[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 25 October on Work of the Department 2017, HC 439, and oral evidence taken before the Committee on 14 November on National Security Capability Review, HC 556.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK amphibious capability.
It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Let us be clear why we are here today. In recent months, there has been simply too much speculation on the future of our amphibious capabilities, from reports of staggering cuts to the numerical strength of our Royal Marines to the apparent proposed sale of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion to the Chileans or the Brazilians. All of that is seemingly without any consideration of why we have those capabilities or what our current commitments are.
It is clear, not only from the number of Members here on a Tuesday morning but from the growing concerns that emerged in the media over the weekend, just how important this issue is to people right across the House, across our forces and across the country, and why cuts to our amphibious capabilities are not only strategically bizarre but politically unwise.
I had planned to start the debate with an unusual comment for an Opposition MP. I wanted to welcome the statement of the Secretary of State for Defence, as reported in The Sun, that he was seeking an additional £2 billion for our armed forces from the Treasury rather than see our defences undermined. However, after yesterday’s reports in the Mail, I find myself a little confused as to whether the Secretary of State thinks we need more resource or not, and whether the Government recognise that our security may cost more money and that if we are going to operate on a global stage, we may need a proper military. Perhaps the Minister would clarify the current thinking of her new boss for us.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, we find ourselves looking towards an uncertain future in an increasingly turbulent world. The global order is facing a period of rapid and unprecedented change, and it seems that the post-cold-war consensus is disintegrating in front of us. In the last week alone, we have seen coalition talks fail in Germany and witnessed the long-awaited, if slow-motion, collapse of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. In the middle east, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reached terrifying new depths in Yemen, with knock-on consequences in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. That is only in the last seven days.
There are other threats we need to ensure we can militate against, from our counter-Daesh efforts to, most importantly of all and most directly applicable to today’s debate, a resurgent Russian Federation, which—as you know better than anyone, Mr Gray—poses a renewed threat to our friends and allies in the High North as well as across eastern Europe. Old certainties are disappearing and new threats are coming to the fore. The world is changing, and so is our place in it.
That is why the timing of this mini defence capability review—which increasingly seems an excuse to cut our military, if the media reports are anything to go by—is so perverse. At this moment we should be looking to broaden our capability, not to narrow it; to invest in our armed forces, not to run them down; and to expand our horizons and our influence, not to retreat from our commitments.
In support of what the hon. Lady just said, may I remind her that when the former Secretary of State for Defence came before the Defence Committee, he said that the reason for the review was an intensification of the threats? We would therefore expect to have more resources put into defence, rather than fewer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the black hole is of the Government’s own making? In 2013, they increased the whole great shopping list of new equipment, with no extra cash to pay for it. It was predicated basically on efficiency savings and land sales, which have not yet been achieved and will not be achieved.
We need to be very clear about how big the hole is in the equipment budget. That has not happened yet in terms of invest to save, what efficiencies will be made and how we are going to pay for things. However, that is not an excuse to cut the numbers in our military or to get rid of current capabilities and platforms.
It would be a matter of grave concern and a genuine national security risk if tomorrow’s Budget included cuts to our military or made necessary additional savings that put our operational capabilities at risk. It is not just me saying so. Over recent days we have seen MPs, former Defence Ministers and retired senior service personnel lining up to warn that our armed forces are being hollowed out and to condemn the proposed cuts to our amphibious capability, including the reported loss of up to 1,000 Royal Marines—one of our most elite infantry units.
That is why today we must send a united message to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that his decisions on these matters will have consequences, that we cannot do national security on the cheap, that we must ensure our armed forces have the resources they need to deal with the threats we face, and that any reduction in our amphibious capability or in our Royal Marine numbers would be the wrong cuts at the wrong time. His Back Benchers are telling him, his own party’s grandees are telling him and those in this room today will tell him, I am sure, that as we prepare to exit the European Union and chart a new course for Britain’s role in the world, we cannot play fast and loose with the defence of the realm. The stakes are just too high. Let us be clear: that is exactly what the loss of our amphibious capability and the suggested cuts to our Royal Marines would do.
Amphibious capability at its most basic means the ability to land troops from the sea. As an island nation, that is a core capability for the senior service and a central plank to our NATO contribution. In fact, we are the lead for NATO’s immediate follow-on group in 2019 and the main delivery partner for the Netherlands in 2020. Can the Minister tell us how we will meet those commitments with 1,000 fewer Royal Marines and no amphibious platforms? In fact, given the current threats from the Russian Federation, can she illuminate us on how she intends to defend our allies in the High North and protect our northern flank without our amphibious and cold weather specialists?
Our two landing platform dock ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, can carry 405 troops with amphibious vehicles and combat supplies. They are amazing platforms, as I can attest, having visited HMS Bulwark last year. They give us the capability to land our Royal Marines quickly and quietly in order to have maximum impact and to take land in hostile environments in the most effective way possible. Both those vessels are currently expected to remain in service until 2033 and 2034 respectively, which we have guaranteed by spending £120 million in the last seven years to refurbish both ships. In fact, HMS Albion only returned to service in April this year.
I could not agree more. Having visited our Royal Marines in the Arctic to observe their training, I know how important that is for not only our own capabilities but the partnerships we build with other marines from our allies.
It has been suggested that the role of HMS Bulwark and Albion could be replaced by our two aircraft carriers or a cheaper Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service offering, but that is not what either is designed to do.
This comes after the loss of a landing ship dock auxiliary from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Largs Bay to Australia in recent years and the pending decommissioning of HMS Ocean without any formal like-for-like replacement. The aircraft carriers are unsuitable for subsuming that role as a landing helicopter dock ship. Does my hon. Friend agree that that in itself—never mind the loss of the Albion and Bulwark LPDs—should be a matter of criticism and scrutiny in the House?
My hon. Friend has pre-empted the next paragraph of my speech. Why on earth, having spent £7 billion on new aircraft carriers, would we use them in this way? It is a waste of capability and an appalling use of the cutting-edge platform we have just built. As importantly, they do not have the capacity to carry or launch amphibious landing craft, and their holds are not designed to meet the specific requirements of the Royal Marines with regard to kit and platforms. They also cannot be used independently of the fleet and, as I think we are all aware, they cannot be deployed very quietly.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely powerful point, which makes me ask why we would cut the services of one of the finest forces in the world. I particularly want to mention 40 Commando in my constituency. These personnel are so important in humanitarian efforts. They recently went to the Caribbean to help with the disaster that occurred after the hurricanes. What was crucial was their fleetness of foot, being able to get in where there are no ports and being able to land helicopters where no one else could, with the amphibious equipment. No one else could go, so does the hon. Lady agree that we must think very long and hard before we cut a force as incredibly important as this?
I could not agree more. Our Royal Marines work day in, day out—40 Commando and all the others—to ensure that we are where we need to be, helping our allies as well as protecting the nation.
