Throughout 2021 the Royal Navy has had a large contingent of warships deployed on an operation to sail across the world, from Portsmouth to the Pacific. The deployment, known as OP FORTIS, comprised a large force of warships, aircraft and service personnel and is the single biggest deployment of British naval power in decades.
Although the deployment is over, there are many lessons to consider about what FORTIS has meant for the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom as a whole. There will also be thoughts about what lies ahead for the 'Carrier Strike Group' idea and the wider operational challenges for the Senior Service.
It has been announced that the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) will deploy with NATO and other allies in 2022 and will involve HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales. In the meantime, it is likely that HMS Queen Elizabeth will require some maintenance and minor refit work after nearly 10 months away from home – the same as any warship would in this situation.
HMS Prince of Wales spent most of 2021 conducting exercises and working up her fixed wing skills, culminating in an exercise at sea during Joint Warrior in the autumn, when she deployed with F35s onboard. Since then, she has been in Portsmouth preparing for her next trip. This is likely to involve further trials work with the F35, potentially in the USA, and other exercises and trips during the year.
The Royal Navy is adamant that the Carrier Strike Group concept is absolutely central to the future of the fleet. The goal is to ensure that once both carriers are fully worked up, with all trials and work conducted, there will always be a carrier ready to deploy or be deployed at very short notice.
The Carrier Strike Group is being seen as a very substantial 'conventional deterrent', offering the Government of the day a wide range of options on how to respond to emerging military crises. There is no doubt that for many years to come, the CSG concept and various Royal Navy ships will be at the heart of response options for different crises.
Even though the future will be bright, the OP FORTIS deployment has also provided a lot of positive lessons and reflections about the challenges and opportunities we can draw from the deployment. These lessons are varied but will definitely be reflected on by planners and policymakers alike in the months to come, particularly as they consider the next steps in how the CSG will be employed and deployed.
One thing that has become extremely clear is that FORTIS represented the culmination of two decades worth of work by the Royal Navy to design, build and deliver a proper strike carrier capability. Since the late 1990s, work has been underway to build the ships needed to deliver not just the carrier itself, but also the vessels to protect and support the wider strike group.
Brought together, the OP FORTIS deployment serves as a good reminder of the length of time it can take to build warships and get them ready for operations.
This multi-decade plan has required huge amounts of work, and a very long-term vision to deliver a range of ships and capabilities that could come together at the same time to be a truly potent naval force. This has included the Carriers, the Type 45 destroyers, the ASTUTE class submarines and upgrades to the Type 23 frigates, as well as the F35 fighter and Merlin helicopter with Crowsnest radar warning systems.
The first lesson we can draw from FORTIS is that building a major naval capability takes a long time and requires strategic vision, financial planning and a willingness to commit to work that may take decades to bring to fruition.
The next lesson is that the Royal Navy is very much back in the game of providing a global presence on an enduring basis. FORTIS has been the first test of the Senior Service's new operating model, which is built around the idea of having smaller ships permanently based around the world, with larger deployments occurring to provide a more visible deterrent capability.
All five of the RIVER class, Batch 2, vessels are now deployed abroad on multi-year deployments and proving capable of acting as a 'flag flyer' for the UK. This is in addition to a large force, based permanently in the Middle East.
What FORTIS has shown is that it is possible to sustain this regional presence and augment it with much larger deployments when needed.
The message this sends to allies is twofold – firstly that the UK is an enduring presence interested in their region and prepared to permanently keep ships on station as a result. This is a powerful message of both reassurance and interest which helps keep low-level links alive between the Royal Navy and other navies through talks and joint exercises.
At the same time, FORTIS sends the message that this small-scale presence can quickly be escalated if required to help send a more powerful signal of support. The ability to deploy a Carrier Strike Group globally is not something many nations can do, so the British ability to do this is a powerful signal of support and assistance.
Given the wide-ranging UK security interests around the world, from NATO in the Med to bilateral defence co-operation in the Middle East and to security agreements like the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) in South East Asia, the Carrier Strike Group provides a visible symbol of the UK’s ability and willingness to use it to support friends.
It also serves as a reminder to nations with more malign intentions that the UK has a potent strike force that it can, and will, use to support its allies. The fact that it can deploy at short notice is a good reminder of the inherent flexibility of maritime power.
This is perhaps the third lesson of FORTIS is that maritime power is an incredibly potent and flexible asset for Governments. The range of tasks undertaken by the ships in the deployment cover everything from port visits, defence diplomacy, joint exercises, participation in UN sanctions operations and even air missions over Syria in a live-fire environment.
All this work was done by one group of ships able to ramp up, or down, as the mission demanded and be able to support wider government objectives as they emerged. The sheer flexibility on offer from the Carrier Strike Group force is incredibly powerful. It provided policymakers with many different options on how to respond as required to emerging scenarios in a way unthinkable with ground or land-based air assets.
This flexibility of response was also highlighted by the fact that the Royal Navy was able to work so effectively with allies throughout the deployment. This has not just been a solo British effort – central to the force has been the presence of a Royal Netherlands Navy escort and a US Navy destroyer, as well as embarked F35s from the United States Marine Corps (USMC).
Brought together, this coalition task force helped demonstrate the importance of international co-operation to the Royal Navy. British planners have accepted for many years that the UK will not fight a major war again in isolation and that any operation is going to be carried out with allies.
By deploying with international partners, this was the perfect chance to demonstrate first-hand the importance of working with allies and test procedures and drills to ensure there is a strong working relationship that is in place for future such deployments. It is important to not underestimate just how crucial the international presence has been for the success of the FORTIS deployment, or how much of a difference it has made.
