Mothballing the UK’s amphibious assault ships would be short-sighted and foolish

Image available with for reuse under the OGL (Open Government License).

At a time when the world is at its least stable, possibly since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago, the mothballing of two of the Royal Navy’s most critical assets is under open consideration by the Tories.

The Government are once again considering mothballing – ie. indefinitely laying up – both HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two amphibious assault, command and supply ships operated by the Royal Navy. These are the only two ships of this type which are still in operation in the fleet, capable of operating with hundreds of Royal Marines onboard and carrying a well-equipped landing force. Both of the ships would otherwise have service lives well into the 2030s.

These ships are critical for the kind of security environment we are approaching. The effects of climate change will be profound across the globe, and these effects are already springing new threats and conflicts, including in both Syria and Nigeria. Some significant states are critically exposed to security threats around climate change, and some are already perilously close to state collapse. If there has ever been a moment we have needed the kind of ships that allow us to operate in theatres outside of our immediate neighbourhood, it is now.

However, not content with short-termist policymaking applying to the NHS, planning, housing, local government, and virtually every other area of the public realm, something as fundamental as defence and security is now in the crosshairs.

Even if we park the point about security for a second, these ships are mainstays of our international capacity. As a party we firmly believe in our responsibility to offer humanitarian assistance and international aid, which must in turn commit us to resisting the apparent fate of these ships. HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark have been essential for British humanitarian efforts across the globe, with deployments around the world, including to the Mediterranean during the climate-induced civil war in Syria.

As military assets, these ships are able to deploy at a scale, pace, and efficiency which is unmatched by civilian capabilities from the United Nations or international charities – there are no civilian ships which would be quite as well-suited for the types of operations ships like the Albion and Bulwark. Their loss would be a huge blow to our capacity to deliver humanitarian aid where and when it is needed, and with that yet another bruise for our international standing.

Yet like a bull in a china shop, no policy area is safe from the Tories’ bumbling incompetence, bean-counting and short-sightedness. Every day something breaks or reaches crisis point, as it will remain until someone else is in government to fix it again.

As Liberal Democrats we support the delivery of humanitarian effort where it’s needed, we’re committed to meeting the security challenges of tomorrow, and we recognise the calamitous effects of climate change which are already emerging. Everything about the role of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark is precisely what we support and expect of our armed forces. We owe it to them to stand up for these capabilities, and press Government to develop a long-term strategy for the resourcing and staffing of both vessels. Liberal Democrats must keep up the pressure on Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and stand up for hard-working people in the Royal Marines, Royal Navy and across the defence community.

 

Note: The Ministry of Defence has repeatedly claimed no decision has been made on the future of the ships, but there are rumours that recent developments in the Red Sea have forced ministers into at least some reconsideration. As of 15 January 2024, Defence Minister James Cartlidge confirmed in a written answer that “no final decision” has been made on Landing Platform Docks but that the department’s position remains unchanged.

 

* Charlie Murphy is a former Vice Chair of Young Liberals.

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17 Comments

  • William Wallace 17th Jan '24 - 12:28pm

    One of the multiple contradictions in Conservative policy is between prioritising tax cuts above everything else and pretending that they stand for ‘strong defence.’ Ben Wallace in effect retired because he could not persuade the Treasury to increase the defence budget; Grant Shapps is now hinting that this HAS to be done. Conflict in the Middle East, more support (now promised by Sunak, without spelling out the financial implications) for Ukraine, more support for the Baltic and Nordic states against Russia, all point to higher spending needs. But cutting taxes trumps all other arguments.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Jan '24 - 4:09pm

    Seems to me that no-one has really thought through what the UK defence capability should be. As a medium sized European power, global force projection is probably beyond us in reality. It’s notable that the strike on Yemen was by RAF Typhoons with tanker support from Akrotiri Cyprus, rather than one of our aircraft carriers. Defending against Russian aggression would surely be a needed capability, and it seems that we cannot even provide sufficient artillery ammunition to keep the Ukrainians going in their defensive operations. Much of the defence budget seems to get spent on things like the Ajax IFV and upgrading Challenger tanks rather than buying kit off the shelf, which looks to involve a lot less waste.

