Operation Indo-Pacific: Britain ‘back out there’ again

Liz Payne on a Britain’s dangerous intervention across thousands of miles of Asian waters

Carrier Strike Group CSG21, with submarine-furnished cruise missile cover, sailed from Portsmouth under British command on 22 May bound for the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and Western Pacific. The Group has been described as the “largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain for a generation” and was led by the £3.5 billion, 65,000 tonnes aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. This flagship alone is in effect a mobile sovereign territory, complete with 8 British and 10 US F35-B Lightning jets, all battle-primed, and 14 state-of-the-art attack helicopters. The full Strike Group of warships, submarines, planes and 4,000 personnel from the US, Britain and other NATO countries, epitomised imperialism’s intent to demonstrate to friends and foes alike its formidable capacity to impose its will where and when it chooses.  When completed in December, Operation Fortis, as it is known, will have covered 26,000 nautical miles, and undertaken more than 70 engagements in some 40 countries, with direct combat and live-fire exercises in every arena between the Solent and the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.  

The primary purpose of the costly multi-nation mission has been to re-assert imperialism’s hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and turn the screw ever tighter on China in the intensifying western-imposed cold war.

For Britain, re-establishment as a neo-colonial power, reversing its 1968 ‘No troops east of Suez’ strategy, and signalling its superior status as number-one-ally of the US have been key motivators for participation. As strike group commander, Commodore Steve Moorhouse told Reuters before they set off, the deployment demonstrated that Britain had a global navy and “wanted to be back out there.” True to his words, the armada’s progress resembled an itinerary of empire, with militias of former colonies, still in the role of key allies, lined up to play a part – a reflection of the reactionary legacy gripping those countries and their peoples down to the present day.

On route to its intended foci of operations in the Indo-Pacific, the Strike Group’s programme included participation in NATO exercises off Portugal and an offshore rendezvous with ships of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron. In the Mediterranean, joint aircraft carrier exercises between Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth and the French carrier, Charles de Gaulle, preceded an intensive campaign of F35B bombing of Syria and Iraq launched from the HMS Queen Elizabeth, starting on 18 June. These raids constitute a landmark development in contemporary warfare. F35 bombing missions have hitherto set off from land, from British-occupied territory in Cyprus. Now, the only requirement is a monumental floating military base, a transportable ‘British Overseas Territory”. Defence secretary, Ben Wallace immediately commented that “the ability to operate from the sea with the most advanced fighter jets ever created is a significant moment in our history…demonstrating the UK’s formidable air power to our adversaries”.  

The demonstration of military might continued as the huge fleet made its way along the strategic oil route through Suez and down the Red Sea, passing the Bab al Mandeb and continuing into the Gulf of Aden, where it conducted a surface, air, and subsurface interoperability exercise with the US navy.

After crossing the Indian Ocean, joint manoeuvres with Modi’s navy and air force in the Bay of Bengal, menaced China’s strategic oil supply route through Myanmar. Then, during its progress through the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and again crucial to China’s economy, exercises took place with the militaries of Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore as the Group made its way to the South China Sea.

The presence of such a formidable force here in these disputed waters was unashamedly provocative and reckless. China, which had followed the progress of the Strike Group from the Indian Ocean and was “at a high state of combat readiness”, accused Britain of operating like a colonial power again and warned against any “improper acts”. Understandably so. How would the British government react, if the largest Chinese strike group in modern times were exercising with its allies off the coast of Cornwall and challenging Britain’s sovereignty over, for example, the Scilly Isles or Lundy Island?

Leaving the South China Sea via the Luzon Strait at the end of July, the Strike Group participated in a live-fire co-ordinated attack and invasion of an uninhabited Pacific Island – by land, air, and sea – working jointly with a US carrier strike group and the armed forces of several allied nations. The CSG then headed for joint exercises with the navy of the Republic of South Korea, including three days of F35B manoeuvres in the skies above the Korean Peninsula. This activity, staged in one of the most volatile parts of the globe, produced an understandably alarmed reaction from Pyongyang which fired missiles into nearby the ocean. For this it was roundly condemned by the West’s mass media as though there had been no provocation. 

Finally, the Strike Group visited Japan and conducted 12 days of “warlike” sea and air interoperability manoeuvres with USS Carrier Strike Group 7 and the Japanese navy and air force, bringing its bellicose intervention across thousands of miles of Asian water to an end for the time being.  

The Strike Group’s story has starkly confirmed the US, British and European imperialist shift of primary focus from the Middle East to confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific region. The long-announced foreign policy ‘pivot to Asia’ is now a reality. Alliances and agreements like AUKUS will now be cemented, economies put on a war footing, and jingoism promoted. The potential of China to develop its economy and build a prosperous and peaceful future for its people will be undermined as it is forced to spend disproportionately on defence. In imperialist countries, including Britain, war-preparedness is already predominant and distorting economies, while media-promoted jingoism and hatred are stifling the potential for progress.

In amassing military capability, no expense is being spared. Cold wars, and hot ones, are the biggest money earners on the planet and right now the profits of the arms multi-nationals are soaring, while people’s basic needs remain unmet and public services are run into the ground. Skills that are desperately needed for building a peaceful life in a post pandemic world are squandered on the production of military hardware and on the most lethal weapons of mass destruction and synchronised killing.

The situation is urgent. The British government’s new imperialist aspirations must be rejected outright, as must its slavish commitment to the US, NATO, and cold war. The deployment of the Strike Group has opened a window to a terrifying future. We must make sure that it is firmly and permanently closed while there is still time.              

Liz Payne convenes the British Peace Assembly, a World Peace Council affiliate

Photo: North Sea (Oct. 4, 2020) The full United Kingdom (UK) Carrier Strike Group (CSG) assembled at sea. The CSG is led by the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R 08) and includes flotilla of destroyers and frigates from the UK, the Netherlands, the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), and 15 F-35B Lightning II’s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the UK’s 617 Squadron. (Creative Commons/U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the Royal Navy)

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