Government is seriously considering axing HMS Albion and Bulwark, severely curtailing UK amphibious capability. Recent reports suggest the new defence secretary is resisting the cuts and is in a battle with the Treasury for new funding. If the Treasury needs reminding, speaking before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee this week, the former First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas said: “Nobody in the world of complex warfare thinks a reduction in sophisticated amphibiosity is a good idea”. The LPDs (Landing Platform, Dock) Albion and Bulwark are the key ships needed for credible amphibious capability.
1. Amphibious capability is a strategic part of our conventional deterrence
To be ready for unexpected events, the RN has developed the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) and more recently the Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) concepts. These are exercised during annual deployments to maintain amphibious capability and have been centred on HMS Ocean or the LPDs. (although in recent years the number of ships and marines participating has been reducing as the navy has been hollowed out). There JEF(M) is an important tool for the government foreign policy.
There may be increasing public opposition to involvement in major overseas conflicts but our amphibious forces provide the option for small-scale raiding, interventions and humanitarian operations. Our Amphibious forces offer potentially large strategic impact for a relatively low cost. In the mid-1990s the RN had a plan for a balanced amphibious force which eventually delivered HMS Ocean (LPH), HMS Albion & Bulwark (LPD) and the 4 Bay class (LSD(A). The entire cost of these 7 ships (at 2010 prices) was just £1.26 Billion.
2. Other nations are investing, not cutting
Should the government cut the LPDs, be prepared for disingenuous claims about how “amphibious warfare has changed and we are adjusting our doctrine accordingly”. The rest of the world does not agree that LPDs are redundant and many nations are striving to modernise their amphibious vessels or gain the capability. It should be noted that the US, China, Russia and France can all deploy and support amphibious forces over distance and the UK could drop out of that club. Australia, Spain, Egypt, Turkey, Singapore, Netherlands, China, Italy and South Korea have also all invested in modern LPH and LPDs.
3. You cannot do amphibious assault entirely by air
The justification for axing HMS Ocean is that troops will go ashore by helicopter from one of the new aircraft carriers. As already discussed, this is a flawed concept, even with LPD support. It may make sense to deliver the first wave of troops quickly by air from a deck, far out to sea, instead of by slow landing craft from a vulnerable stationary ship close to the beach. Unfortunately, Troops need heavy weapons, vehicles, fuel food and ammunition which cannot be delivered in sufficient quantity by helicopter. In more intense conflict, armoured vehicles, artillery or even a few main battle tanks may be required. Unless there is a convenient port close by, the armour and logistic support must be delivered over the beach even if in a ’second wave’ after the helicopter-borne troops have secured the area.
Armed Forces Minister Mark Lancaster recently suggested that even if we lost the LPDs, we still retain some amphibious capability with the RFA Bay class landing ships. This is very misleading. The Bays are auxiliaries designed to carry additional stores to support the LPDs. They carry a single landing craft (LCU) as opposed to the 4 LCUs and 4 LCVPs that the LPDs can carry. They are manned by merchant sailors and not intended to spearhead an amphibious assault. More importantly, they are a victim of their own success. The inherent flexibility of amphibious platforms has made them well suited to other roles. One of the three remaining ships is permanently forward-deployed in the Gulf supporting minehunters and they have been used to conduct humanitarian operations and anti-narcotics patrols in the Caribbean. The Royal Marines have had limited opportunity to exercise with the Bay class which are often in use for other things.
4. We would be throwing away decades of investment
HMS Albion recently completed a £90 Million refit at Devonport and was planned to be the high-readiness amphibious ship for the next 5 years. In 2013 RM Tamar was constructed as base for Royal Marine landing craft at a cost of £30M. There has been considerable investment in specialised amphibious kit and equipment for the Marines and the navy. Axing the LPDs, together with the loss of HMS Ocean (refitted at a cost of £65M between 2014-15) represents a ludicrous waste of money and hard-won defence assets.
5. We would be letting down our NATO and European partners
The amphibious capability of the UK is integrated into NATO planning. The Dutch marines have especially close ties with the Royal Marines and frequently exercise together. As Brexit looms, it would be especially poor timing to abandon a critical defence relationship with our European allies. The US Marine Corps also enjoys a good relationship and mutual respect for the Royal Marines and several senior US officers have already spoken out against proposed cuts. At a time when we need a trade deal with the US, any significant downgrading in our defence capability would be poorly received by president Trump who expects Europeans to be shouldering more of their own defence costs.
6. They are well suited to humanitarian aid and relief work
Recent history suggests the RN is more frequently involved in disaster relief work or humanitarian operations than in combat. The LPDs and UK amphibious forces are especially well suited to this work and it would be foolish to diminish this important soft power asset.
7. They have valuable command and control facilities
The LPDs have large, purpose-built facilities designed primarily to exercise control over amphibious assault operations. The facility can also command a task group at sea or other operations – HMS Bulwark was used as the control centre for the security of the 2012 Olympic sailing events at Portland. There are no other large C3 facilities available in the fleet apart from aboard the QE aircraft carriers. Most of the time, only one of the carriers is likely to be available, leaving the RN with very limited flagship options.
8. The RN needs as many hulls as possible
Put simply, the RN needs ships. The loss of the 2 LPDs would be a further decline in hull numbers. (One of the LPDs has been kept in mothballs or refit since 2010). Mass matters and the LPDs are large, capable ships able to perform in many roles beyond their core assault function. Rescuing migrants, evacuating British Citizens or protecting the Olympics are all tasks these versatile ships have performed since they joined the fleet. For officers who aspire to senior rank, they are an important intermediate stepping stone, a step up from a frigate or destroyer command on the way to becoming a candidate to captain an aircraft carrier or attain flag rank.
9. Once a capability is gone, it is difficult or impossible to regenerate
If we dispose of the LPDs we will quickly lose the institutional knowledge and experience of amphibious operations built up over decades. Once lost, it would be expensive, difficult and take years to regenerate this capability from scratch.
10. The wrong signal at the wrong time
As discussed in a previous article, axing the LPDs at the same time as HMS Ocean would call into question the future of Devonport naval base. We do not have ships to justify bases but we need to keep options open and retain skilled workers available to support the RN in an emergency or allow future expansion. Cutting the LPDs would further damage the morale of the navy and marines, cause loss of civilian support jobs and above all, say to our allies and potential enemies we are not serious about defence.