There are strong indications that the RN is going to be forced to axe HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and cut between 1,000 – 1,500 Royal Marines. There are even suggestions that some of the Type 23 frigates maybe decommissioned early. The loss of these assets, together with the planned disposal of HMS Ocean casts a long shadow over Plymouth and the future of Devonport Naval Base.
A jewel in the crown
Devonport is the largest naval dockyard in Western Europe and has a history dating back to the 1500s. This exceptional facility is the envy of many navies and boasts 14 dry docks, 25 tidal berths and 5 basins spread over 4 miles of waterfront.
Currently, Devonport is the base port for the 3 large amphibious ships, 7 Type 23 frigates, ice patrol ship – HMS Protector and 3 hydrographic survey ships. The 3 remaining Trafalgar class submarines are also based there but HMS Triumph and Talent will move to Faslane by 2020, while HMS Trenchant will decommission. All submarines will then be based at Faslane and only major refits conducted in Devonport.
The Submarine Refit Complex (SRC) was constructed at great cost in the 1970s, and further upgraded between 1997-2002. It is the only facility in the UK that can carry out the complex re-fuelling and de-fuelling of nuclear submarines. The PWR2 Core-H reactor fitted to the Vanguard and Astute class were designed not to require mid-life refuelling but HMS Vanguard is currently in Devonport being refuelled after unexpected issues were discovered with the land-based Core-H test reactor. While very unwelcome news for the navy, it will be good news for Devonport, should the other 3 Vanguard class require mid-life refuelling.
Even if Devonport was closed as a naval base, the refitting of nuclear submarines is likely to continue well into the future. Devonport also has an unspoken ‘shadow role’ as the only realistic alternative base for the nuclear deterrent and attack submarines in the unfortunate event of Scottish independence.
There are currently 13 decommissioned nuclear submarines lying in Devonport awaiting disposal with more to come. Further reductions in active vessels based there adds to the perception that the site is becoming a “nuclear graveyard”. The delays in disposing of these old boats are reasonable grounds for complaint but, whatever the future of the base, these hulks will soon begin the slow process of de-fuelling and recycling in the SRC.
RM Tamar is a purpose-built home for the 1st Assault Group with their landing craft, boats and hovercraft sensibly co-located with the assault ship berths. Plans to dispose of the amphibious ships would undermine the purpose of RM Tamar, completed in 2013 at a cost of £30 Million. 42 Commando Royal Marines, based at Bickleigh, just outside Plymouth has already been reduced in strength but it is not yet clear which of the other RM Commandos may be cut, should the plan to axe up to 1,500 marines be implemented. RM Stonehouse, headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade is already slated for closure and further cuts to the Marines are bound to impact on Plymouth.
Devonport is also home to Flag Officer Sea Training which prepares all RN warships to fight and survive in realistic training scenarios. FOST is a globally-respected organisation and several European navies send also their ships to Plymouth for training, providing valuable income for the MoD. Vessels undergoing FOST make up more than half of the shipping movements around Plymouth. This activity might give the casual observer the impression that the Devonport Flotilla is larger than it really is.
The fortunes of the navy and Plymouth intertwined
Although the size of the workforce has fallen in proportion to the declining navy, the base still employs around 2,500 civilians and supports a further 400 local companies. Directly or indirectly, the navy provides work for 20,000 people in the Plymouth area and generates about 10% of the city’s income. Distant from the economic powerhouse of London and the industrial Midlands, the city has always relied on naval work to sustain its economy. Concern about the future of the base has been an issue for decades and Plymouth has already tried hard to diversify its economy. Further reductions or complete closure would be devastating for Plymouth as there are few highly skilled alternative jobs available. While the city has benefited from the employment and the people the navy has brought in over the centuries, so the government should remember its debt to the city for its loyalty, especially in the dark times of war.
From a pure ‘cost efficiency’ perspective, when the size of the surface fleet falls below a certain threshold it will call into question the need for bases at both Devonport and Portsmouth. The Treasury may see long-term savings from operating just one Dockyard and profits from the sale of prime waterfront property but there is a strong operational need for both bases. Apart from the enormous investment that has gone into both Devonport and Portsmouth right up until recent times, it is very unwise to place all your eggs in one basket.
Devonport has almost double the space of Portsmouth and does not experience the same level of commercial shipping traffic as the congested Solent area. Plymouth is also better placed for access to the Western Approaches and naval training areas. Plymouth Sound provides a fine natural anchorage and it would be difficult for potential enemies to blockade the base with mines or sunken ships. Should a major conflict erupt, Devonport would be critical in supporting not just the RN, but the warships and submarines of our NATO allies.
Devonport has traditionally been the navy’s main frigate base and there remains a strong case for basing them all there in future. If Devonport remains open and ships have to be “shared equally” between bases, then Plymouth could reasonably argue that Portsmouth has the aircraft carriers and Type 45s. BAE Systems already has a large staff in Portsmouth and, as Type 26 is ‘their product’, they are likely to win the maintenance contract. This may be an argument used for basing them in Portsmouth. The Type 31e programme is less certain, with only 5 ships planned for now, although potentially Babcock (who run and own the lease on Devonport site) may contribute to the programme, making Devonport a good fit.
Like two bald men fighting over a comb, arguments between cities about base porting (and naming) of frigates that have not even been ordered yet are depressing and should not be unnecessary. The RN needs both dockyards for different reasons. Obviously, a real expansion of the Navy and an end to the cycle of cuts that have decimated the fleet would be the best way to make this issue go away.
Politics and petitions
Plymouth City Council and Local MPs Luke Pollard, Johnny Mercer and Gary Streeter have all vowed to fight the proposed cuts. Labour MP, Luke Pollard’s online petition has almost reached 20,000 signatures so the MoD has provided the usual ‘cut and paste’ response that “no decisions have been made as yet”. Petitions and local campaigns are probably doomed to fail anyway when decisions about plugging a £20 Billion black hole in the equipment programme are being taken in London. What might ultimately carry greater weight is the threat to Tory seats, should the cuts go ahead. The current government is weak and lacking a majority, needing every Tory MP it can muster. Another election is a distinct possibility and severe naval cuts could cost Johnny Mercer and Gary Streeter their seats.
Before the people of Plymouth rush to vote Labour, they might want to consider that the end of Trident nuclear submarine refits is more likely to finish Devonport than the loss of the amphibious ships. Officially the Labour party still supports the renewal of Trident but if Jeremy Corbyn, a former chairman of CND, ever became Prime Minister, the deterrent’s days would probably be numbered.
The outcry about threats to Devonport are understandable but from the broader perspective of what is best for the Navy, the pressure exerted by one local interest group maybe be unhelpful. If cuts to the amphibious capability were to be blocked, the cuts will simply fall elsewhere on some other critical part of the navy. Instead of running self-interested local campaigns, MPs from across the country could achieve something much greater by uniting to force the government to provide new funds for defence.
The navy does not exist just to support local jobs, it exists to protect the economy and security of the whole nation. This is a fight for the future of the navy, not just Devonport.
The most likely scenario is that Devonport will remain open as a much-diminished naval base, supporting the remaining frigates and hydrographic squadron while continuing to refit nuclear submarines. If the amphibious capability is axed, then government must move quickly and commit to basing all the Type 26 and 31e frigates at Devonport to guarantee its future beyond the mid-2020s. It would be reckless and strategically unwise to close Devonport and attempt to base the entire surface fleet in one location.