To return to my speech, when using the carriers, our troops would have to be deployed by air. Although it may make sense to deliver the first wave of troops quickly by air, that has its limitations. First and foremost, it is impossible to infiltrate enemy territory by stealth by means of military helicopter. Troops may also need heavy weapons, vehicles, fuel, food and ammunition, which cannot be delivered in sufficient quantity by our current complement of helicopters. In more intense conflict, armoured vehicles, artillery and even a few main battle tanks may be required. Unless there is a convenient port close by, the armour and logistical support must be delivered over the beachhead even if in a second wave after the helicopter-borne troops have secured the area. In the words of Admiral Sir George Zambellas:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
Another option, which has been floated for some time, concerns proposed cuts of 1,000 Royal Marines. I feel immensely privileged to have had the opportunity to visit our Royal Marines around the world and even to have sort of taken part in their Arctic training in Norway, or at least what they allowed me to pretend to do. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) can stop laughing at me now.
I have seen at first hand the Royal Marines’ extraordinary courage, ability, focus and fortitude. They are truly an elite fighting force. However, what really stood out for me and, I am sure, for anyone who has spent any time with them is the mindset that they bring to their role. “First to understand, first to adapt and respond, and first to overcome”—that is the mindset of the Royal Marines and it is reflected in their extraordinary ability and versatility.
It is no wonder that the Royal Marines are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our special forces. In fact, the Royal Marines constitute only 4.5% of defence infantry but produce 46% of our special forces recruits. It is clear that making any cut to this life force of the UK special forces would make no military or economic sense. It has been suggested that as the threats we face as a country have changed, the need for these sorts of capability has diminished. I do not dispute that we must be ready to adapt to new threats and challenges. It is absolutely true that cyber-attacks and asymmetrical warfare open up whole new theatres of war, for which we must be prepared.
I could not agree more. I have visited 43 Commando and seen up close the work that it does protecting the deterrent. Without it, I would be concerned about how we would move forward.
Where I disagree in relation to changes to warfare is with the idea that our amphibious capability is no longer a strategic necessity and is not a core aspect of the military mix that we will need going forward. It provides the option for small-scale raids, interventions and humanitarian missions. We must surely recognise that the ability to land troops from the sea, potentially in stealth conditions, has such a wide range of applications and is so vital a capability for an island nation that to diminish it would be an act of gross irresponsibility.
The 1981 review, “The United Kingdom Defence Programme: The Way Forward” advocated a reduction in the quantity of Royal Navy ships and a refocusing of the remaining resources towards Europe. Just a few years later, the Falklands war highlighted the continuing need for both our naval strength and a global outlook.
We saw a further U-turn in our approach from 1998 to the strategic defence and security review in 2015, when we looked away from Europe and towards the middle east. We had to review everything after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I do not doubt that threats change and that our military must change to meet them, but the role of Government is to ensure that we have a well resourced, mixed defence capability that is strong enough to defend us at home and abroad to keep us safe. When we look at the lessons of history, we see that we can never truly predict what capabilities we may need tomorrow, never mind next year. The truth is that there has been no change in the strategic environment to justify the current proposals. It is cost-cutting pure and simple. To make cuts that risk undermining our amphibious capability now, not knowing what the future holds, would be deeply irresponsible and could have serious ramifications for our future readiness.
Many people in Westminster Hall today know my fondness for the Royal Marines, and I am proud to be your deputy, Mr Gray, on the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, but today is not about that or even about our wonderful commandos. It is about whether we have what we need to keep us safe. Tomorrow is decision time for the Chancellor. Will he listen to the concerns from my party and his, and from servicemen and defence experts, and hit the pause button on these reckless cuts to our amphibious capability and, for that matter, to our defence budget? Will Britannia still rule the waves, or will she yield to them in the name of austerity?
Order. A glance around the room indicates that a large number of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye, and a swift bit of arithmetic suggests that something like four minutes each would be sensible. I do not believe in formal time limits, because that seems to me to sacrifice quality in favour of quantity, but if Members could show courtesy to one another and limit themselves to about four or possibly five minutes, that would be extremely helpful. I call Mr Mark Francois.
Mr Gray, I am grateful to be called in this important debate, which relates to one of the most important capabilities in our military armoury: amphibiosity. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on introducing the debate so well.
We are really here today because of the strong rumours that the Ministry of Defence is considering deleting the landing platform docks, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, from the naval inventory. The reason behind that, which seems in effect to be an open secret, is that the Navy top level budget, or TLB, is over-programmed and the First Sea Lord has been asked to come up with savings within his TLB.
I shall return to the budgetary challenge at the end, but the first thing to say is that the Queen Elizabeth carriers, highly capable ships though they are, cannot act as a replacement for the LPDs and do not have their highly specialised capability. Although the carriers could launch marines over the beach by helicopter, either Chinook or Merlin or both, the carriers do not have docks and therefore cannot host landing craft, which would be needed to bring the heavy equipment of a marine commando on to a perhaps hostile beachhead. If we abandon the LPDs, we are in effect relying on a friendly port to be available if we are to land a marine commando or, indeed, 3 Commando Brigade on the shore. It may be a convenient planning assumption to believe that a friendly port will always be available, but that may not necessarily always be the case.
In fact, history teaches us an important lesson about the need to maintain this capability. In 1981, the Nott defence review advocated deleting the Invincible-class aircraft carriers and the assault ships, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, from the naval inventory. At this stage, I have a small confession to make. Following the announcement of the Nott review, as a precocious 16-year-old, I wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1981 in which I argued that we should not sell our aircraft carriers to Australia because—I still remember the words—as history shows us, we never know when we might need them.
As we all know, in 1982, when the Falklands crisis blew up from almost nowhere, it was only because we still had our carriers and their Sea Harrier aircraft and the amphibious assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, that we were able to mount an opposed amphibious assault and successfully recapture the Falkland Islands. No doubt very many intelligent people wrote very articulate staff papers that contributed to the 1981 review and a great deal of intellectual energy was put into the argument that we could do without these ships—but they were all wrong. Maintaining that amphibious capability should be an important part of our national armoury, and NATO’s as well, so what is to be done?
I believe that the alternative option of trying to cull 1,000 Royal Marines would be a grave mistake. The Royal Marines are some of the most elite infantry in the world and are, in effect, tier 2 special forces. We also derive around 40% of our tier 1 special forces, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service, from the Royal Marines. Not only do the Royal Marines have an incredibly proud history, having recently celebrated their 350th anniversary; they also have tremendous utility, and I can see no defence advantage at all in getting rid of 1,000 of the best maritime infantry in the world.
I believe they are extremely good value for money and extremely capable, but this still brings us back to the problem of the naval TLB. As the previous Secretary of State was keen to stress, we have a rising defence budget, which is due to go up 0.5% each year in excess of inflation. That being the case, some of that uplift in the budget should be earmarked to the naval TLB, in order to ease the pressure and avert cuts to either the amphibious capability or the Royal Marines.
