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UK to station OPVs ‘permanently’ in Asia

28th July 2021 - 11:51 GMT | by Gordon Arthur, Harry Lye in Christchurch & London

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HMS Spey is one of two OPVs earmarked to be stationed in the Indo-Pacific region. (RN)

After a long-time absence, the UK is set to beef up its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Even as an international carrier strike group (CSG21) headlined by the UK RN aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed into Southeast Asian waters this week, the UK MoD was promising a more enduring naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indeed, Ben Wallace, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, promised whilst he was in Japan on 20 July that two River-class Batch 2 OPVs would arrive in the region later this year.

The two vessels earmarked for this ‘permanent deployment’, in the words of the British Embassy in Tokyo, are HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, and they are scheduled to leave the UK in late August. The OPVs are being fitted with additional mission equipment that will support the ships’ ability to communicate with allies in the region.

Wallace stated: ‘Exemplified by the deployment of the Carrier Strike Group, Global Britain continues to step forward with our partners in the Indo-Pacific to address shared security challenges and changing global threats.’

The purpose of the OPV presence is ‘to support maritime security in the region’. 

Shephard understands the UK MoD does not see the OPVs as being based in the Indo-Pacific as such but rather being there to provide a forward presence. They will be supported by partners such as Australia, Japan and Singapore.

As a result, the two River-class vessels will not have a particular base in the region but will instead be supported by yet-to-be confirmed regional logistic hubs. One hub could be Singapore, which already hosts the naval facilities of the British Defence Singapore Support Unit.

The ships will not have a specific place for maintenance and resupplying to take place. The UK MoD is engaging with support contractors to detail where the vessels will be maintained.  

The current UK intention is for the ships to stay in the region until at least 2027-28, after which the task will be taken up by the RN’s new Inspiration-class Type 31 frigates. Once the Type 31s take up the mantle, the likelihood is that the OPVs would then return to the UK.

The embassy added that the CSG deployment ‘marks the start of a more persistent presence by UK Defence in the Indo-Pacific region over the coming years'.

The UK will also ‘contribute a Littoral Response Group in the coming years’, possibly by 2023. This group will be based in the Indian Ocean.

The only existing UK presence in Asia has been the permanent stationing of a rotational Gurkha battalion in Brunei. There are occasional visits of aircraft or vessels, most often for the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (alongside Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore), but the UK military posture has been muted for decades.

It will be interesting to see whether CSG21 will perform freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The UK has paid lip service to a free and open Indo-Pacific, but if the task group deliberately avoids contact with China and its excessive maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, then the presence of such a powerful coalition of vessels will have fallen flat.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China respects freedom of navigation but it ‘firmly opposes any countries undermining the country’s sovereignty and the peace and stability of the region by advocating the use of force’.

However, the purpose of the multilateral CSG21 is not to use force, but to demonstrate to countries, specifically China, that they cannot unilaterally and illegally claim for themselves vast swathes of international waters.

FS Vendemiaire, one of two French Navy frigates based in the Indo-Pacific region. (Gordon Arthur)

France is the only European country with a permanent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region. To Chinese chagrin, it has been vocal on the need for unhindered maritime access.

In a recent French-language interview with La Tribune, Adm Pierre Vandier, Chief of Staff for the French Navy, lamented the quality of naval vessels stationed in the Pacific – two Floreal-class surveillance frigates, one each in Nouméa and Tahiti.

‘If you arrive with a [Citroen] 2CV at a Formula 1 Grand Prix, from the start of the race, it will be very, very complicated,' Vandier said.

He continued: ‘We probably need to remilitarise our presence in the Indo-Pacific. If we want to exchange with our allies at the same level in terms of intelligence, electronic warfare, anti-submarine warfare, weapon system connections, etc...we must replace our surveillance frigates…’

The French admiral concluded: ‘The question revolves around this: we cannot replace these boats with a weapon system as weak as it is today. The operational context of the Indo-Pacific region has completely changed. We need to be able to work with a more military-capable boat.’

The French Navy would need new networked vessels possessing a sonar for ASW, for example.

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