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Our allies and potential trading partners want to see that the UK is serious about its desire to play a leading role, both politically and economically, in all regions of the world.

Especially once we leave the European Union, we will need to retain and build on the goodwill that already exists in many regions and maintain and sustain our capabilities in the future.

This article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by Geoffrey James Roach and is about the UK’s ability to carry out Amphibious Operations in the 21st  Century and how suggested and so far theoretical defence cuts impact our capabilities, is there a better way forward?

OPTION ONE

The defence cuts take place. In addition to HMS Ocean, already gone, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are sold off. Effectively this removes all maintenance work normally undertaken by Devonport Dockyard and redundancies follow, adding to the problems faced by a city with some of the poorest wards in England.  There are now no amphibious warships available so why keep the Bay class support ships so they are sold. This hits other ports such as Falmouth and redundancies follow. RFA crews? Next, with no landing ships what is the point of landing craft? Disposal which leads to the closure of RM Tamar with a knock on effect on local towns like Saltash and Torpoint. More job losses ensue.

Whilst these cuts are taking place 1000 Royal Marines are made redundant. This leads to another 1000 families  applying for unemployment pay and tax credits adding to an already high welfare budget.

Remaining marines feel let down and demoralised and their families are anxious so they look for alternative careers and start to leave. Recruitment slumps. Why would anyone apply? The Special Boat Squadron is put at risk as traditionally the unit recruits from the RM Commando’s.

Our allies and trading partners already concerned, look on in disbelief. Is this the same United Kingdom that is calling on the free nations of the world to support it when it leaves the EU and yet inflicts so much damage on itself? The nations entire capability to carry out Amphibious Operations has been scrapped and for what? Can it defend itself, never mind its allies? Can it be trusted? It has run down one of the finest fighting forces in the world. The Royal Marines, like the Dinosaur, now face extinction.

OPTION TWO

The commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth into the fleet, soon to be followed by the Prince of Wales, transforms the United Kingdom’s capability to project power around the world. The Queen Elizabeth carrier battle group is a formidable sight. No other nation, other than the United States, is able to provide such a force

The battle group embarks upon its first world cruise ‘showing the flag’. The centre piece is of course, HMS Queen Elizabeth. With her squadrons of Lightning stealth fighter jets she is capable of achieving local air superiority anywhere in the world. With her escorts of destroyers and frigates she can engage multiple targets simultaneously, protecting an area in excess 500 Square miles over both land and sea. The carrier with supporting amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion, (£60 million refit in 2014), and RFA Lyme Bay is able carry out offensive land attacks deploying a full Commando force of over 800 troops and their armoured vehicles supported by fighters and attack helicopters. A nuclear powered attack submarine is thought to be present.

During the cruise the Battle Group will carry out a number of joint exercises. Of particular note, under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangement, the Royal Navy amphibious force will be joined by similar vessels from the Royal Australian Navy. With New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia providing additional escorts the aim is to build up a capability enabling the projecting of ground and air power onto a hostile shore at brigade level. Further exercises in the area will include Japan and South Korea before the battle group passes into the Atlantic where it will be joined by units of the Brazilian Navy. During its cruise north the group will visit Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia in the United States and Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. In the West Indies Albion and Lyme Bay will detach to take part in a major disaster relief exercise, an important peacetime role for both ships.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe, of course, that only Option 2 is relevant. If the United Kingdom is serious about remaining a serious ally and trading partner it needs to show its determination to play a significant role in the world. All the country’s mentioned in this piece, along with many more, are looking to sign Free Trade Agreements. We must show that we are powerful, solid, dependable, a force for the future.

44 COMMENTS

  1. Not in any way pessimistic doom and gloom naysayer – however – with my utter distrust of and contempt for most politicians (How do you know when a pol is lying? Their lips are moving… Option 1…. Unfortunately for us all…

  2. There’s a lot of repeating articles going on, which is fine if others haven’t seen them, and they’re still very very relevant

  3. I’ve posted before that post Brexit, the UK must be able to back global trade deals with tangible force. Many agreements will possibly have some military linkage from stationing British troops to assist training; to assurances of physical military support. That can not happen effectively if our amphibious component is compromised. In many cases our support will most likely be through amphibious capability.