My final point is one I made to the former Secretary of State when he appeared before the Defence Committee last month, namely that given the furore that would likely result from trying to delete the LPD and our amphibious capability, and the relatively moderate savings this measure would generate, politically the game is not worth the candle. I humbly offer the same advice to his successor and to the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this debate.
Amphibious ships are vital not only for our national defence, but for jobs, particularly in Plymouth and Devonport, which I am proud to represent. The case for preserving HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines and their exceptional capability was expertly and persuasively argued on 19 October in this Chamber, when the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) led a debate on defence capability. None of the arguments used on the Labour side or the Conservative side about how valuable these ships and the Royal Marines are have changed since that debate. If anything, those arguments have become more persuasive to hon. Members, because the Chamber is much fuller than it was in that debate.
I am sure the Minister will not want to hide behind the line that has been used, and been so pilloried, that cuts to our amphibious capabilities are just speculation. That is a weak line, which no one in this Chamber really believes. We are all here because we know that the possibility of these cuts is real. I realise the Minister will not be able to rule them out, because these cuts are being considered. That is of deep concern to people in Plymouth, those who serve on the ships, those who support the ships, those who work in the supply chain and those who have served in the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.
Plymouth City Council estimates that getting rid of Albion and Bulwark would cost nearly 1,000 service jobs in the city and would result in a net loss of 1,320 full-time equivalent jobs, and that is before the cuts to the Royal Marines are taken into account. Plans to get rid of both Albion and Bulwark would undermine the purpose of Royal Marines Tamar, which was completed in 2013 at a cost of £30 million.
When the biggest defence review in 2010 reconfigured our defence capabilities, Plymouth was promised that it would be the centre of amphibiosity for the Royal Navy. That promise was given to us as submarines were moved and as changes were made in staffing and resourcing, and it is a promise that must be kept by this Government. Plymouth and Devonport in particular must remain a centre of amphibiosity, in name and strength. That means not only having it set forth in strategy, but having the ships and the Royal Marines that make that capability what it is today: a world-leading capability that is a deterrent to our adversaries and a support to our allies.
Let me be clear: the amphibious capability of the Bay-class Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships is not a substitute for the first-wave, considerable and specialist capabilities provided by these two Devonport-based war ships. To pretend that they can be delivered is simply false. The Bay-class ships are good, but they have neither the carrying capacity of Bulwark and Albion nor the specialist command and control facilities that these ships offer. We need first and second-wave capabilities. We cannot put troops and equipment ashore on soundbites, but we can with Albion and Bulwark.
We live in really uncertain times, and it is important in those uncertain times that we are clear about what our role as a country is. Post-Brexit Britain cannot turn its back on our allies who need help and support in deterring Russia in particular or our friends and allies for whom amphibious capabilities provide such an important humanitarian and disaster relief role. We have already seen the role that HMS Ocean—soon to be scrapped—performed in the Caribbean, which has been mentioned: first-class support from the capability and the Royal Marines. We cannot risk future hurricane and disaster relief efforts being hampered because the Government have taken a decision based on an accountant’s spreadsheet rather than the capabilities we need as a country. I implore the Minister to work not only in the Ministry of Defence, but with the Chancellor, to end speculation about cuts and to reaffirm our country’s commitment to HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines. Quite simply, our national defence cannot be done on the cheap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate. I know we share a passion for arguing about things to do with the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, but I did not realise we shared being readers of The Sun, which was quite a surprise.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). He will know that that was my birthplace and my father spent 37 and a half years in Devonport dockyard in his constituency, with his last job being on HMS Albion before he retired in 2010.
It is particularly apt that we are having this debate on the 99th anniversary of the German high seas fleet entering Scapa for the internment, following the armistice of that year. Edward Grey famously commented at the start of the first world war on the lamps going out, but he made another famous comment:
“The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy.”
That reflects how important amphibious capability was. Yet today is not about history. Wars are not won by emotion and we do not deliver aid by reminiscing about the times of the fleet defending the empire.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think today is about history. If we do not learn our lessons from history, we will keep repeating our mistakes, and our mistake has always been to cut at exactly the wrong time, when the risks are high, and we are about to do it again.
I partly agree with the hon. Lady. If we went back to history, we would still have cavalry, because it was decisive at Waterloo, but this is about why amphibious capability makes sense today, in the 21st century. It is not just about reminiscing, although it is still worth while looking at the history of why this capability was developed and, of course, looking back to the Gallipoli landings, where we did not have a proper amphibious capability and the results were disastrous for those first world war soldiers.
Today’s amphibious capability is about giving the choice to deploy troops in either a war-fighting or humanitarian role anywhere in the world, going on the global commons. It is vital that it can operate as a stand-alone force. That means having the ability of the docks that are provided just offshore by HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark when deployed. Some argue that the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier can provide this type of support. The reality is that a large aircraft carrier is a vital asset that is defended in depth and would never be taken close to the shore, or to any place where it could be at threat, to provide landing support. While it may go close to the shore in a completely non-threat environment to provide humanitarian aid, it would never do that for an amphibious landing because it is a very high-value asset.
While special forces can be deployed via submarine, that is clearly not a practical option for larger scale amphibious forces and also ties up a vital asset that can be used for so much more than providing what Albion and Bulwark can currently provide to forces. If we were without this capability, we would be an island nation unable to deploy our forces independently and stealthily on to another island. Looking at the growth of population by the coast across the world, which the MOD’s own analysis points to, it is clear we need to keep this capability. Therefore it is vital that we retain a corps dedicated to delivering this capability, not one we could rebuild from reserve.
When the new Defence Secretary was appointed, some people asked me what my views were. I said that the key battle for the MOD at the moment is with the Treasury. I hope the new commander at the MOD will be just the person to win that battle. It is vital that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor listen to his advice.
Today marks 99 years since one battle for the fleet ended, and hopefully tomorrow another battle will be won by our fleet—this time to maintain a capability that is as relevant in the 21st century as it was when Edward Grey made that comment so long ago.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this very timely debate. I want to make a few points and quote what other people have said about this issue to get it on the record again.
The point of amphibious capability is to land where the enemy is not. The idea that the Government think that we, as an island nation, should be cutting that capability seems absurd. Combined with the scrapping of HMS Ocean, it would severely impact our amphibious capability to enter a war zone by sea. Not just that; it would affect not only our warfighting but our humanitarian work. The first task of HMS Ocean back in the 1990s was a humanitarian task in the Caribbean when there was a hurricane in Honduras, and as we know it was deployed just a couple of months ago in the Caribbean once again. The amphibious capability has been used at least 10 times since the second world war. It was used in Korea, in Suez and then in the Falklands. As has been mentioned, in 1981 our amphibious capability was again under threat. Just think: if we did not have that capability in 1982 when the Argentinians invaded the Falklands on 2 April, where would we be now?