    As to the idea of the Tories coming up with a “long term strategy” for anything – there’s an election in 10 months or so that they are nailed on to lose. Why would they bother?

  • I don’t sleep any more easily at night knowing such a little opportunist as Grant Shapps is the Defence Secretary. In his first big speech two days ago, Shapps said, “the West had moved from a post-war to a pre-war world”. I shuddered when I heard it.

    The embattled and feeble Sunak’s use of RAF Typhoons in the Yemen, and acting big with Biden as the world’s policeman instead of engaging through the UN, makes me extremely nervous. It’s one of the oldest playbooks down the ages…. distract attention from problems at home by warlike action abroad.

    Politicians who use the phrase, “we stand four square with……”, should think before they speak. My dear Dad (a Hawker Typhoon pilot in WW2 who went to an early grave through the stress incurred) used to say, “It’s easy to start a war, son, but hellishly difficult to stop it once it’s started”.

  • Peter Chambers 17th Jan '24 - 6:31pm

    @Jenny
    > Ajax IFV
    It looks like Ajax is failing, and another £400M was written off in December on something called Morpheus. When I read the news I see Horizon and also HS2. Also the problems the courts have with their old system. Or the border people with CHIEF.
    Many old systems happened with New Labour or the Coalition. Clearly the old default way of doing this is not working. However buying off-the-shelf will not work either for defence.
    If only there was a working group working on defence policy. The could have a crack at the problem and circulate their proposals to all party members.

  • @Peter Chambers – there is a working group on International Security (of which I am a member) which will be bringing a policy paper to the Spring Conference this year. Defence Policy is within the Group’s remit.

    The problem Charlie is highlighting is complex, with many inter-dependencies. I would argue that the Navy’s Bay Class auxiluaries are better suited to delivering humanitarian aid, and are actually used for that, most recently supplying aid for Gaza.

    But the MOD has two problems. One is that there is a £16.9bn black hole in its equipment budget over the next 10 years. This is down to the Tories failing to keep their “inflation plus” defence spending promises coupled the pressing need to throw money at stopping the Dreadnought and AUKUS nuclear submarine programmes from running late and jeopardising the continuous-at-sea detterent.

    Secondly, the Royal Navy has a recruitment crisis and simply doesn’t have enough bodies to crew all of its ships. So when you’re underfunded, why spend money maintaining ships you can’t crew anyway?

    In my opinion, the bigger issue is the other rumour that two more Type 23 frigates will be retired early. The Type 23s are essential for defending the UK homeland and our NATO near-neighbours, whereas the Bulwark and Albion LPDs (along with the aircraft carriers) are for expeditionary operations and force-projection. The former must take precedence over the latter if your budget is constrained and you can’t do everything.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Jan ’24 – 4:09pm:
    As a medium sized European power, global force projection is probably beyond us in reality.

    The UK is rated as the world’s sixth military power, with the capability to project power globally…

    ‘2024 Military Strength Ranking’:
    https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.php

    Ranking the nations of the world based on current available firepower.

    The finalised Global Firepower ranking below utilizes over 60 individual factors to determine a given nation’s PowerIndex (‘PwrIndx’) score with categories ranging from quantity of military units and financial standing to logistical capabilities and geography.
    […]

    1. United States.
    2. Russia.
    3. China.
    4. India.
    5. South Korea.
    6. United Kingdom.
    7. Japan.
    8. Turkiye.
    9. Pakistan.
    10. Italy.

  • Graham Jeffs 18th Jan '24 - 11:58am

    Maybe one day a party shall have the courage to tell the electorate that they cannot have things, be they infrastructure, defence, social services, good education etc without paying for them.

    The ludicrous parrot cry of “we must cut taxation” does the country no service.

    Certainly we should spend much more wisely in terms of ensuring that we get good value for money – that suggests that the way in which expenditure is committed and personal responsibility for those decisions is made needs to be hugely improved. All too often individuals move on to other jobs and don’t reap the consequences of poor decisions and management.