    I’m sure that the MOD, Foreign Office and the Business Secretary will be in concert on the retention of the amphibious element of the RN, for the above reason. We will have to watch this space.

  4. I would question in 2018 if there is any connection between trade and military. The world has become consumer focused, where people buy either from a quality or price perspective and governments have limited impact on this. Will buyers around the world suddenly want to buy British just because we have carriers, I highly doubt it. Let’s not forget the biggest military in the world in the US has a trade deficit because people don’t choose to but American when Chinese etc is cheaper.

  5. Nice to see this article not forgetting about the Bays, i.e. the mention of RFA Lyme Bay in option 2. I’ve seen quite a few analyses of U.K. amphibious capabilities that seem to completely ignore them. It would be so nice to get the 4th one back off the Australians if they would ever part with her, and if we could ever crew her. Not only does each Bay add an extra MBT-capable well dock (I think it’s MBT capable), a helicopter lillypad and up to 700 troops in overload capacity but the Bays have also proved to be extremely flexible and useful in peacetime disaster relief and low threat policing roles. With the flexible hangar and generous flight deck they can now even embark a helicopter (max size Wildcat?) and could certainly make good use of drones such as ScanEagle or Schiebel S-100 if the RN ever got its hands on stuff like that (got its hands on again in the case of ScanEagle).

    One question/comment on the option 2. The article says “The carrier with supporting amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion, (£60 million refit in 2014), and RFA Lyme Bay is able carry out offensive land attacks deploying a full Commando force of over 800 troops“. The use of “over 800” is a good get-out but if such an assault was being done then troops would be embarked specially so, depending on distance and according to Wikipedia it would be possible to have a total of 710 (Albion) + 700 (Bay) = 1,410 troops which is significantly over 800. (Wikipedia lists the non-overload capacities as 405 for Albion Class and 356 for Bay Class.)

    I assume that in overload other carrying capacity is compromised to some extent. Is that true and if so by how much? Do they have to encroach into the vehicle storage and lose lane-metres there in troop overload conditions or is it simply food/water endurance and more cramped living quarters where the compromises come in?

    • Hi Julian,
      Your quite right about the capabilities on troop numbers. I based my numbers on a long term deployment with the Q.E. itself taking the 200 or so additional marines.
      Like yourself I think the Bay’s are often overlooked as very capable ships.

  6. Yes but if the armed forces continue to be cut ( as per current policy) and understaffed who will have the expertise to operate and run a battle group? Or is it all done on simulators these days?

    Sooner or later Putin will call our bluff.

  7. Im just worried about the impact of it all on Plymouth
    As a Plymouth lad who now resides in Wales but still an avid supporter of Plymouth Argyle
    I was on the tugs in Devonport before joining the RFA of which i had some of the best days of my life
    But and its a big but what would happen if option 1 took place
    Plymouth was built up around the navy
    Just look at its maritime history of exploration and defence of the the realm etc
    It just so happens to be the biggest and most populist city on the south coast (bet you all didnt know that)
    But its also in one of the poorest areas of the UK
    Think of the devastation it would have on the city and surounding area
    Plymouth must be the only city that is not served by a motorway and also when bad weather happens the rail links stops so as i say we are the forgotten part of the UK and im damed annoyed i at what happening

  8. What if there were an “Option 3”?

    Option 1 is essentially the removal of amphibious capabilities as we currently understand them. Option 2 is essentially the maintenance of existing capabilities but operating them under an umbrella of carrier air power. Both options are flawed. The first assumes no other way of deploying troops and their equipment other than by lumbering transport ship. The second does not consider the opportunity cost of tying-up a significant portion of finite defence budget that might otherwise be used for alternative capabilities.

    Picking Option 1 would reduce our ability to land heavy equipment but light infantry could be landed by helicopter. Option 2 would force a fast carrier group to slow to the pace of our amphibious ships. We certainly couldn’t easily deploy enough escorts to protect both types of large ship separately. There would not be enough money in that finite defence budget to pay for and crew enough escorts. I also struggle to imagine our large amphibs operating close enough to an enemy coastline to deliver landing craft when all our likely opponents have evolved coastal anti-ship capabilities. It sounds like a suicide mission.