The decommissioning of HMS Ocean came after a £65 million refit in 2014. The Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), said:
“I am delighted that this contract will not only ensure that HMS Ocean remains a significant, highly-flexible and capable warship for years to come”.
Well, that did not last very long. With the bilateral partnership and accords that we have with other groups, such as the US, the cutting of perhaps 1,000 Royal Marines has led one US Marine Corps colonel to warn that it could impact on UK-US military ties. Bulwark and Albion, loaded with landing craft, provide command and control in a maritime environment. The colonel said, “That is what the UK will bring as a unique selling point to the party, alongside their world-class Royal Marines.”
Last week we had an evidence session with some retired generals and other force leaders. On the need for amphibiosity, General Sir Richard Barrons said:
“Are we really saying that we do not want the capability to put a force ashore over a beach—that we want to confine ourselves to ports? Are we really saying that we never want to be able to take British people out of a trouble spot except through a port? Are we really saying that we want to remove that capacity for humanitarian assistance? If we are saying that, we are ignoring how the world really operates. The second line of madness is the idea that if the Navy needs to adjust manpower and find more sailors, the obvious thing to do is to cull some of the finest infantry in the world—the Royal Marines. If the Navy needs more manpower, surely in defence there is a better way of finding it than culling your elite infantry, which in any case supplies people to our outstanding special forces. It is just folly.”
Finally, just two years after the SDSR, when we are having another review, it seems to me that the threats are developing quickly and unexpectedly. That is why, after two years, we are having another review. The Government will boast that the defence budget is increasing, but at the same time they still see the need to cut our capabilities. The more flexible we can be, the more versatile the defence postures we can take in a crisis. Are we ensuring that we will not be able to do that in the future? I believe that Britain is a force for good in the world. The Government need to be honest with themselves as well as with us. If they agree with me, the Government need to invest in our armed forces, because if they do not, and they continue to praise our world-class military, no one will believe that they mean it.
I am so sorry; I am half asleep. It is only a matter of time.
I want to make three really clear points to the House, to the Minister and to the Government. I have made my views on this clear. I am grateful for all the support that we have had from across the House because this is an issue of singular importance. However, it is very important that we do not dictate tactically what we ask our professionals to do in this country. What I mean by that is that our job here is to hold the Government’s feet to the fire, and to ensure that what they do is consistent with what they say. I do not think it is our responsibility to say, “You can never change this or that capability.” My attempts with the letter that has been signed by so many are simply a first stage in drawing a line in that battle.
What I am saying, though, is that I hope the Government, the Department and, critically, the Treasury and the Prime Minister now understand that there is a resilient cohort of Government MPs who will hold the Government to account on defence spending. Whatever our party or priorities, above all we are patriots, and it is not right to allow the Government to say something about defence on the one hand and yet under-resource it on the other. They cannot always say that defence is the primary duty of Government and yet hold their hands behind their back.
That is an interesting intervention —in fact, I am just going to ignore it because it was pretty childish.
We must get our priorities right when it comes to defence. Over the weekend the Government announced that £2.3 billion would be put into artificial intelligence and driverless cars. Fantastic—great stuff—but when it comes to social policies such as those we cut our cloth according to what we can afford. When it comes to defence, we listen to the professionals who we ask to go and do the job for us and to wear the uniform. We ask them what we need and we provide them with what they need to keep us safe. As has been alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) time and again, the idea that we can come to this place and say, or sell it to the general public, that threats have intensified, diversified and increased so much that another security review needs to be conducted, and yet reduce the budget or capability for our armed forces to do that, is simply not credible. It will not be worn by the British public and it will not be worn by Back-Bench Conservative MPs.
Finally, all that I am asking for, and all that the MPs who have signed my letter, and MPs across the Conservative party, are asking for—we are the party of defence—is that we meet our manifesto commitment of a 2% of GDP spend and a 0.5% above inflation increase in the defence budget. That is the platform on which I stood at the general election, and I fully expect that commitment to be realised. We must get to a stage where we are being realistic about defence, and if the threats have increased, that must be met by a commensurate increase in money, commitment and willpower from both No. 11 and No. 10.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and fellow member of the Defence Committee for giving way, but may I slightly correct him? He said that the Tories are the party of defence. They are the party that talks about defence. I fully accept the bona fides and the genuine intentions of the hon. Gentleman and many of his fellow Back Benchers, but in fact under “Options for Change” after the end of the cold war, it was the Tory party that slashed the—
I take the point. All I will say to that is that while I am here, I am determined that we will see that manifesto commitment through. The Government have a very small majority and we will hold them to account on this issue. I am afraid that feelings are running high on this issue. We have to go back to our constituents every weekend and justify what we do in this place, and I am determined that we will see that commitment through and provide the country with the defences that we need.
Like everyone else, I want to start by thanking my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for securing this debate. It is important that there is absolutely cross-party consensus in this Chamber that we are about to do something extremely dangerous. The debate today is entitled “UK Amphibious Capability”, but it really should be, “Who are we? What role do we want to play in the world? Has the decline of the Royal Navy damaged our reputation and our capability as a naval power and an ally? And will the cutting of our amphibious capability and our Royal Marines finally sink our reputation as a naval power?”
We have been a naval power for centuries. A major part of that has been our ability to project force anywhere in the world, coupled with the ability to land personnel and equipment, using our amphibious forces quickly and effectively. Equally important around the world has been our ability to send humanitarian aid quickly and effectively everywhere. We have provided food and equipment and evacuated in humanitarian crises in a way that we should be deeply proud of, but we are about to lose that capability. As an island nation, our ability to conduct a conventional war in an effective manner hinges on our ability to deploy troops from our island to the theatre of conflict. That requires us to retain an amphibious capability.
We need to ensure that we can hold our head up high among our allies. Britain has a reputation as a serious maritime player. After the United States, the UK was NATO’s pre-eminent naval power. That reputation was not come by lightly and gave the UK a distinct and advantaged position, not just in NATO, but on the global stage—as a trading entity as well as a military force. Our amphibious capability played a vital part in forming and maintaining that reputation, but our allies are reassessing it.
Let me quote from an article by an ally. It was by Jonathan Foreman and was published in the April-June edition of the Australian Navy news. It stated:
“The paper proposes in essence that the Royal Navy cannot be saved in its current form, that the problems…frequently noted in recent years by other, often non-British, publications…are likely to be terminal. Given that the RN is already little better than a token force…manifestly unable to carry out many of the missions expected of it in home waters as well as distant seas…and that UK decision makers are unwilling to face up to the decisions and obligations required of a major maritime power, the best that Great Britain can hope for may be to field a moderately capable North Sea flotilla as part of a combined UK Defence Force.”
