

  • U.S. destroyer: USS The Sullivans, for air defense and anti-submarine value
  • Dutch frigate: HNLMS Evertse
  • Two Australian frigates in the South China Sea*
  • New Zealand naval unit in the Pacific part of the deployment

The other area where the U.K. is using allied assets is in the CSG’s air component. Here, eight British F-35B Lightning strike aircraft are deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the bigger part of the warship’s fast-jet strike force actually made up of ten U.S. Marine Corps F-35s. To date Britain has only ordered 48 of the short-take-off, vertical-landing aircraft version of the F-35B, to be delivered by 2024, with deliveries currently standing at 21.

Led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, the strike group will interact with 40 states across the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Indo-Pacific, various allies, partners, and ‘like minded’ states. Amid those 40 states, China is absent.

The voyage will include a stop in Gibraltar, exercises (including anti-submarine warfare drills) with NATO and non-NATO partners around the Suez Canal, and a week-long stopover in Duqm, the British navy’s base in Oman. The use of the U.K. Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm operationalizes its deep water carrier-supporting facilities, in which Duqm has been envisaged as a support and forward projection base for the U.K. in the Indian Ocean. Queen Elizabeth’s strike group will then take part in:

  • Konkan joint exercises with the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean
  • Bersama Lima exercises (probably in the South China Sea) with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand as part of a strengthened U.K. commitment to the Five Power Defense Agreements (FPDA)
  • Two weeks of exercises with Japan and the U.S. in the West Pacific

It is no coincidence that over the course of the deployment the Carrier Strike Group will operate with Indian, Australian, Japanese, and U.S. units – in other words with the members of “the Quad” group of countries, a group with which the U.K. is seeking ever-closer ties.

Naval operations with Japan and the U.S. reflect the trilateral partnership cooperation agreements signed between the Japanese, U.S., and UK navies; first of all by Admiral Phillip Jones in October 2016 and then by Admiral Tony Radakin in November 2019. The joint exercises carried out with India reflect and further the Carrier Capability Partnership signed in March 2019. Moreover, the U.K. deployment is part of emerging “carrier coordination” emerging between the U.S., France and the U.K.. The agreement signed on June 3, 2021, at Toulon between the three countries’ naval leaders specifically mentioned trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Significance and Context

The significance of the CSG deployment is that it demonstrates the return of aircraft carrier capability to the U.K., and the ability of the U.K. to remain a naval power of some significance and with some global reach. Carrier aircraft capability had been lost in 2010 with the retirement of HMS Ark Royal and its Harrier jump jets. To reestablish this capability, the British government pursued the construction of two new 65,000 ton carriers during the 2010s. 

Consequently, HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in December 2017. HMS Prince of Wales, surviving defense cuts, was commissioned in December 2019. Carrier Group formations were reestablished in naval strategy. The aircraft carriers carry 5th generation F-35 strike aircraft, giving the CSG’s air component significant range and punch.

The context for carrier deployment is the U.K.’s return to an “East of Suez” naval presence. This has involved renewed forward deployments and strengthened bases and facilities after a five year hiatus from 2013-2017 in already infrequent deployments. Subsequently, 2018-2020 witnessed renewed and continuous, sometimes overlapping, deployments from the U.K. across the Indo-Pacific by various destroyers and frigates; in the shape of HMSs Sutherland, Albion, Argyll, Montrose, Defender, and Enterprise. A further British destroyer has been earmarked for deployment in the Indo-Pacific in late-2021.

Strengthened British bases and facilities are now seen across and around the Indian Ocean. At Bahrain, HMS Jufair, abandoned in 1971 was re-established in 2018, and the U.K. Joint Logistics Support Base was opened at Duqm the same year. Increased U.K. use of Diego Garcia has been evident since 2018. Finally, in Singapore the modest U.K. presence in the repair and logistics facility (British Defence Singapore Support Unit) at Sembawang wharf, was supplemented with the Defence Staff Office in 2017, amid subsequent talk of further reinforcement of the U.K. presence there.