    “Option 3” would be to retain the Royal Marines but work to deploy them and their equipment by air. This option would require us to innovate solutions to deliver their heavy equipment. I don’t think that would be beyond our abilities. I like this option because it would focus our limited resources on the building, purchase and crewing of sufficient escorts to protect carriers and perform other maritime missions. Something has to give if we are to focus on carrier strike without substantially increasing the budget.

    If you’re aghast at the prospect of losing our amphibious ships, just imagine the dangers of launching our Royal Marines in landing craft from big ships close inshore from a slow-moving fleet that lacks sufficient escorts to resist the inevitably intense missile attacks from land and air. Option 3 is the correct one, in my opinion.

    • Sorry Nick but I can’t see it. Assuming a full scale assault he marines can land by helicopter providing there is enough deck space for a force of 800 plus but how do we get their heavy equipment to them. A Chinook can carry a Viking but that involves more helicopters and even more deck space. The alternative is to fly the kit in by RAF transport but where are they going to land?
      I take your point about the dangers but they have always been there. If we do away with our ability to perform the many different forms of amphibious operations that exist we are left with carrier strike. Strike what exactly?

  9. If anyone is wondering why there are all these rumours swirling around about option one I think a big part of the answer lies within in this article posted by ThinkDefence in May 2016…

    https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2016/05/rn-rfa-ship-annual-running-costs/

    Although one could imagine that running costs are broadly proportional to crew sizes take a look at how much more expensive an individual Albion class was to run vs HMS Ocean. I can’t imagine that the figures are much different now, except for HMS Ocean sailing off into the sunset of course (literally, since she’s heading west!) and soon to drop off the figures.

    The costs of the Albion class really are quite scary and I’m not sure why. Does anyone have an explanation because, as mentioned above, it doesn’t all seem to be down to crew size otherwise Ocean would be way closer to an Albion’s cost rather than almost exactly half the cost? I am sure a more up to date version of that cost table has attracted the attention of the bean-counters within the government.

    • Julian, I’m no expert but I suspect that it might have something to do with Ocean being just a basic flat top built to commercial standards whereas Albion is a complex platform built to flood and half sink, and is basically a floating command and control centre designed to house a joint HQ force. Don’t know what else could drive the costs…

      • You might well be right about the complexity thing. I’m also absolutely no expert but as a lay person I would have thought that the costs of being built to military standards would be a build-time cost with little or no ongoing impact but maybe I’m completely wrong there. Maybe there is a lot more internal redundancy/duplication of internal machinery that all needs servicing, maybe periodic recertification of various damage containment features required, etc, etc.

        I suspect Gunbuster would have some interesting input if he happens to stumble across this comment and has time to reply.

        • Be interesting to compare the cost of running an Albion vs a USN San Antonio. Ceteris Paribus per ton minus crewing costs…

          Cheers!

  10. Geoffrey, unfortunately Option 1 is already underway and probably unstoppable. It’s more than just money. Manning is the key driver. We haven’t got the people for carriers, amphibs, subs and escorts plus MCMVs. To change that will require fundamental changes to the way we run Defence, not just a lot more money. Using the Queens as Commando carriers is crazy in any scenario other than one with a sterile naval or air capability from a potential adversary. We want big carriers? We’ll have to give something up and amphibiosity seems to be the obvious thing, the only thing. I hate it as much as you do, but it’s inevitable unless we get a government very soon which is serious about defence and security. Can you see one coming?

    • I don’t think it will happen Richard but only time will tell! A government that starts off with a view to properly defending Britain? It strikes me as out of the frying pan into the fire. At the moment I’m “relying” on a seemingly enthusiastic Gavin Williamson because the alternative is too horrendous to contemplate.