That was from our allies. That is how we are beginning to be seen. Let us wake up and recognise that.
Recently, The Times carried an article in which James Mattis was highly critical of our decision to cut two of our four minehunters from the Gulf. We are beginning to hollow ourselves out, as has been said repeatedly, including at last week’s sitting of the Defence Committee by the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Zambellas, who described us as a third-world nation militarily. We have to wake up.
We in this Chamber totally support the Royal Navy and its personnel, and I think I speak for us all in saying that. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are all proud of its successes, its traditions, its long history of bravery and its capability to face down overwhelming force. We will not, and cannot, sit by and be silent while the Navy is hollowed out and while the Ministry of Defence spins stories of our retaining greatness, when even our allies are mocking our inability to project effective and enduring force in defensive and humanitarian actions.
The Navy must retain its amphibious capability and its Royal Marines. The spin and misrepresentation of the weakness of our Navy must be recognised. If we are to hold our role in the maritime world, which we once proudly ruled, it is time to tackle the weakness that we have all allowed to happen to the Royal Navy. Britain’s ability to deploy a full range of naval capability, including an amphibious option, plays a vital and central role in our security, capability and reputation. Without that, Britain’s Navy lacks the critical ability to project power and authority beyond the sea and, as such, limits the effectiveness of what a naval task force is capable of, as well as what this country is capable of doing in defending itself.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this important debate.
We have indeed been here before. In 1981, the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, scheduled in his review, “The Way Forward”, the decommissioning of our then amphibious capability, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. Those vessels were only saved because they were critical in Operation Corporate and the liberation of the Falkland Islands the following year.
That lesson from 1982 still stands today. The simple lesson from the Falklands conflict was that when projecting power from a carrier force, we cannot rely on helicopters alone. That was cogently encapsulated in a book, “No Picnic”, which was written by the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, Major General Julian Thompson. In fact, he also highlighted it more recently in a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 28 October. He wrote the letter with Captain Michael Clapp, who was the commander of the amphibious task group in the Falklands, and I will quote from it because it is entirely pertinent. They reject the notion that today, we would be able to project power from a carrier by a helicopter force alone. They considered it back then, but
“rejected it on the grounds that we did not have air superiority, or enough helicopters to land enough troops and their supporting artillery in sufficient strength, in the time required, to fight off counter-attacks by the Argentine army. The only way to achieve a quick enough build-up was by landing craft. The landings were opposed on the ground by very few enemy troops. The main opposition came from the Argentine air force. Had we attempted major helicopter moves in daylight, the Argentine fighters would have had a turkey shoot among our helicopters.”
That lesson still stands today.
I will conclude with a word on the review as a whole. As has been said, the global threat level has increased and, given that, it is illogical to have a capability review that does anything other than increase the resourcing to ensure that we have the required capability to meet the threats. Surely we must maintain the capacity to project force over a beach. Surely we would not want to rely on having a port or an airfield. Surely we must not rely solely on helicopter power, and surely we must maintain some of our finest fighting soldiers in the Royal Marines, who make a disproportionate contribution to our special forces.
Given the global circumstances today, strong defence is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. We await further details from the National Security Adviser, who is running the review, and reassurance from the Minister. As a member of the Defence Committee, I hope that the National Security Adviser will come to that and offer reassurance. However, if the review undermines our capability in any way, it could be dangerous to our armed forces, to our national interest and to our standing on the global stage, and we must guard against that.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for bringing this issue to the House. I declare an interest as a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier and Territorial Army soldier for 14 and a half years. Our armed forces are unquestionably the best in the world; we are second to none. As much as I respect our allies the Americans and Australians, among other nations, it is clear that our brave boys and girls top the table in ability and training. Our abilities and capability act as a deterrent to those who might consider undermining our authority. The Falklands war lasted 74 days and 255 British armed forces personnel died. We were attacked on 2 April and responded by 5 April. We had the capacity to re-route ships and personnel to an area that had no plan in place for an unexpected invasion of a Crown colony.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Department, the Minister and the Treasury understand the cross-party consensus and the unanimity that exists, not just in this Parliament but in this country, about the adaptability required by our forces in times such as this?
Yes, that is exactly right. We in this debate are all saying the same thing.
Our Royal Marines have close international ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States and Netherlands marine corps. Those ties are imperative to keeping us on the global stage. Although the reduction in the Royal Marines has not been confirmed, it has not been denied either. Any reduction must not even be considered.
Recently, during Hurricane Irma, the Royal Marines were where they were needed most, with the auxiliary boat Mounts Bay followed by HMS Ocean. Help and aid such as that given in the recent crisis are an essential part of our responsibilities to our colonies and Crown holdings, as is our ability to carry out those duties and responsibilities.
I agree wholeheartedly with the former Commander of Joint Forces Command when he told the Select Committee on Defence that it was
“cull some of the finest infantry in the world”.
We should take note of those words. The Royal Navy needs its three amphibious assault ships HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. I understand that HMS Bulwark is in port in a state of low readiness and is not expected to return to service until 2021; some media reports say that it might not return at all.
Never in history have we had our fingers in so many pies fulfilling international responsibilities. To be able to do so, we must have the force in place. If the reports on what might be proposed are right, it must be opposed.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate. It is nice to speak in a debate where there is such consensus in the room.
The year 2017 was supposed to be the year of the Navy. As the former Secretary of State said, it was
“the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home.”
This year has seen unprecedented levels of building and investment in the Royal Navy, creating a backdrop for the first ever mounting of a guard by the senior service at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Undeniably, this has been a year of historic significance for the Royal Navy and British sea power.
A key part of our sea power and a key strategic part of our non-nuclear deterrence is our amphibious capability. As former First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas told the Select Committee on Defence:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare…thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
Unfortunately, in a year that has otherwise been positive for the senior service, that is in fact what we are discussing.
Only four other countries in the world can boast such a strong amphibious capability: the United States, China, Russia and France, which happen to be the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. That capability is integrated into NATO, serving a key role there. Its primary role for much of the cold war was reinforcing our northern flank; it was strategically crucial in controlling access to the North sea and the Atlantic. Who can tell whether such a role might not be required again in the near future?
We know how any downgrading of our amphibious capability will be received in foreign capitals: with great delight, I am sure, in Moscow, and with great disappointment in Washington. Only last week, General Ben Hodges of the US army said of potential cuts to our amphibious capability:
“I’d hate to lose that particular capability...Whenever you take something off the table unilaterally, then you’ve just made the job a little simpler for a potential adversary.”
What we are debating is the potential loss of 1,000 marines and our landing platform dock vessels HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. I urge the Government to discard any suggestion of decommissioning either of those specialised world-leading ships. If we got rid of our LPDs, would we ever recover that lost capability?
