UK Navy Left With Only One ‘Defender’ Supporting HMS Queen Elizabeth That Too Was Almost Bombed By Russia

The UK Royal Navy’s most powerful aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is currently being escorted by only one destroyer, HMS Defender, which was recently in news after being reportedly chased out of Russian waters by a Su-24M bomber recently. 

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Meanwhile, the Indian Navy and the Carrier Strike Group HMS Queen Elizabeth conducted a two-day Passage Exercise in the Bay of Bengal. The drills were designed to sharpen the ability of the two navies to operate together in the maritime domain. It’s the maiden joint exercise of the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier.

Out of the six Type 45 class destroyers in the Royal Navy, five are unavailable for deployment as they either remain under maintenance or are undergoing technical upgrades, Defence News reported.  

This leaves only one operational Type 45 destroyer, the HMS Defender, to provide air defense cover to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and other warships in a group.

HMS Defender. (Image: Royal Navy)

The HMS Defender has been operating as part of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21, led by the flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was deployed this year to provide surface and underwater defense.

It has been joined by several NATO allies and other countries including the US, the Netherlands, France, and India, and is scheduled to conduct multinational exercises with global allies in the Indo-Pacific region this August.

Last month, while passing through the Black Sea, the Carrier Strike Group became embroiled in a controversy with the Russians as the HMS Defender entered Crimean waters.

The Black Sea Incident

On June 23, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had a close encounter with HMS Defender as the latter entered Crimean waters, the territory Russia annexed in 2014. Russia claimed that a Su-24M plane dropped bombs to turn away the destroyer ship.

According to Russian media outlets, the British warship had ventured 3 km into the Russian territorial waters when a Russian guard ship fired warning shots while a Su-24M bomber dropped bombs in the UK warship’s path to chase it out of Crimean waters.

The UK Defense Ministry, denying Moscow’s accusation and firing off shots, argued that HMS Defender was making a legal and innocent passage. The UK does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and considers it to be a part of Ukraine.

“No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path,” the UK Defence Ministry Press Office said in a statement, calling the gunshots “practice firing”.

The Russian Defense Ministry slammed the UK destroyer’s operations as a gross violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and urged the British side to investigate the warship crew’s actions, TASS reported.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, reportedly threatened military action if another warship entered Crimean waters.

“[Russian] borders be protected by all means, diplomatic, political and military if needed”. If an appeal to reason and demand to respect international law doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target if colleagues don’t get it otherwise,” he said.

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a “complex provocation“, accusing the UK and the US of deliberate violation of Russian territory. Putin also alleged a US spy plane was part of the operation too.

He said that British and US forces were trying to open up military bases, “making Ukrainian territory close or on the border with Russia a military platform that is a threat to Russian security”.

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HMS Defender Left Alone

While the UK Navy destroyers HMS Daring, HMS Duncan, and HMS Dragon are docked, undergoing maintenance, the HMS Dauntless is undergoing an essential power improvement program, Defence News reported.

HMS Diamond, on the other hand, remains unavailable since it ran into technical problems earlier this month while escorting the carrier strike group on a deployment to the Indo-Pacific region.

HMS Defender.

Though undeclared, experts speculate the technical fault to be with the longstanding power and propulsion reliability issues.

In recent years, there have been reports on propulsion breakdowns leaving Type 45s without power when the ship is deployed to areas with high temperatures.

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Meanwhile, Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood highlighted the need for the UK to have a bigger navy.

“It’s an operational concern. If that ship [HMS Defender] experiences propulsion problems, which we have seen across the Type 45 family, then the carrier strike group will be forced to lean on a NATO ally to ensure we have destroyer protection,” Ellwood said.

British media reports quoted Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin on the Royal Navy plans to replace the destroyers by the late 2030s with a new warship known as the Type 83.

HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

In March, the Royal Navy released a Defence Command Paper announcing the development of a next-generation destroyer. Earlier this month, at a formal meeting of the Defence Committee, the Royal Navy revealed that it is looking for concept designs for the upcoming Type 83-class.

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“We anticipate the concept phase for Type 83 to begin in the next few years with the assessment phase following,” Quin had said.

The Type 83 destroyers are expected to inherit the air defense capabilities of their predecessor and may employ laser technology to thwart aerial targets like drones and missiles.

In addition to deploying its own unmanned aerial and submarine drones, a future destroyer should be suitable for anti-submarine warfare and sea mine countermeasures, making the Royal Navy a formidable force in the world.