HMS Albion returned to Devonport last week after another highly successful deployment and will now go into a state of reduced readiness. Unfortunately, this will leave the RN temporarily without its primary amphibious platform as her sister ship, HMS Bulwark will not be ready to replace her until next year.
As a cost and manpower-saving measure, it was announced in 2010 that the RN’s two Landing Ship Docks (LPD) would be reduced to one active vessel with one in refit or ‘extended readiness’ while the other remained operational. They would then alternate for the rest of their time in service, changing places approximately every 5-6 years.
HMS Albion emerged from refit in 2017 and took over from Bulwark as the high-readiness LPD and Fleet Flagship. In the intervening period, the RN has been wrestling with the future shape of its amphibious forces, with the birth of the Littoral Strike Ship (LSS), Littoral Response Group (LRG) and Future Commando Force concepts. HMS Albion will now go into reserve or what the RN describes as “a well-earned rest at the end of six years of intensive operations around the world”. She is now in need of a major refit if she is ever to return to sea again. Under current plans which could be subject to change, Albion would be expected to emerge for her final commission around 2029 before paying off in 2033. (We will look at options for LPD replacements in a forthcoming article.)
As the hardest working of the RN’s four remaining capital ships, Albion deployed to the Far East in 2018 and has subsequently spent most winter-spring seasons in the Arctic and Baltic with some autumn deployments to the Mediterranean. Leading the Littoral Response Group (North) she has been especially useful for engagement with Northern European, and JEF partners building confidence in joint amphibious operating capabilities. The presence of the LPD, the Bay class vessels and the Royal Marines is a very tangible sign signalling the UK’s commitment to NATO.
Her recent 4-month trip is typical of how this versatile platform can be used, having covered 45,000 miles and visited Norway, Sweden, and Estonia and operated with forces from all of these nations. Albion was the first RN vessel to visit Finland after its accession to NATO and welcomed more than 1,000 people onboard during her time in Helsinki. She also visited the Netherlands to celebrate 50 years of the UK-NL amphibious warfare cooperation and was open to the public at Den Helder Navy Days. While hosting the First Sea Lord and Defence Ministers on board it was announced the two nations will cooperate together on future amphibious warship development.
Albion de-ammunitioned at Glen Mallan in Scotland and the ship’s sponsor, HRH Princess Royal visited, presenting medals and awards to the ship’s company. A brief visit to Belfast was followed by embarking friends and families in Falmouth for the last leg of the journey back to Plymouth.
In November 2020 the MoD promised “HMS Bulwark will remain in dock to complete phase 2 ahead of her final phase 3 recertification package, before returning to fleet in the summer of 2023.” The upkeep package has included upgrades to her propulsion system, mid-life re-preservation of the water ballast tanks and upgrades to the cooling systems to support electronics and weapon upgrades. Work on her continues in Devonport but she is far from ready to take over from Albion. The RN will not provide any specific detail other than saying: “now HMS Albion has returned from her deployment, preparations are underway to hand the baton back to HMS Bulwark”. Informed sources suggest it will be well into 2024 before Bulwark is available for operations.
While a gap in the capability of at least 6 months or so is not a total disaster, it is another symptom of the stretched fleet. The recent Defence Command Paper promised the creation of a ‘Global Reaction Force’ at the same time the primary maritime platform for the delivery of troops is out of action. One of the LPDs could possibly be rushed back into service in an emergency but this hardly inspires confidence at a time when European security is at its greatest peril in several decades.
In October 2019, the Defence Secretary told the First Sea Lord “…my priority for you is to make rapid and sustainable improvements in Fleet availability”. Although there have been some small wins delivered through project RENOWN set up to address the issue, overall availability is lower than in 2019. Despite the effects of COVID, it is difficult to understand why Bulwark is not ready for her new crew to begin work up directly following the Summer leave period. She has been inactive since December 2016 and the date that Albion was due to stand down has long been known. Although some of Albion’s ship’s company will transfer to her sister ship, it is possible that a shortage of personnel is part of the reason for the sluggish regeneration.
Main image: HMS Albion fires a gun salute while making her way through Plymouth Sound as she returned to Devonport for the final time before going into reserve, 27 July 2023 (Photo: RFA Nostalgia).