Although in this debate we are making the case for protecting the Royal Marines and the fleet, we must also be clear that any progress on the issue must not come at the expense of other areas of military spending. Last week, in an answer to my written question, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that quick reaction alert Typhoon aircraft launched from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby intercepted aircraft on 12 occasions in 2016. That shows beyond any doubt the importance of our Typhoon squadrons and why we must not eschew the need for our new F-35s, which are planned to become a core part of our defence capabilities in that area.
It must also be recognised that the Government will struggle to make any significant savings from the Army without jeopardising our capability on that front. In an answer to another written question—
I found out two weeks ago that of the Army’s current strength of 70,000, almost 18,000 soldiers fall into the medical deployability standard categories “medically limited deployable” or “medically not deployable”. We need to spend more on our armed forces. In an incredibly uncertain and unstable world, for our allies and dependencies, we must fund our armed forces properly so that they can do the jobs we need and ask them to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for bringing this debate to the House. I declare an interest; I am the incredibly proud mum of a commander in our Royal Navy.
Winston Churchill said that we shall defend our island, but it is not just one island that we need to defend, or local islands. Parts of the British family all around the world look to us for their defence. Many of them are islands, but all of them are connected to the sea. I am talking, of course, of our overseas territories—places such as Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands and Gibraltar.
It is essential that we continue to have an amphibious transport dock facility within our Royal Navy if we are to show that we have the ongoing capability to defend our islands and lands. We need only look back, as my colleagues have said, to the two Fearless-class landing platform docks during Operation Corporate. The Falklands war showed how important those ships are, as well as showing any potential aggressor that we have the capability to strike back, making our current Albion class an essential part of our conventional deterrents. The landing platform docks Fearless and Intrepid both played an important role in the landings at San Carlos during the Falklands conflict. Indeed, it was on Intrepid’s deck that the surrender ending the conflict was signed. It was also one of the warships used to imprison Argentine prisoners of war.
Those ships also have an important role to play as command facilities. The 1982 HMS Fearless was fitted with modern satellite communication equipment, and during the Falklands conflict, it hosted the staff of amphibious force commander Commodore Michael Clapp and the commanding officer of 3 Commando Brigade, Brigadier Julian Thompson, and his staff. The ships have uses beyond conflict. They are well suited, as has been mentioned, to providing humanitarian aid and relief work. The capacity of our landing platform docks can save lives too.
Both our current landing platform docks, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, are based at Plymouth. Her Majesty’s Royal Naval dockyard at Devonport is the largest naval base in western Europe and the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. It is an incredibly important source of employment for my constituency. As the managing director of the naval base has acknowledged, more people from south-east Cornwall work in the dockyard than work from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I am against any scaling back of the capabilities of this important base.
We are a seafaring nation, and we need the naval capacity to back that up. It is essential that we maintain a strong amphibious transport dock facility within our Royal Navy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I shall be brief; there are just one or two points that I want to make. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for the second time in two debates, for securing this debate.
I look at this debate through the prism of what kind of country we want to be. If we want to be a country that can project force and influence around the world, we need certain military capabilities. One of them is heavy airlift capability, such as at RAF Brize Norton—I had to get it in somewhere, Mr Gray. The second is maritime patrol capability, and the third is the amphibious capability that we are debating. If we lose that, we lose a great deal of flexibility.
We are all aware of the use of this power. This debate has concentrated largely on opposed landing and the military force, but the ability to take off British nationals other than at a port—that is, from beaches—is also extremely important, as is the humanitarian relief that such capabilities allow us to take part in. We ought not to fool ourselves that the carriers will be any kind of substitute for the ability that Albion and Bulwark bring. Although they are outstanding and necessary capability, they do not have the command and control capability or the heavy-lift amphibious capability of Albion and Bulwark. We cannot rely simply on helicopters, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) has given.
Even if we had the V-22 Ospreys that the Americans have, we would still need the heavy-lift capability that can only be given by taking heavy equipment across by water. Apart from anything else, in a contested environment, we would keep our carriers as far offshore as we could, as in the Falklands war. If we were to lose that capability, there would be unintended consequences. Our relationship with the US marine corps is extremely close, as hon. Members who have served actively will confirm, and it serves side by side with the Royal Marines. At a time when the United States, Spain, Italy and Australia are all investing in amphibious capability, losing it would make it very difficult for us to remain a global player and a NATO partner and to stand alongside our allies.
We have been here before with the 1981 review and what happened in the Falklands. We do not need to learn those lessons all over again; history provides them for us. The unique capability provided by those ships and the marines will not be replaced by a combination of carriers and Chinooks. Our status as a NATO partner, an ally and a country that projects its influence around the world is crucial. If Britain withdraws from its ability to project force on an amphibious basis around the world, we will wake up in a different country. That decision would have epoch-making consequences and we ought to step away from it.
It is very good to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for securing this important debate. We have both seen from our work on the Committee how important it is, and the turnout for the debate—although I would have hoped for more—shows the depth of feeling that exists in the House for the Royal Marines.
It is quite astonishing that we are here—that an island state is seriously contemplating, and has been debating at the highest levels, the possibility of letting go of its ability to make opposed amphibious landings. I am glad that hon. Members have spoken well on behalf of the Royal Marines, in particular the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. I also commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who made salient points with gravitas on this issue and should be listened to, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who perhaps has the Government’s ear more than I ever will, and the other hon. Members who have participated.
I will mention some of the areas that deserve a little more attention. In the strategic context, the Royal Marines have been a fulcrum of so much positive work in the broader sweep of the armed forces, whether through the number of marines who serve in our special forces or the great example of joint working that they set with our European and NATO allies. Albion and Bulwark are strategic assets that other nations rely on. Getting rid of that vital command and control capability would be nothing short of an abdication of that responsibility and would undermine UK leadership after Brexit, when it will be under the most scrutiny.
Of course I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
Let us turn to our allies. The Kingdom of the Netherlands sees the UK-Netherlands amphibious force as a symbol of what it considers to be one of its most important bilateral agreements. It has allowed the Royal Netherlands navy to take important procurement decisions, such as to build the Rotterdam and Johan de Witt amphibious vessels, in the expectation of reciprocal agreements continuing. What consideration has there been of undermining such a relationship by reducing our own capabilities?
Our extensive history of co-operation with the US marine corps, which has been mentioned, was particularly prominent in the cold war, when the Royal Marines were a key component in the plan to reinforce NATO’s northern flank in Norway. It is the Norwegian dimension that first brought the current crisis facing the Royal Marines to my attention, when winter warfare training was scrapped to cut costs. It goes without saying that the reassurance that those joint exercises have given our allies and the skills that they have given the marines exceed any impact on that spreadsheet in the MOD Main Building.
