By Brad Lendon, CNN – CNN.COM
HMS Spey and HMS Tamar depart for their forward deployment to the Indo-Pacific
Hong Kong (CNN)Two Royal Navy patrol ships left the United Kingdom on Tuesday for a five-year deployment that will see them act as “the eyes and ears” of Britain from the west coast of Africa, to the west coast of the United States, according to a British Defense Ministry statement.
“Two-thirds of the world is our playground,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ben Evans, commanding officer of HMS Spey, a 2,000-ton, 300-foot-long offshore patrol vessel that will team with HMS Tamar for a mission that is not expected to see them return to their Portsmouth home port until 2026.
While patrolling the waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the warships will venture as far north as the Bering Sea and as far south as New Zealand and the Australian state of Tasmania.
In the center of that region is China, with whom tensions have been heating up with Britain’s top ally, the United States.
“They will act as the eyes and ears of the Navy — and nation — in the region, working alongside Britain’s allies, carrying out security patrols to deal with drug-running, smuggling, terrorism and other illegal activities, joining in exercises with other navies and armed forces, and flying the flag for Global Britain,” the Defense Ministry statement said.
Global Britain is the country’s post-Brexit blueprint to exert British influence around the world in a number of areas, including in the case of the two warships, military security.
Britain in March released a sweeping review of its military and foreign policy, in which it recognized a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific in the coming decade and warned of the challenges coming from China.
HMS Spey and HMS Tamar each carry a crew of 46, members of which the Royal Navy says will be swapped out as frequently as every few weeks as the service tries to get regional experience to its crews, while not burning them out on the far-flung mission. That will also allow the ships to spend up to nine months at a time at sea, the navy said.
‘2,000-ton Swiss Army knives’
The ships will not have a permanent base in the Pacific. Instead, they’ll call in bases and ports of allies and partners as best suits their mission, the navy said.
Along with their normal crews, the ships will host up to 52 Royal Marines or other troops, who can help with specific missions, “a versatility which makes the vessels ‘2,000-ton Swiss Army knives,'” according to the navy statement.
The ships headed west into the Atlantic from Portsmouth to begin their deployment Tuesday. They will go through the Panama Canal to make their way to their new Pacific patrol area.
Spey and Tamar have gotten World War I-era “dazzle paint” for their Pacific mission. The paint scheme was meant to make warships harder to track a hundred years ago, at time when the British fleet was regarded as the best in the world.
“With our paint schemes, we stand out — we look different. We’ll be flying the White Ensign together in the Indo-Pacific region. People will know that the Royal Navy is back,” said Evans, Spey’s commander.
UK allies and partners around the region have already gotten a taste of the modern Royal Navy this summer with the deployment of Britain’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the region.
The UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21, which also includes American and Dutch warships, left Britain in May on a seven-month deployment that has seen it go as far as South Korea, where it completed three days of exercises with the South Korean Navy last week.
That followed the first-ever exercises between US and British carrier strike groups as the carrier USS Carl Vinson and its escorts held combined exercises with the Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific. F-35 stealth fighter jets from both carriers conducted training operations during those exercises.
UK-Japan defense cooperation
The Queen Elizabeth visited the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan this week, with senior Japanese defense officials and military officers visiting the carrier on Monday.
“The visit of the British carrier strike group holds great significance, to maintain and strengthen a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said after his visit to the Queen Elizabeth, according to a Reuters report.
Yokosuka is also the homeport of the American carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the only one of the US Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers that is based outside the United States.
That is seen as a symbol of the strong US defense commitment to Japan, the kind of ties Britain wants to promote in the Pacific with the Queen Elizabeth and its other warships.
“The visit to Japan of HMS Queen Elizabeth and other UK vessels of the Carrier Strike Group is a confident embodiment of the close and deepening relationship between the UK and Japan,” British Ambassador to Japan Julia Longbottom said in a statement.
“The UK-Japan relationship has a long history. We believe this visit marks the elevation of our defense and security relationship to a new level,” she said.
All three partners, Japan, the UK and the US, have been vocal about what they term the increasing Chinese threat to security around the Asia-Pacific.
In its defense white paper released this summer, Tokyo took a strong stance against what it called China’s “unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas,” and it mentioned Britain as a key partner in sharing its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
For its part, China has scoffed at the presence of the UK carrier and other warships in the region.
Writing in Chinese state media when the Queen Elizabeth transited the South China Sea in late July, Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, described the UK carrier deployment as an attempt to “relive the glory days of the British Empire.”
“The South China Sea was a symbol of Britain’s glorious colonial past, through which the old-time empire that prided itself on its worldwide colonies shipped back the fortune and treasures it plundered in Asia,” Wu wrote.
On Wednesday, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run tabloid the Global Times, brushed off the significance of the pride of the UK fleet in Pacific waters.
“The British aircraft carrier’s visit to Japan was regarded by Chinese netizens as a hug of two hired thugs of the US. In the eyes of Chinese netizens, Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is useless as a dredger,” Hu said on Twitter.