BRITAIN has been accused of using the first deployment of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier as an intimidation tactic to make the ‘Chinese tremble’.
The accusation came as questions were raised over what sort of protection HMS Queen Elizabeth would be given on her maiden deployment in 2021.
The £3.1bn behemoth is expected to tour the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of the Pacific region on her first mission.
However, during the announcement of the 65,000-tonne’s vessel’s initial deployment, defence secretary Gavin Williamson did not rule out Queen Elizabeth could be used to enforce maritime law in the South China Sea.
The busy stretch of waterway has been the focal point of maritime dispute, with claims China is over-extending its reach in the region.
However, Lord Don Touhig was concerned about the deployment – and about what sort of defence coverage HMS Queen Elizabeth would be given.
Speaking in the House of Lords, the Labour peer said: ‘My Lords, is this sabre-rattling in the Pacific intended to give our friends in the region confidence, or to make the Chinese tremble?
‘When the Americans deploy a carrier they provide an escort of a cruiser, four destroyers, a carrier wing, a submarine and 7,500 sailors. Can we do that?’
Earl Howe, defence minister and deputy leader of the House Lords, said the deployment was not meant to ‘antagonise’ the Chinese, who are in the process of rapidly expanding their navy.
He said: ‘This is not about sabre-rattling. Indeed, it is not about antagonising China in any way.
‘My right honourable friend the defence secretary (Gavin Williamson) announced that the first operational mission of the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ would include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region, thereby enabling the Royal Navy to maximise the opportunities we have to exercise and interact with our key regional allies and partners, and to make a statement about upholding the international rules-based system, including freedom of navigation.’
Admiral Lord Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy, pressed the minister on what ships would sail alongside HMS Queen Elizabeth.
He asked: ‘Does the minister not agree that we talk about this as if the carriers were vulnerable, whereas they can go 500 miles in any direction in one day, and are extremely difficult to find?
‘Certainly, terrorists cannot get at them at all when they are at sea, unlike a static air base, which is very easy to find, as we know exactly where it is.
‘However, if we deploy a carrier group east of Suez into the Indo-Pacific region, does the minister not agree that it would be foolhardy—historically we have never done this—not to have within the region, because of the transit times, at least one [nuclear-powered submarine], one destroyer, two key [anti-submarine warfare] frigates and the support ships involved?
‘Doing that will put huge pressure on the other tasks the navy does day to day, because we have insufficient frigates and destroyers to do all those tasks as well.’
Earl Howe said the first operational deployment was ‘still in the planning stage’ and that the task group would be supported by ‘Dutch allies’ and a US Marine Corps Lightning fighter jet squadron.
But he added: ‘The precise composition of the group is being worked through at the moment. We should emphasise the noble Lord’s first point: this carrier represents an extremely capable strategic deterrent for the nation. Let me stress that it will be robustly protected by air and sea assets against threats of all kinds.’