Winter warfare training brings me to my second topic. Traditionally, marines have prepared for their Norwegian exercises in the Grampian mountains, which they have accessed from their base at RM Condor, the home of 45 Commando. There are worries in Angus. I had expected the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) to be here to speak for that beautiful part of the world, but as ever it is left to the SNP to fight Scotland’s corner in this place. The possible closure of RM Condor is a story almost as old as the Grampian hills. It was mooted in 2004, again in 2009, and almost went through in 2013, before a Government U-turn. Finally, in last year’s defence estate review, it was announced that the runway at RM Condor would be sold off. I echo the words of my friend and colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Graeme Dey, who said in a debate about the plan:
“By any measure, the UK Government’s approach to Condor is haphazard and unsettling”.—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 20 April 2017; c. 79.]
I would go further: it is a perfect case study of the dangers of salami-slicing our armed forces.
People in Arbroath will not be reassured if closing the airfield is the last we hear on the issue. Quite simply, a community that is already reeling from the effects of Brexit on its soft fruit industry does not want to read headlines about the jobs of 1,000 Royal Marines being cut. As an aside, I would ask whether the Minister has given much consideration to the Scottish Government’s suggestion that the runway at RM Condor be used to build veteran’s housing. That is vital in an area with a strong tradition of recruitment into the armed forces, particularly the Black Watch.
Following this debate, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and others will rush to a Defence Committee evidence session to hear from the MOD’s permanent secretary on the subject of the MOD’s accounts. I expect that we will hear an awful lot about the MOD’s budgetary black hole, which has precipitated this debate. While many will talk convincingly—
While many will talk convincingly about the need for tough decisions to be made on amphibious capability—you do well to remind me, Mr Gray—I can only conclude from all that I have read in preparing for this debate that the UK’s amphibious forces are being squeezed for one obvious reason, which few, other than SNP Members, are willing to raise. The simple and inconvenient truth is that amphibious capability is being sacrificed to maintain the nuclear enterprise. Let us look at the top lines of the 2015 strategic defence and security review:
“The Royal Navy delivers our nuclear deterrent, projects our maritime power”—
I think I was, and I will continue to do so.
Three distinct and unique capabilities underpin the strategic context. As General Sir Richard Barrons elucidated, the failure of the 2015 SDSR was that
“at no time in that review has the amount of resources provided to defence matched the programme”
of which defence capability through amphibious programmes is a part. The talk that I hear from people who know a lot more about it than anyone here is that the First Sea Lord has been presented with a scenario whereby one of these capabilities must be sacrificed. Admiral Sir George Zambellas’s comments in the Committee last week have been quoted, but I will quote what he said in full:
“I imagine the First Sea Lord has a choice between having his left arm cut off or his right arm cut off. Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
On the practicalities of the SDSR, no one would expect projecting maritime power, such as the plan to commission HMS Queen Elizabeth next month, to be considered expendable. I also place it on record that the carriers are in no way adequate as replacements for Ocean, Albion or Bulwark, as has been mentioned. That leaves two arms to be cut off. I am not sure that we would have had as many hon. Members along to talk about the Royal Marines had the subject for debate been, “Why the UK’s amphibious capability should be prioritised over the continuous at-sea deterrent”. My SNP colleagues and I have been quite consistent on the ring-fenced MOD budget as it stands: every penny spent on Trident is a penny less spent on conventional forces. Hon. Members need not take just my word for it; at the end of October, an article in The Times by defence editor Deborah Haynes stated that the armed forces would have to find £300 million of savings this year because of cost overruns in the Successor programme. One source quoted said:
“All that is now left to cut is capability”—
amphibiosity. That is why we are here today.
I know that many hon. Members—including the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who is present in the Chamber—would like the defence budget to be increased, but unless the Chancellor pulls the rabbit to end all rabbits out of the hat on Wednesday, that ain’t going to happen. I applaud the willingness of my other colleagues on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), to stand up to their party on this matter. The Royal Marines and the unique capabilities they provide must be protected; no one on the SNP Benches disagrees with that.
I conclude—to your delight, Mr Gray, I am sure—by asking the Minister three questions. First, will she reassure our allies, particularly those in northern Europe, that the forthcoming defence review will not damage existing relationships? Secondly, will she give assurances to those who work at RM Condor that 45 Commando is safe? Finally, will she tell us why an island state is prioritising the maintenance of a weapons system that it will never use over its ability to adequately deploy amphibious forces?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this important debate and on her first-rate speech.
This is one of the few Westminster Hall debates I can recall in which there has been unanimity—well, virtual unanimity—among contributing Members, a point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). Every Member who has spoken in this debate holds the firm view that the defence of this country requires an amphibious capability; if HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are scrapped and 1,000 Royal Marines are lost, that capability will effectively come to an end. We have heard from right hon. and hon. Members with great knowledge and expertise, whose views largely echo those of leading figures in the armed forces, including the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas. His evidence to the Defence Committee last week has already been quoted, but I shall quote it again:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
General Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of the Joint Forces Command, said that we run
“the risk of a ridiculous zero-sum discussion...the nonsense of culling marines to buy more sailors”.
He also described
“the idea that if the Navy needs to…find more sailors, the… thing to do is to cull some of the finest infantry in the world—the Royal Marines”
as a “line of madness”. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), have quoted those words, which I am sure we all agree were powerful and well considered.
Since the end of the second world war, our amphibious capability has been used more than 10 times in military action, from Korea and Suez to the Falklands and Sierra Leone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) noted, it has also been used to great effect in humanitarian efforts, including recently in Operation Ruman in the Caribbean. The Royal Marines have been in almost continuous operation in 30 different campaigns. There were pressures to remove our amphibious capability after our withdrawal from east of Suez in the 1970s and early 1980s, but common sense has always prevailed.
Let us not forget that our amphibious shipping and the Royal Marine command brigade were crucial in liberating the Falkland Islands—a point made well by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and in the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). After the Falklands war, it was agreed that the UK needed to maintain a minimum amphibious force, but since the 2010 SDSR we have seen gradual reductions in capacity.
Labour’s 1998 strategic defence review defined the optimum capability for amphibiosity in the UK as not just two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, but six Point-class sea-lift ships, one landing helicopter dock on HMS Ocean, two Albion-class landing platform docks and four Bay-class landing ship docks. That assumption should not have changed; why has it? Why has the capability been cut since then? We have had no explanation from the Minister.
My hon. Friend makes his point well; I agree absolutely. Let us also bear in mind that the marines have recently lost 400 personnel, and it is rumoured that the newly refitted HMS Ocean will be sold to Brazil for a very modest £80 million.
That brings us to where we are today. We learned from the press last week that the new Secretary of State for Defence did not believe that the cuts to Albion, Bulwark and the marines could be justified, and was asking the Treasury for an extra £2 billion to help to fill the gap in the MOD’s finances and ward off cuts to the Navy. However, we read this weekend that the Treasury had given him the cold shoulder, saying emphatically that no more money would be available. Some reports have even suggested that he did not even make such a request to the Treasury.