A U.K. focus on the Indo-Pacific was given further impetus by Brexit and the need to secure trade deals across the Indo-Pacific – involving South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, India, and New Zealand, as well as seeking entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which in turn has made security of sea lanes (commerce flows and shipping) of even greater significance for the U.K.

A further context for the dispatch of the CSG has been rising disquiet over China, both globally— over China’s challenge to rule of law norms, human rights violations (now including Xinjiang), and technology threat like Huawei’s G5 rollout— and in the Indo-Pacific region — by China’s suppression of Hong Kong, China’s militarization and excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and China’s Maritime Silk Road push across the Indian Ocean. The so-called “golden era” of U.K.-China relations talked about by the previous Cameron administration has given way to a less accommodating Johnson administration and with it some willingness to push back against China.

The China Factor

Although originally the CSG deployment was pitched as aiming to strengthen freedom of navigation operations, most at issue in the South China Sea, in fact the deployment schedule has become more circumspect over China. Two particular issues have shown this U.K. circumspection: the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

The U.K. does not take any position on the different sovereignty claims in the area. Ironically perhaps, the U.K. had itself claimed the Spratly Island chain in the 1920s, a claim that, although subsequently dropped, should logically give U.K. sympathy to Malaysian and Brunei claims (the successor states to the British possessions of Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah) vis-à-vis China. What the U.K. does reject, however, are the excessive claims made by China in the South China Sea, and it has called on China to accept the ruling of the Permanent Court for Arbitration. 

The question is how far the CSG will involve itself in any of these issues. Then-Foreign Secretary Johnson told the press conference at the Australia-U.K. Ministerial meeting in 2017 that “one of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a FONOP – a freedom of navigation operation to this area.”

Mark Field, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, in pinpointing China as a threat to “the rules-based international system,” reiterated in March 2019 the British “commitment” to future naval deployments “reinforcing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” How far does the CSG deployment reinforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? There are various ways of doing this.

Firstly, previously the U.K. decided to have HMS Albion carry out a FONOP around the Paracel Islands in September 2018 to assert that China’s drawing of archipelagic baselines around the chain is invalid, since China itself is not an archipelagic state like Indonesia or the Philippines. Chinese outrage was high in 2018, and it may well be that the U.K. is now chary to repeating such an operation. If so, that would seem to be a pity, and in effect may cede those waters to China.

Secondly, in the Spratlys, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in July 2016 (point 383) ruled that the Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef (South), Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal were “low tide elevations, i.e. under water at high tide. China’s reclamation (sand and concrete) building them up above high tide still left them as “artificial islands,” which under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) Article 60 merely had a 50-meter safety zone, rather than any 12-mile territorial waters or EEZ. The U.S. has made a point of sailing within the 12-mile territorial waters claimed by China for such artificial creations, but so far the UK has not. It could though.

Thirdly, another excessive claim is China’s demand that navies entering its Exclusive Economic Zone ask its permission. Like the U.S., the U.K. rejects this as a matter of principle. In addition, it supports the PCA ruling which specifically held (points 622, and 624) that none of the Paracels and Spratly features were “islands” under UNCLOS 121(3) sustaining ongoing “human habitation” or “economic life.” Instead they were above high tide “rocks” and, while entitled to 12-mile territorial waters, were not entitled to “island”-generated 200-mile EEZs. The 2016 PCA ruling also rejected China’s claims that their “historical rights” in themselves generate any EEZ. Indeed, it considered the “9-dash line” as “contrary to the [UNCLOS] Convention and without lawful effect” (point 278).

The CSG, or elements from it, could then carry out freedom of navigation operations around the Paracels (archipelagic excessive claims) and Spratlys (excessive claims over artificial islands) – but this has not been announced in advance. If this is deliberate avoidance of such activities, then it represents some tacit acceptance of Chinese pressure.

