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HMS “Ocean”

Volume 776: debated on Monday 7 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how the amphibious helicopter lift capability provided by HMS Ocean will be provided after she is paid off.

My Lords, following the decommissioning of HMS “Ocean” and prior to the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers being brought into service, a combination of the existing amphibious ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will provide the lift capability for our amphibious forces.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which I find very disappointing. I have commanded task groups and amphibious assault groups, and it is clear and well known that the only way of providing simultaneous two-company lift is to have a large deck with at least six spots that can be operated simultaneously and a hangar that can carry up to 12 or 14 helicopters. Anything else will not achieve the amphibious capability that is laid out clearly in our doctrine. What worries me is that this is yet another cut to our Navy. There seems to be cut after cut. Some £65 million has just been spent on refitting this ship in order to run it until 2025, and it is suddenly being laid up in 2018. “Diligence” has just been laid up. Saying we are ordering eight frigates—which I am sure is the sort of response we will get—is great, but they are years late, and there are eight rather than 13. In this highly dangerous world, the most chaotic I have known in 50 years on the active list, can we not put “Ocean” into reserve status, as we will with HMS “Bulwark” next year, and keep her until 2025 when the carriers are online and she can be replaced, and therefore have that capability if it is needed?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the specified service life for HMS “Ocean” was 20 years as from 1998, and we announced in the SDSR 2015 that she would be taken out of service in 2018. The Royal Navy has been clear that, following the decommissioning of HMS “Ocean”, its priority was to maintain surface lift capability using “Albion” and “Bulwark” while preparing to bring the carriers into service with a smooth sequencing programme. I do not share the noble Lord’s perception of the Royal Navy as suffering cuts; if anything, it is very much on the up. We have the arrival of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to look forward to, which will provide immensely greater capability than we have at the moment.

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not find the Minister’s Answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, particularly convincing. Does the Minister agree that paying off “Ocean” makes no strategic sense and that, despite what he said, it has been done because defence is badly underfunded and, in the Royal Navy’s case, badly underresourced in people as well? Does he agree that it was a mistake to impose an unrealistically low manpower ceiling in the 2010 defence review and to compound that mistake by not addressing it properly in the 2015 defence review, and that the current underfunding of defence resources, which is requiring the services to make cuts of some 10%, is having a very bad effect on training and the quality of life of our soldiers, sailors and airmen?

My Lords, I always listen carefully to the noble and gallant Lord, as I do to the noble Lord, Lord West. There are always difficult choices to be made within a fixed budget, and that applies to any government department. However, last year’s strategic defence and security review announced an increase in the size of the Royal Navy of 400 personnel—to 30,600—by 2025. That represents an uplift of 1,600 over the 2010 SDSR position. Of course, there are manning pinch points; we acknowledge that and the Royal Navy is addressing them. But we have to live within the means that we have and address the capabilities we need, and I believe the Navy is doing that.

Will my noble friend confirm that one of the pressures on the naval procurement budget results from the ordering of two aircraft carriers by the noble Lord, Lord West, which still do not have enough aircraft—the F35, at £100 million apiece—to fly off them?

I am sure my noble friend will be pleased to know we have already taken delivery of five of the F35s and have announced an accelerated buying programme to allow us to embark up to 24 of these fantastic fifth-generation aircraft by 2023. When my noble friend sees the “Queen Elizabeth” coming into Portsmouth, as it will next year, he will be very proud of the capability that this country can offer in terms of naval power.

My Lords, the role of HMS “Ocean” has been to provide the marines with a capability to deploy on land using landing craft and helicopters, and I understand that in future this will be provided by modifying one of the new Elizabeth-class carriers. Can the Minister say what these modifications will entail and how much they will cost? As has already been said, the Government have spent £65 million on refitting “Ocean” only to decommission it. They also spent £16 million on refitting RFA “Diligence”, our only at-sea repair ship, only to put it up for sale. That means they have spent £81 million refitting two ships in order to scrap them. What does this tell us about the Government’s long-term naval planning—that there is no long-term planning, but simply an endless waste of taxpayers’ money?

I can reassure the noble Lord there is a great deal of long-term planning, as I witnessed myself at last week’s Admiralty board. He asked about the sequence of programming for the new carriers. The first of the carriers, HMS “Queen Elizabeth”, will enter service in 2018, after which she will conduct flying trials, initially with helicopters and then with the F35B Lightning II aircraft. We will deliver an initial carrier strike capability by 2020, but in parallel we will be developing our carriers to deliver amphibious assaults with Royal Marines and battlefield helicopters as well as to mount global counterterrorism strikes. I hope the noble Lord will agree that there is a logical sequencing programme in train.