  11. I sincerely wish and hope you are right Geoffrey, but where are the bodies and money coming from? The government’s much touted increase in defence expenditure masks a cynical and totally unrealistic requirement to fund their equipment programmes from efficiency savings ‘elsewhere’. As we’ve seen, when these simply can’t be achieved we end up where we were when Hammond took over as SecDef with another 20bn black hole (did it ever go away or was it all smoke and mirrors?). On top of that sterling will continue to perform badly against the dollar and we are facing a lot of dollar expenditure in the years ahead (F-35, P-8, Trident, Apache). The alternative I am afraid will be a fudge. Yes, we’ll have the hulls, but undermanned or tied up alongside, no spares and insufficient training. Readiness and effectiveness will (is already) suffering. I can’t see a way out. I hope better brains that mine can.

  12. Going it alone in the world, without the EU, the UK does have another option, and that’s the Option 0 one – cut defence, cut the budget to around 1%, increase the soft power, concentrate on humanitarian aid. Perhaps it could still wield the influence it does currently if it puts that option strongly into effect.

    But let’s consider that option, what would it need? Well, amphibs, landing decks for helicopters and small transports, water production, supplies, fuel, hospital facilities, and if in 10 years time it was going into a war zone to administer aid to both sides, protection for its humanitarian aid in case of attack. Could it do this with a 1% defence budget? I don’t think so, and the reason I say that is I’ve done similar costings on the basis that such a world posture is an option some might want for Independent Scotland. It’s expensive if it’s to be done well, just as expensive if not more, than a “shelter”or “umbrella” type of position such as membership of NATO.

    So yeah, for the UK, Option 2 is the only one. And though I’d like to see the UK concentrate more on the Atlantic, Arctic, Med and Gulf, rather than the Pacific, it can’t afford to forget the likes of Australia that fought so hard and bloodily with the UK in the Second World War. History is still important, as a part of International Relations and influence.

    That’s about it, really, Option 1 is a no go, an insipid waste of time, a disaster even!

    • It is a disaster. And soft power is only effective when everyone recognises that behind it there is very real hard power that you are choosing not to employ. Granted, not all of that has to be military, but a sizeable proportion of it does…

      • I’m one of the few who appreciates TH’s postings, I guess they represent the 0 option. Just about all other posters clearly are Option 2! But perhaps the comparison of the two extreme options demonstrates that Option 1 doesn’t really exist as a viable option, but that in some ways it is being implemented by the frequent Reviews.

        Compact I think is fine, as long as it’s balanced – and adequate. The constant question of course – IS it adequate?

  13. “No other nation, other than the United States, is able to provide such a force.”
    I’m not trying to zing the author. What about the French carrier Charles de Gaulle? To my knowledge it is currently undergoing a major overhaul (standard procedure for a carrier) and not currently operational. However, it has been a fully operational carrier with multiple engagements around the world for many years.
    Enjoyed your article very much.
    JOConnor-USA

  14. I’m for option 1 if we keep the commandos. I don’t see a future for large amphibs because they are slow targets that become death traps if they try to land heavy equipment close inshore. I don’t think option 2 is practicable without skimping on escorts or significantly increasing funding, which is very unlikely.

  15. …and I don’t buy the argument that amphibious operations have always been risky so we should continue to tolerate that risk. The truth is that the coastal missile defences our potential enemies could deploy have become vastly more capable and prolific in recent years. It’s time to go in a different direction.

    • For someone who loathes the English you do seem rather obsessed.

      Jealousy eh?

      Otherwise, why are you here. To be a pain?

  16. “No other nation, other than the United States, is able to provide such a force.”
    I’m not trying to zing the author, I found the article very informative.
    However, what about the French carrier Charles de Gaulle? To my knowledge, it is currently undergoing a major overhaul (standard operating procedure for a carrier), and not currently operational. Prior to the current overhaul, it has been fully deployed in many engagements around the world for many years.

  17. We can easily afford the albions and another 10 on top of that! we just need to cut the bureaucratic bullshit inside the MOD. These ships cost peanuts to operate in the grand scheme of things, as do most military hardware when compared to cost of purchase, but as long as we have a bloated and over staffed MOD things will never change. there’s a reason why we have the 5th biggest defence budget on the planet, and a military that Mr Putin calls “tiny and insignificant”

    In 1922, during the peak of our Empire we had 5,000 staff to organise and run our MOD…. and today, with the help of computers and all our technical equipment how many do we employ?

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