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Defence secretary pledges to safeguard vessels but is under pressure over costs

By David Bond

Financial Times – 1 October 2018

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson on Sunday announced he is to safeguard the future of Britain’s two amphibious landing ships, allaying fears they could be mothballed or scrapped as part of a review of the armed forces. In a speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, Mr Williamson said HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion were crucial to preserving the punch of the Royal Marines, the UK’s elite commando force.

“To deliver what seems impossible, the Royal Marines need to be able to bring the fight from the sea to the land,”

he told the conference.

“As such, I am happy to announce today that I am protecting their vital landing platforms HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.”

The UK and France are the only two European nations with large-scale amphibious capability: the means to launch attacks on enemy beaches using troops and armoured vehicles deployed from ships offshore.

The future of Britain’s two amphibious landing ships was thrown into doubt last year when it emerged that officials conducting a national security capability review were considering mothballing them to help reduce pressure on the Ministry of Defence’s equipment budget, which is facing a £20bn shortfall over the next decade. The news provoked a backlash from military commanders and MPs, who argued that maintaining the UK’s capability of landing forces from the sea remained essential in the face of a growing threat from adversaries such as Russia.

A report by the Commons Defence Select Committee in January said it was “strongly opposed” to the withdrawal of the two ships ahead of their planned withdrawal from service in the early 2030s. Since then Mr Williamson has initiated a separate review which is expected to press chancellor Philip Hammond to release more money for defence in the Budget due on October 29.

Defence officials declined to comment on whether Mr Hammond had signed off on Mr Williamson’s conference announcement regarding the two amphibious landing ships. Labour MP Ruth Smeeth said that while Mr Williamson’s commitment was welcome, there were question marks over the timing.

“Politically it’s hard to see how Gavin Williamson could have come to any other conclusion,”

she added.

“But how can he make this announcement without knowing the financial settlement with the Treasury?”

Julian Lewis, the Tory MP who chairs the Defence Committee, said Mr Williamson deserved credit for safeguarding the amphibious landing ships but added:

“The fundamental problem remains that we are not spending anywhere near what we need to spend on defence.”