If the Royal Navy loses these capabilities, our nation would live to regret it
With global security on a knife edge the Royal Navy needs investment, not cutbacks, if it’s to defend Britain’s interests, writes Admiral Lord West
Rumours abound about possible cuts to the armed forces. We were told that this autumn there needed to be minor adjustments to the defence programme. What is quite clear is that defence is in such a mess that, far from minor adjustments, the government is considering significant cuts. What we are witnessing is a defence review by stealth.
Yet we have been told again and again that, far from being in difficulty, the defence budget is growing and all in the garden is rosy. Clearly it is not.
Why should this be? Despite claims by its detractors, the new carriers are certainly not to blame for problems in defence funding.
First, as highlighted by the HCDC, the spend of 2% of GDP on defence has been achieved by “smoke and mirrors” and no new money is available. Second, the funding of the future equipment programme depends on the services finding substantial efficiencies, which is becoming increasingly unfeasible. Lastly, the falling value of the pound against the dollar presents a slew of new difficulties, with many US equipment buys in the pipeline. In short, there is a growing black hole in MoD finances.
This pressure has already impacted on all three services and there is a worrying ‘hollowing out’ of our defence capability. The navy needed an uplift of 4,000 sailors post the cuts in the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) of 2010, but has only had an uplift of 400. As a result, ships have been laid up alongside and the first sea lord has been forced to replace marines with bluejackets.
Under fire particularly, it seems, is our invaluable amphibious capability. So what exactly is this amphibious capability? Britain’s security and prosperity requires unimpeded maritime access and transit. As an island nation, the country needs a broadly maritime strategy – one that has sea control at its core, but which enables power and influence to be projected inland.
Indeed, being an island, all operations beyond our shores are expeditionary and demand theatre entry. Strike carriers and amphibious forces are the enablers for this theatre entry capability. The true fighting power of a navy is its ability to ensure entry around the world using carrier air and amphibious forces and to cause sea denial using carrier air and SSNs.
Since 1945 this entry capability has been used over 10 times including Korea, Suez, Kuwait (1962) pre-empting Iraqi planned invasion, Brunei, Falkland Islands, Sierra Leone and the Al Faw. And the Royal Marines have been in almost continuous operations consisting of 30 different campaigns.
Despite its utility, there was pressure to remove the amphibious capability after our withdrawal from east of Suez in the 1970s. It was retained primarily for the important reason that Soviet Union war plans included the invasion of north Norway and it was vital to show the capability of defending that region.
In 1981, despite its role in north Norway, the removal of an amphibious capability was mooted again. At the last moment a small element of it was reprieved and, by good fortune, nothing had been implemented before the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Every scrap of amphibious shipping and the RM commando brigade were crucial in recapturing the islands.
Post the Falklands conflict it was decided that the UK needed to maintain this minimum force: a commando brigade, two helicopter landing ships (LPH) capable of ensuring a simultaneous two-company lift (a lesson from the Falklands campaign), two landing ship docks capable of complex communications and command and control (LPD), four logistic landing ships (LSL) or the equivalent, a number of smaller landing craft and an ability to take up certain merchant ships from trade.
Notwithstanding this decision, it took 15 years for the Conservative government to order the new shipping (unwisely, only one LPH was built).
Post SDSR 2010, the decision was made to reduce the commando brigade to a commando group; and of the four new landing ship dock (auxiliary) vessels (LSD(A)s) replacing the four LSLs, one was sold to Australia. In addition, one LPD was put in reserve status.
More recently the marines have lost another 400 personnel and the newly refitted HMS Ocean (LPH) is up for sale. So, notwithstanding government statements to the contrary, it will be impossible to carry out a simultaneous two-company lift.
The latest rumours talk of cutting the marines by a further 1,000 and selling the two LPDs. This would mean the end of a UK amphibious capability and effectively the end of the Royal Marines.
Has there been any change to the strategic environment that has provoked this decision? Of course not. This is nothing other than a savings measure.
We urgently need more spending on defence. The government should be as robust about this as they are about foreign aid, which now equals 38% of the defence budget.
The decline in military capability is a choice and not one our nation should make in today’s chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous world.
Our nation would live to regret the loss of our hard-won amphibious capability and, once gone, it is extremely hard to recover.
Lord West of Spithead is a Labour peer and former First Sea Lord