    But the mere fact that the Conservatives glibly advocate tax cuts (Lord Frost was at it again this past week) sends the message that there is somehow a generous reserve of funds that the state does not need in order to support and develop key services.

    Nobody really challenges that. We hear sometimes about “underfunding” but not what the consequence is of putting that right. It’s Alice in Wonderland.

  • David Evans 18th Jan '24 - 1:10pm

    Jeff, While acknowledging the existence of the GlobalFirepower rankings I think you need to look at the detail.

    While GFP puts the UK 6th in its overall rankings, it has included comments such as “Global Firepower said the UK’s position was boosted by its strengths in manpower and airpower, as well as its strong financial position”. As yes, the UK’s strong financial position we are all so happy with.

    Also GFP puts the UK 15th in world rankings in terms of Air Power, 31st for our Fleet and 57th for the army.

    So apart from us having lots of civilian ports and trade terminals to mobilise our pitiful resources through, our hitting the NATO 2% of GDP on defence target (N.B. a significant proportion of which is pensions) plus our government’s unshakeable aim to spend 2.5% by 2030 but no more this year and last year, or next year, and our nuclear deterrent …

    … what do you really think we have got ?

  • David Evans 18th Jan '24 - 1:17pm

    P.S. I totally agree with Graham Jeffs. We told the country the truth about Brexit and they now know and totally accept we were right (even if a small proportion don’t like it). But for some reason “We were right, are right and will continue to be right on the big issues” seems to be a concept our leadership thinks will be a vote loser.

    Likewise people know there isn’t a magic money tree and we need to change our priorities urgently, but no – Tax cuts and/or free money for nice stuff we would all like to see seems to be the underlying message everywhere.

  • I wrote on LDV last month suggesting there is a case for increased defence spending – https://www.libdemvoice.org/the-liberal-case-for-increased-defence-spending-74361.html

  • Robin Stafford 18th Jan '24 - 4:39pm

    Every one of the armed services has seen its capabilities cut under the Tories, an area where the Tories portray themselves as being strong. At the same time, defence procurement is as wasteful as ever, to an enormous degree. Ajax being just one example. A combination of monopolistic suppliers (Bae…), incompetent procurement and a touch of gold plating by the services themselves.
    It’s not insoluble – and yes, we need to spend more in today’s increasingly fractious and unstable world.

  • I see assault ships like these as offensive capability rather than something needed for the defence of the UK.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Jan '24 - 2:47pm

    “monopolistic suppliers (Bae…”
    apparently BAe (and the other European manufacturers ) are unwilling to ramp up their production of 155mm artillery shells to the levels needed by Ukraine unless government give them 10 year contracts. Meanwhile, Russia is now spending 7% of their GDP on their military, including about 3 times as many artillery shells as Ukraine can use.

  • Leekliberal 19th Jan '24 - 5:59pm

    How good it is to read an informed debate on this difficult question. In my terms, arming Ukraine to fight against Russian aggression, should be our top priority for if Putin can defeat the heroic Ukrainian people, he will inevitably threaten other former ‘colonies’ in his fantasy to re-create imperial Russia, possibly leading to nuclear war. When looked at in strategic terms, these ‘nice to have’ ships, in a country with a ‘basket case’ economy, simply isn’t on!

  • Mary, Indeed you are right, but it is sad but true to note that potentially belligerent leaders are a lot less happy starting a war if it is likely to be played on their home pitch and not on ours. Putin is very happy to bomb Ukraine to bits, but complains that Ukraine striking at Russia is somehow ‘offside’.

    Or to carry on with the football analogies, as my favourite captain of all time (Danny Blanchflower) once said “They scored first and then we equalised. They scored again and we equalised again. Then we equalised before they scored so we won 3-2”. Being able to attack really is the best form of defence.

  • Jenny Barnes 22nd Jan '24 - 10:33pm
  • Though far from an expert, the capacity to support humanitarian activities around the world would seem a sensible use of resources. Creating and maintaining a bridgehead can be valuable, allowing other activities including diplomacy to take place. Much depends on how vulnerable these crafts would be to now ubiquitous drone and missile attacks.

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