openDemocracyUK: Opinion

No matter how far HMS Queen Elizabeth sails, it won’t make Britain great again

Naval posturing in the Indo-Pacific is the image of futility as the world’s most deadly security threats rage on

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 June 2021, 12.00am
The HMS Queen Elizabeth has been deployed to Japan and back
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Esme Vangelis/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is a few weeks into its deployment to Japan and back, which is expected to last more than seven months and include a transiting of the South China Sea through areas claimed by China. The operation is considered to be an opportunity to show that post-Brexit Britain has entered a glorious new era of military strength so that it can be seen once again as a great power.

It is true that a naval deployment on this scale – the most powerful since the Falklands/Malvinas war nearly 40 years ago – will be a prominent opportunity to show off the huge carrier, its accompanying warships and their weapons.

This exercise will be welcomed by the arms corporations that have built and equipped the ships, and will be a valuable aid to the future commercial success of the relevant military-industrial complexes – even more so because the contingent is joined by US and Dutch warships, including F-35B aircraft.

The British component of the strike group is made up of the aircraft carrier itself, escorted by two air defence destroyers, two anti-submarine warfare frigates, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, a tanker and a supplies ship. Added to this are Dutch and US destroyers and, quite possibly, a US attack submarine.

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Poking the bear

The foray was originally mooted as a high-profile ‘showing the flag’ operation but it is already clear that it goes well beyond that. A few days ago, one of the UK destroyers, HMS Defender, detached from the strike force and went through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea, visited a Ukrainian port, and then returned, briefly entering disputed waters claimed by Russia, to the annoyance of the Kremlin. Fortunately for the Boris Johnson government, the HMS Defender happened to have a BBC TV camera crew and a Daily Mail reporter on board, ensuring that brave Britain was seen to be standing up to the ‘Russian Bear’.

However, this provocation caused considerable annoyance in the EU, where member states, especially Germany, have been engaged in delicate discussions with the Russian government to improve relations. It also turned out to be trickier than expected for the UK, as the speed and force of the Russian reaction, including the firing of warning shots, came as a nasty shock. British officials later admitted that they were taken by surprise.

Also this week, American and British strike aircraft from the carrier took part in airstrikes against Isis paramilitaries in Iraq. Such an operation could have been more easily undertaken from the RAF airbase in Akrotiri, Cyprus, or indeed, bases in Qatar or Kuwait, so this was another demonstration of the carrier’s potential force rather than a necessity.

The strike was claimed to be against Isis ‘remnants’ in Iraq, the implication being that the war against Isis is virtually over. That stance is difficult to maintain at the same time as the top US general in Africa warned of a “wildfire of terrorism” on the march across northern Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, involving groups linked to Isis and al-Qaida, and a report confirming a powerful and growing Isis presence in Eastern and Central Africa, as well as across the Sahel.

In the next couple of weeks, the strike group will transit through the Suez Canal and into the Indian Ocean, calling at the new Duqm naval base in Oman, and then head East. Before getting to Duqm, carrier-based aircraft may carry out airstrikes in Somalia, and after Duqm there could be bombing operations in Afghanistan, where the security situation worsens by the day.

In the face of the pandemic, the aircraft carrier and its large flotilla are not even vaguely relevant

Given the foray into Russia’s claimed waters off the coast of Crimea, the strike group will certainly want to show off its power to the Chinese before eventually returning to the UK early next year. The result should be extremely useful for the war-promoting hydra that makes up the world’s military-industrial complexes, with the Chinese and Russian members benefiting just as much as their Western counterparts.

Meanwhile, away from this cartoonish swordplay and back in the real world, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc. It has already killed as many as ten million people and left many millions more with the debilitating illness, long COVID. As outlined in last week’s column, the potent new variants evolving around the world are the greatest threat facing humanity, yet the plan to achieve worldwide vaccination by the end of next year is far too slow to avoid catastrophe. In the face of the pandemic, which the UN has deemed the worst global challenge since the Second World War, the aircraft carrier and its large flotilla are not even vaguely relevant.

Within the coming weeks, the group will be transiting the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia en route to the South China Sea to show Beijing just who’s who in the world. The supreme irony of this is that, for all its impressive military power, the strike group can do little for Indonesia as it faces the worst surge in COVID-19 in South-east Asia, with cases exceeding two million this week following travel during the Eid al-Fitr holiday period and the spread of the Delta variant.

So, here we are, with the magnificent HMS Queen Elizabeth and its flotilla, shiny symbol of a revitalised Royal Navy (with American help) and proof positive of a ‘re-Great’ Britain. The group is happily ambling around the world, doing a spot of provoking here and a bit of bombing there, while passing the African continent, which is in the midst of an escalating pandemic disaster that is heading towards a calamity on the same scale as India, and Indonesia, which is wrestling to contain a new surge.

It is difficult to imagine a more striking example of the futility of our approach to security, but it is also an even deeper reflection of unreality. For any hope of the human race’s survival, the lesson that must be learnt, first through COVID-19 and even more so with climate breakdown, is that war is increasingly irrelevant. Instead, it should be shelved as an obsolete practice in an era of common global threats that can only be met by cooperative action – and certainly not by warships.

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