Of particular importance is the presence of the USMC onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, operating the F35 fighter as part of an integrated airwing. Other than one operation during the Second World War, this is the first time in history that two countries have successfully deployed a combined airwing together for deployment.
Although some limited cross decking has occurred (e.g., land on and take off), there is a real difference between that and sailing for many months as part of the ship's company, completely integrated into its operations. The embarkation of the USMC, hopefully the first of many such deployments, is a good way to test how this will work in future and prove that the Royal Navy can provide carrier platforms that can be used by the United States to operate from.
A key lesson is likely to be that the USMC will be able to rely heavily on the UK for the provision of future 'flat decks' to use for their work – given the recent loss of USS Bon Homme Richard, with an F35 capable landing helicopter dock, this may be seen as a critically important lesson.
An unglamorous but important part of the deployment and one that separates truly global navies from the others, has been the ability by the UK to support and sustain the deployment through a global logistics supply chain.
Throughout the trip, the force has relied on support from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, able to act as floating petrol stations and supermarkets at sea, to keep the vessels at sea for longer. At the same time, the force has also drawn heavily on British naval facilities around the world as a source of support.
This has included access to facilities in Gibraltar, Oman, Diego Garcia and Singapore in various ways and at different times. It has also seen wider logistical support through the Royal Air Force providing heavy lift aircraft to fly in spare parts, mail and people as required and shown us that logistical arrangements with NATO partners also work well.
For example, HMS Diamond suffered an unplanned machinery issue while on the deployment – but she did not have to return home and was able to instead be repaired abroad and then continue with the deployment, rejoining her fellow vessels later in the trip. This is a good reminder of the Royal Navy’s ability to keep ships at sea and on station for long periods of time without needing to return to their homeports. Very few navies have this ability and it is an extremely important enabler to help the Royal Navy stay globally deployed.
This global footprint has helped the UK use the FORTIS deployment as a chance to rebuild links and further enhance defence relationships in other areas perhaps long neglected. The so-called 'Indo-Pacific tilt', which will form a key part of British security policy post-Brexit, is likely to see more emphasis placed on this region, but it is also somewhere the UK has not had a large military presence in until recently.
A key lesson of FORTIS is that these deployments serve as a good means of setting up exercises with partner nations, while also enabling diplomatic talks to occur. The use of HMS Queen Elizabeth to host ministerial talks, for example in India, and then to conduct joint exercises is a good example of how the ship can be used in a flexible way to advance wider British defence and security policy goals.
This flexibility has been seen too in the way the presence of the force has enabled a wider series of joint exercises to occur, drawing on participation not just from Royal Navy vessels but also RAF aircraft and British Army units in both the Far East and in Oman. The presence of the ships has helped unlock a much wider series of valuable defence exercises that serve to build deeper relationships with allies.
Coming on the back of the COVID-19 outbreak, the deployment has perhaps found it harder to enjoy the port visits that were originally planned – many of the port calls did not involve shore leave, but they did enable people to see a very different part of the world. The challenge now is to ensure this deployment is not a one off and instead is the first of many such deployments.
The FORTIS trip should be seen as the first of many, not a one off. It was the first chance for the UK to test whether the Carrier Strike Group concept worked and that it works well with allies too. It was also a good chance to make sure all the moving parts needed to sustain a carrier force at sea do work as planned and iron out any issues or problems identified.
The deployment has been a good chance to rebuild links that have been neglected in recent years with foreign navies and begin the process of taking them to a new level. This in turn will benefit the UK in operational terms by developing better military links and potentially helping open the door for more defence exports too, helping secure British jobs for the long term.
Over the next few years, there are likely to be many more FORTIS like deployments, particularly as HMS Prince of Wales achieves full operating capability in the near future and then both carriers can deploy. Within the next couple of years, there is likely to be a deployment at least once every two years, possibly once every year, of this nature to help build a long-term strike carrier presence around the world.
These deployments will be central to how the UK uses its strike carrier force, which is going to offer the Government of the day a valuable series of capabilities to deliver conventional deterrence and warfighting options globally. The success of these deployments will be in no small part due to the work done by OP FORTIS in helping set up the proof of concept that the Carrier Strike Group works as intended.
To be able to deploy a Carrier Strike Group across the world, incorporating some of the most advanced military technology on the planet, ranging from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, and to do so not as a one-off, but as the first in a series of global exercises, reminds us of just how capable the Royal Navy really is.
This operation has been just one of several deployments that the Senior Service has been undertaking in this period, and even while it was operating a Carrier Strike Group in the Pacific, it also had ships undertaking simultaneous missions across the world from the West Indies to the Antarctic and to the Gulf.
These missions have ranged from humanitarian aid to maritime security patrols, to amphibious landing training and maintaining the strategic nuclear deterrent on patrol. At the same time, the Royal Navy was also operating a second carrier at sea, with the Prince of Wales embarking F35 fighters for fixed-wing operations in the Atlantic.
In terms of naval power, there are only two countries on earth capable of deploying multiple fixed-wing carriers to sea and conducting the full range of naval operations globally. This is the UK and the USA – no other nation is capable of achieving this level of military capability.
The final and perhaps most important lesson to draw from the deployment is that OP FORTIS has reminded us all that the Royal Navy remains one of the most capable and powerful navies on the planet. With the exciting plans ahead for the way the Carrier Strike Group will be used for many years to come, this is a position that is unlikely to change any time soon.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.