Following the initiation of the National Security Capability Review in 2017, reports began emerging that substantial cuts in the Royal Marines and the disposal of both of the Royal Navy’s specialist amphibious assault ships fifteen years early were being considered by the Government as part of the review.
The Defence Committee resolved to inquire into amphibious forces and their importance to UK Defence. The Committee’s report, published in February 2018, concluded that such reductions would be “militarily illiterate” and “totally at odds with strategic reality”. It emphasised that the UK’s amphibious capability is a military specialism of the highest value in current and future operations, and that further cuts to an already reduced force would end its status as one of the UK’s leading strategic assets.
It is understood that the Queen Elizabeth class carriers will embark more amphibious assault forces than HMS Ocean, a minister had earlier claimed. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will take over the role of deploying amphibious forces as HMS Ocean was decommissioned in 2018. Former defence procurement minister Philip Dunne said each ship would house a force of 900 marines and aviation personnel – 210 more than Ocean.
“As stated in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (Cm9161), we will enhance a Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) aircraft carrier to support our amphibious capability. Together with existing amphibious ships of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary, this will provide the capacity and capability to deploy our amphibious forces. HMS OCEAN can carry up to 690 Embarked Military Forces (EMF) – Royal Marines and Aviation Group personnel – in addition to her ship’s company. She can deploy a variety of helicopter types in multiple combinations as required by her mission and role.
The QEC aircraft carriers can embark up to 900 EMF, in addition to their ship’s company, in support of their missions and tasks and a flexible mix of helicopters subject to the operational tasking.”
It is also understood that enhancing the vessels, means that storage for additional marines and more equipment will be provided and some key corridors widened too. HMS Prince of Wales will be first as she’s still in build and then HMS Queen Elizabeth will receive these modifications when in refit.
The Government’s response repeatedly re-states the Government’s commitment to the future of the UK’s amphibious forces but gives no guarantee that there will be no future cuts in the numbers of Royal Marines or amphibious ships.
The response seeks to maintain the Government’s position that the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers can take the place of specialised amphibious vessels, such as HMS Ocean which was recently sold to Brazil. The evidence the Committee gathered in the course of its inquiry clearly demonstrates that amphibious operations require specially configured warships manned by highly-trained amphibious specialists. Anything less results in exposing vessels and the personnel manning them to an unreasonable level of operational risk.
Although equipment and manpower requirements will vary with each operation, the response does not adequately address the Committee’s point that reductions to the amphibious force can only further limit the range of options available to a commander on operations. The diversifying threats that the UK is facing should mandate an increase, rather than a decrease, in theatre-entry capabilities.
Commenting on the publication of the Government’s response, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, Rt Hon Dr Julian Lewis said:
“Through its ongoing Modernising Defence Programme, the Government has the opportunity to re-examine the assets that we need to meet our strategic priorities and ensure our national security. We hope that the Ministry of Defence will reflect on the flexibility and range of capability offered by the UK’s amphibious forces and make firm commitments that no further damaging reductions will take place.”