The Senior Service could see its two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, taken out of service in a new round of cuts to the Armed Forces, the BBC’s Newsnight has claimed.
It is understood the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, formulated the move as part of a package designed to balance the books and free up sailors for the service’s two new aircraft carriers.
The MoD told the BBC that no decisions have been made yet and that discussion of options was “pure speculation”.
It comes days after Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon used a speech at the Conservative Party Conference to call for an increase in defence funding as his ministry announced a £1 billion support package for the Royal Navy fleet.
Critics say the proposal would deprive the Royal Marines of its core mission however among other cuts envisaged are a reduction of 1,000 troops to the trained strength of the Royal Marines as well as the early retirement of two mine-hunting vessels and one survey vessel.
A senior Royal Marine officer blamed the introduction of the new carriers for exacerbating the senior service’s financial and manning problems.
He told the BBC: “This is the worst procurement decision of the past half century – that’s what the Royal Marines are being sacrificed for.”
Under the 1997 defence review, a group of ships was created to improve the UK’s ability to land its commando brigade. The Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) HMS Ocean, two specialist landing ships – Albion and Bulwark – and four logistic support ships were acquired to allow the 5,000 strong force to continue performing operations such as the 1982 Falklands landing, or the one on the Faw peninsula during the 2003 Iraq conflict.
With the retirement of HMS Ocean already announced for sometime early next year, and the new plans to lose the two landing ships, the Royal Marines’ ability to use their landing craft to get ashore would be drastically reduced.
While the government has dubbed 2017 “the Year of the Royal Navy” and emphasised its commitment to a new national shipbuilding strategy, observers at the MoD noticed that this blueprint contained no commitment to renew the amphibious warfare fleet.
The service is already committed to putting its two new carriers into service, replacing Trident, buying a new class of hunter-killer submarines, and two new types of frigate.
“The Royal Navy has got us into this mess”, said a senior MoD figure, referring to the department’s budgetary black hole, “so it’s up to them to take the pain necessary to get us out of it”.
It’s a matter of priorities and while the amphibious capabilities of the Royal Navy will be reduced they will not be removed. HMS Ocean that has provided immediate relief to people who had their homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean but was only brought into service to fill a gap in the first place; she has lasted in service longer than she was intended.
The two new aircraft carriers will provide an amphibious option (all be it not in exactly the same way and not for several years) and the four Bay Class landing ships that are operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) will continue to support the Royal Marines on operations.