Listen to this article
Give us your feedback Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
First as a fisherman and now as the skipper of a tourist cruiser, Sid Currie has witnessed first hand the slow and steady decline of Plymouth’s Devonport naval base in south-west England.
“Yes I am very worried about the future,” he says after returning his boat and a large group of warship enthusiasts to a landing dock next to the Mayflower steps, the site where the pilgrim fathers set sail for America nearly 400 years ago.
“This dockyard used to employ nearly 30,000 people. You need to bring the big ships back here. If you keep running it down, you won’t get it back again.”
As Theresa May’s government seeks to finalise a sweeping review of the UK’s defence and security strategy to partly tackle a £20bn funding black hole at the Ministry of Defence over the next decade, much of the recent focus has fallen on Plymouth and its deep rooted connections to the Royal Navy.
Devonport is the largest naval base in western Europe, employing 2,500 people and providing the maintenance and support headquarters for the UK’s nuclear powered submarine fleet as well as more than a dozen assault ships, frigates and back-up vessels.
But with the defence ministry committed to spending £31bn on renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent submarines and £6.1bn on two new aircraft carriers — the first of which will be officially commissioned into the navy by the Queen in Portsmouth on Thursday — concerns over cuts elsewhere are growing.
The fear inside the navy is that the axe is about to fall on Britain’s two amphibious assault ships — HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, which are based at Devonport — and this has sparked disquiet among the UK’s military allies.
These ships’ declared purpose is to “deliver the punch” of the UK’s elite commando force, the Royal Marines, and scrapping or mothballing them soon after a £120m refit would remove one of the key pillars of Britain’s naval capability.
The UK and France are the only two European nations with large-scale amphibious capability: the means to launch attacks on enemy beaches using troops and armoured vehicles deployed from ships offshore.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of the US army in Europe, said the removal of Britain’s amphibious capability would make life easier for Nato’s enemies. “I would hate to see any option taken off the table,” he added. “Any reduction causes a problem for the alliance as well as the United States.”
“As is the style of these things, each service chief has been invited to find or consider areas where they might make reductions,” said Admiral Sir George Zambellas, who as a former first sea lord was head of the navy. “I imagine the first sea lord has a choice between having his left arm cut off or his right arm cut off.”
In addition to an annual shortfall of about £500m in its operating costs, the navy faces a personnel crunch as it tries to serve the existing fleet as well as the new aircraft carriers, say military sources.
For Devonport, the knock-on effects could be devastating for the local economy. Research compiled by Plymouth university estimates 1,300 jobs could be lost if Bulwark and Albion are scrapped. This would come on top of a 29 per cent decline in naval base personnel since 2010.
Some 25 Conservative MPs have written to Mr Williamson pleading with him to take the amphibious ships — built by BAE Systems and launched in 2001 — off the list of proposed cuts.
“Feelings are running high,” says Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth Moor View and a former second lieutenant in the royal artillery. “The idea that the threats have intensified so much that we need another [security] review and we then reduce the budget for defence is not credible and won’t be worn by backbench MPs,” he adds.
So far Mr Williamson, a former government chief whip best known for keeping a pet tarantula, has been playing for time, pushing back the defence ministry’s response to the security review until the new year.
The roots of the dilemma facing the defence secretary and his military chiefs lie in a 2010 review overseen by former prime minister David Cameron’s government and widely seen as disastrous for the navy.
Ordered to make cutbacks as part of the government’s wider austerity drive, 11 ships were withdrawn from service in 2011 including HMS Ark Royal, the UK’s last aircraft carrier capable of launching air strikes from the sea.
Sid Currie is worried for the future
Within a year however the military landscape shifted as British troops began pulling out of long and costly counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war in Libya exposed the UK’s naval shortcomings as the French led bombing raids from its own aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
By 2015 Mr Cameron had reversed spending cuts, signing off £24.4bn of investment in new equipment as part of a £178bn, 10-year plan with a new focus on the navy and using the carriers to deliver powerful interventions from the air without becoming embroiled in deadly land wars.
Just two years after that dramatic about turn and defence ministry officials are wondering not only how they will pay for those ambitious commitments but whether Britain’s naval strategy needs another complete rethink.
The difficulty, say some analysts, is that the vote for Brexit has increased the need for Britain to maintain its military commitments to Nato and global power projection just as China and Russia are ratcheting up their naval threats.
“Since the end of the cold war, western navies have, by and large, enjoyed a degree of superiority at sea which enabled us to work across all these domains unimpeded,” says Admiral Sir Philip Jones, the current first sea lord. “You don’t need to look very far to see rising and resurgent powers flex their muscles.”
But the debate over the future of Albion and Bulwark has prompted other analysts to question whether, given finite resources, the UK can afford its amphibious capability.
Malcolm Chalmers, analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, says: “It is plausible to imagine scenarios where a campaign could really benefit from a capability to insert a well-equipped light force from the sea. However it’s a question of priorities. And the Royal Navy’s top priorities at present are clearly nuclear deterrence and carrier strike.”
Senior defence ministry officials and naval chiefs have suggested that the two new aircraft carriers could be used for amphibious assaults if needed — a claim dismissed as “nonsense” by one former head of the UK armed forces. “They would be too vulnerable,” he says.
But with the defence ministry’s funding shortfall, the 2017 spike in terror attacks in the UK and the growing threat from cyber attacks, Mark Sedwill, the national security adviser overseeing the review, must decide if it is time to shift Britain’s naval priorities.
“I’m not one of the declinists who says the only way is down,” says Nick Childs, a naval specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank. “But it has got to the point where you are not only looking at giving up capabilities but you are asking what’s left to do more and more, which ends up putting those at risk too.”