The United Kingdom will lose its ability to conduct specialised amphibious operations, if leaked plans considered in the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) are not cancelled by the new Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), according to the Commons Defence Committee. In its Report, Sunset for the Royal Marines?, published today, the Committee warns that further reductions in the Royal Marines and the disposal of the amphibious ships HMS Albion, and HMS Bulwark, would be “militarily illiterate” and “totally at odds with strategic reality”.
Defence Committee Press Notice – 4 February 2018
The NSCR, has been carried out by the National Security Adviser rather than by the Ministry of Defence. It has led to persistent rumours of major cuts in conventional forces. Up to 2,000 Royal Marines – about 30% of current strength – would be lost, together with the two amphibious assault ships which are essential for landing personnel, heavy equipment and supplies over a beach.
News of such options being considered has met with fierce opposition within Parliament and widespread public concern. The review process has been conducted behind closed doors, without significant input from academics, think-tanks and individual experts. Any discussion of the options being considered has been dismissed as ‘speculation’ by the Government, which has not yet agreed to allow the National Security Adviser to face the Defence Committee for detailed questioning. Parliament has, in short, been prevented both from influencing or scrutinising major potential reductions in the UK’s defence capabilities.
The Report sets out the series of challenges faced by the Royal Marines in recent years. Since 2011, numbers have declined from 7,020 to 6,580; training and exercises have been cancelled; and surveys have shown a tangible drop in morale. The disproportionate contributions made by the Royal Marines to UK Defence – not least in providing up to half of all UK Special Forces personnel – are being put at risk by inadequate funding.
The Report also rigorously examines the role of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. It concludes that their disposal would remove any prospect of the Armed Forces achieving a successful amphibious landing with a substantial force. Ships which have been touted as alternative platforms – including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers – are no substitute for such specialised vessels as HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. Their loss would also have a considerable impact upon the local communities where they are currently based.
Global trends, such as the growing urbanisation of littoral areas, point to the continuing need for amphibious operations in the future. The Committee’s findings establish that every other major defence power is seeking to increase its amphibious capabilities at the very time that the UK may be forced prematurely to abandon them.
Dr Julian Lewis, Defence Committee Chairman, said:
"In January, we were told that the Albion and Bulwark were not due to leave service until 2033 and 2034 respectively. That such irreplaceable ships are in line for deletion fifteen years early demonstrates, yet again, the desperate inadequacy of the Defence budget. We must reinstate a target of around 3 per cent of GDP – the percentage which we spent right up to the mid-1990s, long after the ‘peace dividend’ cuts, at the end of the Cold War, had been made.
"Gavin Williamson deserves credit for seizing back control of the Defence dimension of the NSCR process; but, ultimately, he will fail without extra funding from the Treasury. Unless he secures this, the Royal Marines will be reduced to a level far below the critical mass needed to sustain them as a high-readiness Commando force.
"Nor can there be any substitute for the Albion class vessels: the Committee is adamant that no other ships can be used as alternatives without assuming an unreasonable level of operational risk.
"In initiating the Modernising Defence Programme, the Ministry of Defence now has an opportunity to take a different approach – and to open up these drastic and dangerous proposals to proper Parliamentary scrutiny."
[To read the full Report, click here.]
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Following the Government’s announcement of the National Security Capability Review (NSCR), unofficial reports have emerged suggesting that major reconfigurations to the United Kingdom’s amphibious units are being considered, with specific threats to the strength of the Royal Marines and to the Royal Navy’s Albion class amphibious ships. The review process has been almost entirely closed and Parliament has not been involved in the discussion of what would represent a drastic reduction in defence capability. The Defence Secretary’s success in gaining control of the Defence strand of the NSCR through the initiation of the Modernising Defence Programme provides an opportunity to open up this dire prospect for proper examination.
The British experience in amphibious operations is extensive and has been hard-won. It is sustained today by a core of specialists who sit within the units that are reportedly under threat. These capabilities have proved themselves effective in the past, have demonstrated their utility to recent operations, and will be of continuing relevance to operations in the future.
The Royal Marines, at the heart of this capability, have had to meet a number of challenges in recent years that are having an appreciable effect on their fighting power, their training cycles, their basing and their morale. The reported reductions would further compound these challenges. Given the disproportionate contribution the Royal Marines make to Defence and the sheer range and versatility of their military skills, both they and the country’s security would be significantly undermined.
With the impending disposal of HMS Ocean, the additional loss of the Albion class vessels would mean the end of the Royal Navy’s specialist amphibious fleet. Ships – such as a Queen Elizabeth class carrier – which have been cited as alternative platforms, are in reality no substitute for the purpose-built amphibious warships in this role, and a high level of operational risk would have to be assumed if such plans were to proceed. The reported reductions in personnel would also have a profound effect on the communities in which these units are based and from which they are drawn.
Wider global trends and the overall direction of UK foreign policy all point to the absolute necessity of retaining a meaningful amphibious capability that can project power far from its home base. At a time when the UK is seemingly considering divesting itself of these units and platforms, virtually every other international defence power is investing in them. The world is changing and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines need to change with it. However, if the price of such change is the sacrifice of this country’s amphibious capability, we can only conclude this to be a short-sighted, militarily illiterate manoeuvre totally at odds with strategic reality.