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Warfare is changing but the MDP must protect the role of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines

7 min read

Ministers have a month to make the right call on the future of the UK’s defence before the MDP is published, warns Labour MP Luke Pollard. 

Last week I made the long trip up to Rosyth Dockyard to see the new HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier. It was incredible to stand on the landing ramp where in a few years’ time F35Bs will take off. This ship is extremely impressive and future facing, but HMS Prince of Wales is being touted as having amphibious capabilities sufficient to end the service of genuine amphibious warships. I saw none of that on my visit to Scotland and we must not buy into this myth: amphibious capabilities need to be done by amphibious ships not aircraft carriers without landing craft.

This sums up Government thinking on defence today - breaking ground in new areas at the expense of existing capabilities. While it is right to prepare against new threats like cyber, the Conservative’s defence budget black hole means to pay for this we are chipping away at existing capabilities that serve us well. We do so at our peril. With a month to go before the Modernising Defence Programme is announced we have a chance to put this right.

The constituency I represent, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport faces multiple threats from the upcoming defence review that would also undermine the UK’s national security. We are a proud military city and the MDP has our city firmly in its crosshairs.

A cloud of uncertainty has long hung over HMNB Devonport, the largest Naval base in Western Europe. Up to 1,000 Royal Marines, the pride and joy of our armed forces and two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark face the axe. Our largest warship, HMS Ocean, has been sold off to Brazil at a bargain basement price. From three amphibious ships under Labour we now have one operational, one sold and one tied up alongside at “extended readiness”. The loss of amphibious warships has been widely trailed since last Summer. Ministers have refused countless times to rule out the loss of these capabilities.  The MDP provides the opportunity to put to bed the risk to these ships once and for all.

These cuts would have significant consequences for the region. Research by Plymouth City Council estimates they would cause the loss of nearly 1,000 service jobs, with a net loss of 1,320 full-time equivalent jobs in Plymouth, even before cuts to the Royal Marines are accounted for.

As well as the erosion of HMNB Devonport, if these cuts go ahead there is a logical step forward threat to the Royal Marines. It may seem unthinkable, but only a few months ago there were rumours of the Royal Marines being combined with the Paratroopers. The Government is already closing Plymouth’s Stonehouse Barracks in 2023, one of the UK’s oldest military bases and the ‘spiritual home’ of the Royal Marines, with no decision on where they will go next.

The loss of Albion and Bulwark and slashing of elite Royal Marines would effectively scrap the UK’s amphibious assault capability. There are serious problems to this. Without amphibious ships, deploying Royal Marines by air is less discreet, it takes away the ability to deploy ground vehicles to support ground troops and duties would be left to aircraft carriers less able to operate in littoral waters. The carriers don’t have landing craft so how can they deliver the same capabilities as Ocean, Albion and Bulwark? The simple answer is that they can’t.

As well as in warfare, our amphibious forces have provided huge amounts of aid in crisis situations. Both Albion and Bulwark provide command and control of maritime Task Force operations. Responding to the refugee crisis in the Summer of 2015, HMS Bulwark saved thousands in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya. HMS Albion is proudly flying the white ensign in the far east, in another of the world’s hotspots as China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy grows in technology, hull numbers and confidence.

With the increasing threat of climate change, humanitarian disasters are likely to increase not decrease. Labour’s preference of a shift to a humanitarian-led foreign policy also means we see no need to scrap such vital capabilities. Jeremy Corbyn has stated his support for these ships on a visit to Plymouth. Theresa May has made no such statements and that invites us to wonder why? Without amphibious ships, relief would have to be delivered by air which is far less efficient than a combined air and land approach. The Bay-class Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships cannot replicate the pivotal role of the Albion-class ships in terms of capacity, personnel or command and control functions.

I have written before that a weaker Royal Navy is Putin’s objective but the opposite is equally true: a strong Royal Navy is an effective foil to his expansionist policies especially in our vulnerable northern flank, the north Atlantic to you and I. Scrapping our amphibious warships and cutting the number of Royal Marines would cheer the Kremlin no end and would play into the Russian President’s hands. It would also be extremely difficult to reverse. Once this capability is lost, the UK will be forfeiting it almost indefinitely, with the cost of replacement immense.

I want to see an increase in the number of surface escort frigates which are currently too low to meet security needs. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review cut the number of proposed Type 26 Frigates from 13 to 8, and the new Type 31s risk being under-gunned and capability-light. Extra hulls are welcome but they’re just re-spun Corvettes and risk being less capable than the Type 23 frigates they replace if we don’t ensure robust specifications on armaments and survivability.

I have argued that Devonport would be an ideal base for all the new Type 26 and 31 Frigates. Reinforcing the role of Devonport would be a smart strategic move, given its proximity to the deep water of the Northern Atlantic especially with growing Russian submarine activity there. The specialist skills at Babcock’s Frigate Refit Centre and base-porting experience of half the nation’s Type 23 frigates all build a strong case for Devonport to get the new frigates.

As we leave the European Union the UK faces a unique moment under the spotlight. Speculation about cuts has already drawn criticism and concern from our allies, and other nations whose navies are expanding despite fiscal pressures, may see this as a sign of our waning power and influence.

Ministers have a chance to not only address the gaping £21bn black hole in the equipment plan, but tackle the personnel shortages across the services. Consigning the armed forces pay cap to the past would be a start, as would ending the outsourced recruitment contract held by Capita. Improving defence housing and support for veterans should all be priorities for Ministers. The MOD cannot do this by robbing Peter to pay Paul – it needs proper funding. Matching Labour’s pledge to spend a genuine 2% on defence, not the gamed 1.9% figure we have currently would be a good start.

Ministers have a month to make the right call on the future of the UK’s defence before the MDP is published. We are right to invest in new threats and to recognise the nature of conflict is changing. But with so much global instability, now is not the time to take existing security measures for granted. To do so would be a step into the unknown. The chorus of anger if the Conservative Government scraps our amphibious ships would be intense, cross-party and unrelenting. Ministers need to ensure the MDP protects these vital capabilities or face the consequences.

Luke Pollard is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport

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