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HMS Queen Elizabeth sails past Gibraltar on eight-month deployment, signalling UK’s global intentions

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond and the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth are pictured above as they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar early on Sunday morning. Photo by Johnny Bugeja

The UK’s new aircraft carrier sailed past Gibraltar early on Sunday morning on a maiden operational deployment that will see it visit 40 countries around the world.

The UK Government hopes the deployment will signal to allies that post-Brexit Britain is ready to defend Western interests and uphold respect for international rules.

During a key part of the eight-month voyage, HMS Queen Elizabeth and other vessels in the Carrier Strike Group will cross through the South China Sea in a signal to Beijing that sea lanes must remain open.

HMS Queen Elizabeth had been scheduled to enter British Gibraltar territorial waters on Sunday, though there were no plans to anchor the ship or bring it into port.

In the event though, the ship and its escorts sailed past about three miles off the Rock, where they were met by vessels from the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron and the Gibraltar Defence Police.

Only HMS Richmond entered the Bay of Gibraltar briefly before turning south again and heading back out into the strait.

Plans to host local dignitaries who were going to be ferried aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on helicopters were also shelved at the last minute, as was a press briefing at RAF Gibraltar.

The Ministry of Defence did not explain the reason for the change of plans, although some Spanish media speculated that the decision to sail past the Rock may have followed diplomatic pressure from the Spanish government.

The deployment has been organised as part of the “UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region” in a bid to “bolster deep defence partnerships” as well as to take part in an exercise to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Accompanying HMS Queen Elizabeth is a surface fleet made up of Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring, as well as the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen.

A Royal Navy Astute-class submarine will also accompany the carrier strike group armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

“This deployment shows that we are strong on our own, but even stronger with our allies,” said UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

The carrier is "a hugely powerful statement," Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the ship's commanding officer and captain told Reuters on deck off the Portuguese coast, two days before the carrier sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar.

"It shows that we are a global navy and wanting to be back out there," he said.

"The aim for us is that this deployment will be part of a more persistent presence for the United Kingdom in that region," he added, referring to the Indo-Pacific that includes India and Australia.

Britain was the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the European Union. But its 2016 vote to leave the EU had raised questions about its global role.

Partly in response to those concerns, London announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War late last year and has been touting the clout of the carrier, built at a cost of more than 3 billion pounds.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will exercise with naval vessels from the United States, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, along the route, Moorhouse said on Thursday.

THREATS AND CHALLENGES

Britain, like China, now has two aircraft carriers, both countries dwarfed by the United States' fleet of 11 carriers.

The new 65,000-tonne vessel carries eight British F-35Bs and 10 U.S. F-35s as well as 250 U.S. marines as part of its 1,700-strong crew.

It will lead two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships on its journey of 26,000 nautical miles, joined by a U.S. destroyer and a frigate from the Dutch navy.

During the deployment, the carriers F35B Lightning fast jets operated by the renowned “Dambusters” squadron, or 617 Squadron, will join Operation Shader targeting the remnants of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the MoD announced.

The F35B jets are multi-role combat aircraft equipped with advanced sensors, mission systems and stealth technology – enabling them to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

Asked about British efforts to step up influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China's rising power - a strategy also followed by the European Union and supported by NATO – Commodore Moorhouse said:

"We want to uphold international norms ... our presence out there is absolutely key."

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

The United States has long opposed China's expansive territorial claims there, sending warships regularly through the waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation. About $3 trillion worth of trade passes through it each year.

In the Mediterranean, the British carrier group is part of NATO's biggest drills of the year, Steadfast Defender, that includes a maritime live exercise with around 5,000 forces and 18 ships.

"It sends a message of NATO's resolve," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said onboard the aircraft carrier.

"We face global threats and challenges, including the shifting balance of power with the rise of China," he said, adding that although China had the world's biggest navy, it was not considered an adversary by NATO.

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