The Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer, HMS DARING, is currently entering waters not sailed in by the RN for many years. On a global deployment, she has recently visited Pearl Harbour, and is currently engaged on a high profile tour of the Asia Pacific region. This deployment marks the first time in many years that an RN vessel has visited Pearl Harbour, and the first in about 4-5 years that a major platform will have deployed into the Asia Pacific region.
It’s a good news story in many ways – for the RN, a chance to deploy one of their premier assets into a rarely visited region represents a good opportunity to work with old friends and new allies, and demonstrate the exceptionally capable Type 45 to a variety of nations. In particular, it sends a useful reminder to the US that even with the Pacific reorientation, the RN is still capable of deploying to the region and providing a meaningful presence.
It is also perhaps a sign of the times that she has deployed without a support tanker – unlike previous RN global deployments, this time DARING is utterly reliant on shore support for the duration of the deployment. This perhaps highlights just how stretched the RFA tanker fleet has become, with just two modern and three positively ancient tankers left in service, down from nine only a few years previously. This is perhaps less welcome, and means that while DARING remains an extremely capable platform, her reach is perhaps more constrained than previous RN deployments into the area.
The deployment is a useful reminder that despite the UK placing a very heavy emphasis on deploying elsewhere in the world, there is still a UK interest in the Asia Pacific region. While the days of a Far East Fleet are long gone, it is clear that the RN is held in a high level of regard, and that many navies are keen to operate and benefit from RN training and experience. Coming at a time when the UK defence links to both Japan and Korea are positively booming, if DARING were to visit either country then it would be a good chance to highlight this growing relationship. In Korea, the UK has ordered four MARS tankers, which are due to enter service over the next few years, while the Koreans have become the first export customer for the Lynx Wildcat.
|Type 45 Destroyer at Sea|
At the same time, UK and Japanese defence relationships have improved significantly as Japan takes on a more prominent role in the region and beyond. It is fair to say that this deployment provides a chance to deepen ties such as this, even if it is unlikely to be a regular occurrence (indeed just this week the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force visited HMNB Portsmouth for a training deployment). With the Japanese military growing in stature and prestige internally, and coupled with an increase in interest in acquiring capabilities that the UK has long experience in (for instance Marines and UAVs), the possibility exists for significantly improved co-operation over the next few years.
While it is easy to scoff at the value of such short exercises and visits, Humphrey places a real value on them. All bilateral relationships need to begin somewhere, and working at sea provides a real indicator of the level of capability a nation can bring to a multi-national operation. By helping foster closer relationships, identifying training needs, equipment gaps and where procedures can be improved, this sort of exercise helps smooth out the bugs ahead of possibly deploying together elsewhere. For instance, many navies in the Asia Pacific region are taking an increased interest in the anti-piracy role, and some have deployed to the Horn of Africa region. By building gentle relationships in home waters, it is much easier to build strong operational relationships when deployed abroad together. So, to the author, this sort of deployment is of real long term benefit to the UK – anything which helps ease the multi-national burden on operations, and helps improve the operational effectiveness on deployments is to be welcomed.
It was telling though that while this deployment continues, news has broken at home that the RN is no longer contributing an escort to the NATO standing task forces. Only a few years ago such a move would have been an unthinkable show of Alliance disunity, as one of its leading members failed to provide a visible contribution to the force (previously known as STANAVFORLANT/MED). Today though, NATO is an important security tool, but perhaps occupies a less pressing priority for defence planners. While it is easy to attack the RN for a lack of influence (as indeed some papers have done), the reality is that most nations in NATO have significantly reduced their permanent contributions to NATO forces operating in the European and Atlantic area. It is hard to think of many navies with sufficient hulls to spare to do every job, and the reduction in presence of hulls shows that right now this is seen as a lower priority than other duties. Although a shame to not have an RN presence, it is perhaps more important to note that the RN retains ‘ownership’ of the key NATO maritime headquarters at Northwood, where many of these operations are planned and co-ordinated from. Is it better to have an asset in the force, or run the force HQ? Humphrey would argue that even if the UK is not actively participating in such forces right now, it remains engaged in different ways which are equally, if not more, important.
The other factor to consider is that while the RN may not be working with NATO in the European area, it remains heavily operationally committed to duties such as ATALANTA in the Horn of Africa. Again, the question becomes one of where is it better to allocate scarce resources – on essentially training duties in home waters, or operationally focused duties overseas? There are similar training benefits from working in a complex multi-national environment, and this is the sort of operation at which the RN excels. No one would argue that it is better now than it was when sufficient hulls existed to meet wider commitments – but on balance, the decision to support operations like ATALANTA over things like NATO standing forces is arguably a much better use of increasingly scarce RN platforms. The other point to remember is that all of these commitments which have been dropped can be picked up again if circumstances change.
So, perhaps what we should see from the deployment of DARING is a wider picture – one which firstly shows how the UK is changing its security priorities and choosing to prioritise its interests and assets in regions beyond NATO, which is a step change from the end of the Cold War. At the same time it shows just how busy the escort fleet actually is at the moment – DARING was deployed on a major deployment out to the Arabian Gulf in early 2012 – the fact that by mid 2013 she is deployed again highlights the ever busier tempo that these escorts are working to. This is all well and good with a new class of young ships, but one must ask whether it will be sustainable in the medium term as they age and require more refits and maintenance (as all ships do). The question is perhaps, to what extent is the UK placing risk on long term force generation in order to meet short term task requirements?