With the planned decommissioning of the HMS Ocean in 2018, there is a serious need for the Royal Navy to have a dedicated amphibious warfare capable ship in order to deploy the Royal Marines and a large number of helicopters during a crisis or a conflict situation.
The Egyptians recently purchased two Mistral Warships which were destined originally destined from Russia. The question is: should the UK have purchase similar ships from France? On a strategic level, certainly I would argue yes in the short term, but from a longer term political perspective this would not have been the appropriate decision for a number of reasons including:
- British warships are built in UK shipyards. This has been a long time standing tradition. In an effort to secure jobs in the UK, orders for the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier along with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales created 1,000’s of jobs and also a whole supply chain to go with it.
- It would run counter to the UK ‘shipbuilding strategy’ which plans on developing homemade warships with the aim of also being able to export these to other markets around the world.
- A purchase of French warships would serve as an ‘embarrassment’ for the British government, which would provide political constraints on such a purchase.
- The UK needs to develop its home grown defence industries, and there is a need to build warships in the UK to create economic demand and growth in its maritime shipbuilding industry.
However, there are strategic reasons as to why the UK needs to have a ‘Mistral’ like amphibious ship. HMS Ocean (the current flagship of the Royal Navy) is currently involved in disaster relief operations in the Caribbean. She has also in the past bolstered NATO’s mission during its military interventions in Libya, and also during the 2003 Iraq War as part of a Royal Navy task force deployed under ‘Operation Telic’ in a helicopter assault role.
During the 2012 London Olympics she provided counter-terrorism operations providing logistical support and a helicopter landing site. The decommissioning of the HMS Ocean will mean there is a military gap in capabilities, and a new class of ship is needed to take on this role.
While purchasing Mistral class amphibious ships may have in the short term been able to augment the UK’s ability in carrying out amphibious assault capabilities, it would not have been realistic given the tightening of the UK defence budget, the manpower shortage in the Royal Navy, and the ongoing difficulties in the Royal Navy being able to operate a number of functions.
In an ideal situation, the Ministry of Defence along with the backing of the Government would have commissioned a study for the replacement of the HMS Ocean which would include possible future ships, and incorporate it into the Royal Navy’s new ‘National Shipbuilding Strategy’.
As the French Mistral class has shown, there is a growing need for amphibious warfare ships. We published an article looking at the global market here.
With the rise of China and its amphibious capabilities, to the current strategic and military crises in the Middle East, as well as nation’s in NATO and Eastern Europe having to deal with a resurgent Russia, there is greater demand for increasing maritime capabilities across the board.
So while I would agree that the purchase of Mistral class amphibious warfare ships in the short term would have been beneficial for the purposes of augmenting our defence capabilities, it would not have been economically prudent in the medium and longer term. Plus, the political constraints would have made such a purchase untenable. However, the lessons of the French exporting 2 Mistral class amphibious warfare vessels to Egypt demonstrates there is indeed an export market for these type of vessels.
In summary, I would argue there is still a need for the Royal Navy to commission a study into the relative utility of a new class of amphibious warship to be built in UK shipyards and be under the command of the Royal Navy, with the possibly of this new amphibious warship be exported to other allied countries and militaries.
Therefore, there needs to be a renewed focus on the development of a new cost effective class of helicopter amphibious carrier which would serve the functions and mission parameters of the current HMS Ocean, fit for the future warfare of the coming decades of the 21st century.