On the other hand, it may be that operational details are not being given in advance, and that CSG commanders have indeed instructions to carry out one or both of these types of freedom of navigation activities around the Paracels and/or Spratlys, on the spot and unannounced beforehand, so as to limit advance pressure that China would otherwise bring to bear. In this vein, U.K. transit through the South China Sea that goes within 200-miles of any of China-held features in the Paracels and Spratlys, since permission is not being sought, maintains their status as international waterways, and represents a minimum-level freedom of navigation operation. In going into, across, and through China’s nebulous “9-dash line”, the CSG could also be seen to be ignoring it.

A particularly pointed political decision would be if the CSG carried out exercises in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy, which has been operating in greater carrier strength in the last few years. The precedent for bilateral U.K.-U.S. exercises in the South China Sea was on show during 2019, in January with HMS Argyll, and in February with HMS Montrose. Of course, there is already a U.S. destroyer embedded with the CSG in the shape of USS The Sullivans, so one could argue that explicit U.K.-U.S. naval cooperation in the South China Sea is being reiterated. Joint exercises with powerful U.S. forces are also already planned for the Philippine Sea, between the so-called first and second island chains in the Western Pacific.

A nearby China-related issue for the CSG is whether or not it (or elements of it) deploys westwards of Taiwan through the Taiwan Strait. As part of its campaign to squeeze Taiwan, China is increasingly starting to treat the Strait as domestic Chinese waters, and does not want to see foreign navies using it. It is worth noting that accelerating U.S. passage of the Taiwan Strait has been supported by some French and Canadian transit deployments. 

HMS Enterprise attracted further Chinese ire by transiting through the Taiwan Strait in December 2019, before returning again to the South China Sea for a week-long stay in Vietnam in February 2020. Thus speculation remains that, when the CSG transits through the South China Sea to get to South Korea and Japan, a more circuitous route will be taken – going east of Taiwan, rather than westwards through the Taiwan Strait. Operational details in the Taiwan area, like those in the South China Sea have not been specified in advance, so it remains a possibility that the U.K. CSG, or an element of it, might deploy through the Taiwan Strait as a point of principle, unannounced beforehand.

Ongoing U.K. presence

The final consideration is legacy. The U.K. will remain a modest player in the overall balance of naval power in the Indo-Pacific. The Royal Navy has a small increase in numbers envisaged for the 2020s but China far exceeds this. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Phillip Jones, noted in November 2018 that with regard to China, “if you look at the scale of their shipbuilding program purely in terms of tonnage, it broadly equates [annually] to launching the equivalent of the whole Royal Navy.”

Nevertheless, two good-sized new aircraft carriers are not to be dismissed as inconsequential. The U.K. carrier capacity does generate useful leverage in cooperation with other similarly China-concerned states. Of course, this modest useful contribution will only be realized if this renewed involvement in the region is maintained and if forward deployment is persistent.

U.K. force structure for the region is being boosted. Current U.K. thinking, laid down in the Integrated Review is to “increase” maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific, “including to uphold freedom of navigation,” specifically through deployment of:

  • Offshore Patrol Vessels from 2021
  • Littoral Response Group from 2023
  • Type-31 frigates later in the decade

In addition, regular deployments from UK home waters are envisaged throughout the 2020s.

In the meantime, with the arrival of the HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier, and the completion of full F-35B air components, the U.K. will have two CSGs, raising the question of where they would be deployed. The answer seems to be one for the Atlantic-Mediterranean area, and the other for the Indo-Pacific. Regular ongoing CSG deployment has been envisaged from the outset. Admiral Phillip Jones stated in 2018 that “it is certain that a Royal Navy task group, centered on a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, will regularly deploy East of Suez;” though leaving it unclear how far across the Indo-Pacific CSGs would regularly deploy, and how frequently “regularly” would mean. A timid U.K. response would be to keep CSG deployment within the Indian Ocean, a more robust response to help really address the problem of China would be to keep deploying its CSG further eastwards into the South China Sea and Western Pacific on a regular basis.

Dr. David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. A prolific writer on maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

*This piece has been updated to mention the two Australian frigates in the South China Sea.

Featured image: HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. Photo via @smrmoorhouse on twitter.

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