Will the Minister clarify exactly what is going on? Is it the MOD’s view that—as all hon. Members in this debate have argued and so many defence experts have stated— there is no rationale for effectively ending the Navy’s amphibious capability? If she is prepared to say that, she will have the support of all her party and the Opposition. Surely we all need to recognise that this issue is above crude party politics; it is about our country’s ability to defend itself effectively, which it cannot do without an amphibious capability.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate—the second debate of hers that I have replied to in a week, which truly demonstrates her passion for and dedication to our armed forces. She is not only a member of the Defence Committee, but chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant and deputy chair for the Royal Navy of the all-party group for the armed forces, which you chair, Mr Gray.
The 11 Back Benchers who spoke in the debate unanimously supported the UK’s amphibious capability in the 21st century. As so many right hon. and hon. Members said, our amphibious capability is a vital component of our nation’s power projection capabilities. The Royal Navy’s LPD-class ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark provide afloat command and control facilities and capabilities needed to deploy and sustain the lead commando group ashore by air and sea. They can embark one large helicopter or up to three medium helicopters on the flight deck and carry the equipment required to support aircraft operations. In addition, Lyme Bay, Mounts Bay and Cardigan Bay, the Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, provide the capacity and capability to deploy our expeditionary strike forces. I am sure all hon. Members present thank the crew of RFA Mounts Bay for their incredible work over the summer and autumn, having been pre-positioned for hurricane season in the Caribbean. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
The UK’s amphibious capability will be further enhanced by our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. As we stated in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, we will enhance a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier to support our amphibious capability.
Colleagues have asked about HMS Ocean. Just to clarify matters again for the record, SDSR 15 allocated £60 million to optimise the QEC carriers, to meet the demands of the landing platform helicopter role, including the communication systems for amphibious operations, improving services on carriers for the Royal Marines, providing ammunition storage and expanding helicopter operating capacity. The initial operating capability for the helos is in summer 2018. This commitment demonstrates the importance that the Government place on the future of our amphibious forces and the vital role that they will play in the defence of our nation.
An essential part of that future is, as we have heard, our elite amphibious commando force, the Royal Marines, and Members have rightly paid tribute to them. The Royal Marines are held at very high readiness, trained for worldwide rapid response and often operate in difficult or dangerous circumstances. So far, they have given us 353 years of unbroken service, in support of the UK’s national interests and often in the defence of others.
Members should note that, as of 1 October 2017, the Royal Marines’ full-time trained strength is approximately 6,520, which is 99.3% of its 6,570 liability. We will continue to have the appropriate number of frontline Royal Marines to achieve all taskings, and we will ensure that the Royal Marines are properly trained and equipped to perform a wide range of crucial tasks that we ask them to undertake.
This debate has no doubt been prompted by speculation in the media on the future of the amphibious ships. As Members will be aware, the Government have initiated work on a national security capability review, which is being conducted to ensure the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible for the threats that we face in the 21st century. This work is being led by the National Security Adviser, with individual strands being taken forward by cross-departmental teams, and the Ministry of Defence is contributing to this review and considering how we can best spend what is a rising defence budget, in order to support it.
We are indeed committed to increasing the £36 billion defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. Indeed, we are one of only six NATO allies who are currently meeting the guideline to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, and we are also one of only 13—
I can confirm that there have been press reports. [Laughter.] I can also confirm that we are one of only 13 NATO countries that meet the guideline to spend 20% of our defence budget on major equipment and research and development. I can also confirm that the Ministry of Defence will spend £178 billion on equipment and associated support between 2016 and 2026.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but she does seem to have moved into discussing general expenditure issues and away from the specific topic. Does she remember writing to me on 25 January this year to say:
“There are no current plans to decommission the ships”—
that is, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark—
“early, and I can reassure you that their out of service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively…HMS Bulwark continues to prove a vital asset to the Royal Navy…HMS Albion…is programmed to replace HMS Bulwark as the high-readiness ship this year”?
Does that remain the position?
I have already made it very clear on the record what today’s position is. [Interruption.]
We can all see that the global security context is challenging. So, Members would expect us to ensure that, as we spend our growing budget, we focus expenditure on those capabilities that are most effective at keeping us and our allies safe, and at deterring or defeating our adversaries or potential adversaries.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. Of course, the resources that keep us safe are unable to do so just now, because there simply are not enough of them. We now regularly see Russian submarines and warships in our waters, and we have nothing that we can throw at them to keep them out.
Well, Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start with that intervention, because the hon. Member and I disagree so profoundly on what we need to spend money on to ensure the security of this nation. Frankly, she might want to ask the former leader of her party why he wants to take a gig on Russia Today. [Interruption.] That is my response, because that is how we send out a strong message in terms of the strength of this country.
Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start in terms of the Scottish National party’s priorities, but I will say a few words about ours. [Interruption.]
Indeed. In our national security capability review, we seek to understand how to spend that growing budget in the most intelligent way, by further modernising our armed forces against the traditional and non-traditional threats that we now face. In that context, it is only right that all areas of business across defence—
On a point of order, Mr Gray. We have had a very good debate this morning. A lot of questions have been asked by Members across the Chamber. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I thought it was the role of the Minister when replying to a debate actually to reply to it and not just read out a prepared statement.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. Of course it is not a point of order; the Minister may indeed say what she likes when replying to the debate. However, if she replies inadequately, that is of course a matter for the record.
Mr Gray, in considering how I respond to this debate, I am very conscious of the lack of time available to me, but I will respond to a few of the points that were raised in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) both spoke about the important role of HM Naval Base Devonport and the particular importance of the south-west of England, which continue to be so vital for the Royal Navy. Also, I was very pleased to learn that the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) had served on HMS Albion.
I want to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to speak at the end of the debate, so I will conclude by saying that the national security capability review is ongoing work. I can say that no decisions have been put to Ministers and, at this stage, any discussion of the options is pure speculation. I emphasise that, while the review continues, the naval service continues to meet all of its operational commitments. I further affirm to hon. Members that, in order to protect the UK’s interests at home and abroad, the Government remain committed to the future funding, support and capability of our armed forces.
First, I thank all right hon. Members and hon. Members for contributing to this broadly consensual but vital debate. It has been incredibly disappointing not to have confirmation from the Minister that there will not be cuts to our amphibious capability. It is the day before the Budget and it would have been incredibly helpful for all of us if we could have gone forward to tomorrow knowing that that capability will not be cut.
To clarify a couple of points for the record, I am a Mirror reader and not a Sun reader. [Laughter.] It has also been incredibly important that everyone here today has recognised that the views of our allies are key in terms of our capabilities in the future, as are our NATO responsibilities, which we have already committed to; unfortunately, they were not touched on by the Minister. We have commitments in the next two and a half years that we will not be able to fulfil if we do not have HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.
I urge the Government not to dig in; instead, they should recognise the advice of the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—this simply is not a political battle that is worth fighting.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK amphibious capability.