A century ago, Britain began the largest ever expansion of its imperial presence east of Suez. The construction of the Singapore Naval Base in 1921 included the largest dry dock in the world, with its batteries of 15-inch guns, its vast fuelling station, its Polo Club – this was Churchill’s Gibraltar of the East, a potent symbol of imperial power projection and the protective arm of the British fleet. In 1941, only four years after its completion, it fell to the Japanese in one of the worst defeats in British military history.
This month Singapore has once again been the scene of British power projection. The UK Carrier Strike Group, led by the Royal Navy’s newly-completed flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, has been exercising with ships of the Republic of Singapore Navy for the first time. Along with its sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales, the two aircraft carriers represent a fundamental change in British defence procurement and positioning. At 65,000 tonnes, the carriers are the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy in its 475-year history, and are an undeniably impressive statement of the engineering and technical ability of the UK’s shipbuilding and defence industries. For the first time in decades, the Royal Navy and the British government can begin to feasibly reposition the UK as the foremost naval power – behind the currently unassailable supremacy of the United States – in the world.
The Carrier Strike Group – consisting of the nine warships and the almost four thousand sailors, marines and airman which left Portsmouth in May of this year – is to any observer one of the most confident demonstrations of British naval power since the Falklands War. In the words of the British Embassy in Bangkok, it represents ‘the greatest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation’. Crucially, however, the Strike Group is not just an exercise in showing the world a new range in sleek grey warships. The whole concept is an exercise in demonstrating changing geostrategic goals, both for the new regime of Boris Johnson and for post-Brexit Britain more widely. Singapore and the other South East Asian and Pacific countries on the route of the Strike Group will be vital not only in the new era of independent British trade deals but also as strategic partners against the economic domination of China, and – whisper it quietly – the growing power of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, who this year quietly cut the steel on a new super-carrier in a shipyard in Shanghai.
All well and good – and in the new age of bluer passports and harder borders, perhaps hard power seems increasingly necessary. As illusions of the post-Cold War utopia of international cooperation die quietly in the background of European politics, British defence policy is now increasingly poised to back the UK’s new economic and diplomatic goals with cold steel. As Commodore Moorhouse, the commander of the Carrier Strike Group, said himself: ‘the Royal Navy has huge affection for Singapore based on our history together, but Singapore is also a beacon of enterprise in a region that is growing in strategic importance’. This may seem like remote geostrategy to the lives of ordinary Britons, but the Navy represents part of the British national identity and psyche, and the impact of its deployment is just as strong
for the British government’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ with the Carrier Strike Group as it is for Boris Johnson’s deployments of Royal Navy frigates to Jersey to ward off protesting French fishermen earlier this year. But while the former seems like an effective message to key allies in the Far East in the best traditions of influential British foreign policy, the latter may seem more reminiscent of sabre-rattling for the benefit of a domestic audience. It was a fact not lost on most commentators on defence that the Navy’s new carriers have to be equipped partially with American jets and crews, to make up for the current lack of British ones.
Earlier this month, HMS Prince of Wales docked in Gibraltar on her first overseas port visit. That the UK now has its two sister aircraft carriers simultaneously conducting exercises on either side of the globe, at those historically symbolic bases of British naval power, Gibraltar and Singapore, is a highly significant vote of confidence in the future of the Royal Navy and its role in underlining British foreign policy. There is no doubt, however, that better-read naval officers will privately recognise the parallels with the last ship to bear the name Prince of Wales, the great embodiment and the lynchpin of British naval power in the Far East, sent unprotected in 1941 to reinforce Singapore in a moment of great imperial hubris, and ignominiously sunk along with her consort HMS Repulse by Japanese air power. Both modern carriers represent huge investments by the British government in the Royal Navy and should be looked on as great technical, industrial and strategic achievements for a country steeling itself for a more solitary role on the world stage. Great care should be taken, however, to make sure these great grey leviathans do not swiftly become the white elephants of British defence policy. As recent naval tensions with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz and with Russia in the Crimea have shown, the UK is adjusting to a world where hard power at sea is increasingly important if trade lanes – and national prestige – are to be maintained. The British government will have to look closely at further investment in its surface fleet and the Fleet Air Arm if further Carrier Strike Groups are to serve a practical military purpose beyond the temptation to use them for diplomatic vanity projects. Impressive as they are expensive, it remains to be seen if those that formulate British defence policy – and more importantly, the holders of the purse-strings at the Treasury – have the political and economic will to support them with further investment.