UK Amphibious Forces: Controversy And Beyond

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UK Amphibious Forces: Controversy And Beyond

HMS Ocean during Operation Ellamy and the 2011 military intervention in Libya

Translated from Russian; Originally appeared in BMPD blog

There is again uncertainty over the future of the United Kingdom’s amphibious capability, at a time when both the utility of and the challenges to such forces are in the spotlight. Indeed, recent natural disasters have underscored their usefulness across a range of missions, but the proliferation of sea-, air- and land-based anti-ship missiles is raising the bar for delivering actual combat power from the sea, says Nick Childs of International Institute for Strategic Studies in his article “Amphibious futures: the UK controversy and beyond.”

There is speculation of a possible cut of 1,000 Royal Marines (out of about 6,600), and the withdrawal of the Royal Navy’s two specialist amphibious assault ships (LPDs), HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with their bespoke command capabilities. This comes against the backdrop of a defence-budget squeeze, strains in naval-service personnel numbers and a broader national-security capabilities review. The UK Ministry of Defence says no decisions have been made, but the amphibious forces have been looking increasingly vulnerable for some time.

Meanwhile, there is a paradox around global developments in amphibious capabilities. The recent hurricanes in and around the Caribbean showcased the value of amphibious shipping and embarked forces in the humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) role. France, the Netherlands and the United States deployed large amphibious ships to the Caribbean, while the UK sent its helicopter carrier (LPH), HMS Ocean, and an auxiliary landing ship, Mounts Bay. The HADR mission is itself taking on a new significance, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. However, such missions do not necessarily require full amphibious-combat capabilities.

At the same time, with a growing proportion of the world’s population, and therefore security concerns, occupying littoral regions, the ability to position capable forces offshore, and to insert and if necessary withdraw them, has become increasingly sought after. A growing number of countries are directing significant investment into such capabilities. But because of the so called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threat, which is challenging even for the US Marine Corps, few aspire to be able to deploy such forces in anything other than a permissive environment. The UK has been one of those countries with a more robust amphibious capability, second only to the US. That is the dilemma it now faces.

In Europe, Italy and Turkey are both currently investing in large amphibious assault carriers (LHDs). In the Asia-Pacific region, China is rapidly building up its amphibious forces. Meanwhile, Australia is transforming its navy with an amphibious task-group capability built around two new LHDs, while Japan is establishing an amphibious rapid-deployment force. Other states in the region are procuring limited capabilities, both for the HADR mission and, given multiple local maritime disputes, to be able to deploy forces at range.

The last significant investment in the UK’s capability came in the 1990s and early 2000s with a new LPH (Ocean), the two LPDs and four auxiliary landing ships. However, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) saw the UK’s amphibious ambitions reduced. The goal became not the deployment of the full 3 Commando Brigade but instead a lead commando group of 1,800 personnel. One LPD was put in reserve and one auxiliary landing ship sold to Australia.

For some, the latest potential cuts to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are merely recognition of the fact that the UK cannot now deliver on even the 2010 SDSR’s reduced ambition for the country’s amphibious capability. Significantly, HMS Ocean is already due to be withdrawn next year. With the growing A2/AD threat, and the hazards associated with landing heavy equipment from LPDs, it is argued that a more realistic and relevant future capability is utilising the UK’s new aircraft carriers to provide aviation at range for an amphibious force, with the navy’s auxiliary landing ships providing support and supplies.

This arrangement looks like not just a different, but a more limited capability. But the argument is that such a capability, more akin in a contested environment to a raiding force, plus dispersed embarked forces around other ships in the fleet to carry out other maritime-security missions, is the way to go. However, while a traditional ‘storming of the beach’ may no longer be on the cards, opponents of this new formula say the UK will be losing a valuable capability – not least in a NATO context, particularly on what used to be called the Alliance’s northern flank – to be able to project a credible force from the sea. Using the Royal Navy’s new carriers does not replicate a custom-built LPH, the argument goes, and risks undercutting their ability to deliver a full carrier-strike capability.

Without the LPDs, the UK also risks losing the ability to command amphibious operations independently. And it will forego the broader utility of such ships for presence and defence-engagement missions, and as platforms for other niche capabilities such as special-forces operations.

Given the current pressures, change seems inevitable for the UK’s amphibious forces. The main issue appears to be to what extent there will be a step down in capability ambitions.

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  • FlorianGeyer

    The UK needs to start protecting her own borders first from illegal immigration :)

    • testera

      Too late for that.

      • Gary Sellars

        Agreed, they should have started in the 70s.

    • AM Hants

      We have got a little dinghy left, that the Navy has not sold, which can secure the stretch of the Solent between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Failing that, I am sure we can put the HMS Warrior back into service.

      • FlorianGeyer

        We also of course have a shiny new aircraft carrier that cost the British taxpayer ( those debt slaves without the offshore accounts of the entitled ) 3.1 billion pounds and another one being built. The carrier in service has no aircraft currently and will not have for several years. The US F35’s are very expensive rubbish anyway. The carriers also have no fixed weapon systems :)

        The Warrior would indeed be a better option ,as would the Mary Rose.

        • AM Hants

          So true. I live near the Solent, so Portsmouth is not far away, and neither is the gossip, with regards the new aircraft carrier. Procurement backhanders (possibly) and Navy cutbacks, and the poor ship suffers.

  • Barba_Papa

    Those aircraft carriers really are like an albatross around the Royal Navy’s neck. One the one hand they really want them, on the other hand they cost so much too many other essential force gets scrapped and cut back to pay for them. Soon the Royal Navy will only consist of 2 nuclear aircraft carriers and the ballistic missile submarine force. Britain’s defense procurement is as broken as that of the US, only without the limitless spending.

    • AM Hants

      One of the new ones, might not even be commissioned, but, sold as soon as it goes through its sea trials. The other has yet to be commissioned, and who knows when it will get the faulty F35s.

      • Graeme Rymill

        The first of the 2 new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is to be commissioned in just one week’s time. The first F-35Bs arrive in the UK next year. They are for the RAF. Royal Navy F-35Bs won’t deploy operationally on the carrier till 2020. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, should be launched in 2019.

        In 2010 a UK defence review stated that only one carrier was required. At that time it intended to sell or mothball the other carrier. That decision was reversed in 2014. Government policy may change yet again. At the moment though there is no intention to sell the second carrier.

        • AM Hants

          Will the Queen Elizabewth actually be ready to be commissioned? She might look good from the outside, but, is everything in good working order, once you get past her sheet metal cover?

          We part exchanged the Harriers, for the useless and costly F35 and it would not surprise me, if the ship is scrapped, before the F35s are problem free and ready to be delivered.

          Shame about the Harriers, as they actually worked and were effective, even if a tad old.

          • Graeme Rymill

            The commissioning ceremony is largely ceremonial. Newly commissioned warships require a ton of work and crew training before they become fully operational.

            The US Marines are flying the same B model of the F-35 as the Royal Navy and RAF have purchased. They are expecting to embark some F-35Bs on an amphibious assault ship (USS Wasp) for the very first time in the next few months.

            Is the F-35 useless? Short of a shooting war we won’t know but I doubt it.

          • AM Hants

            Senior Air Force Officer: The F-35 Is An Epic Waste… http://www.businessinsider.com/the-insanely-expensive-f-35-is-a-waste-2014-5?IR=T

            Russia – US pilots fly Russian Migs… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7QS6Gi9mdM

            Why F-22 and F-35 “America’s” Never Fight Russian SU-35 | | a real Super Maneuverable Fighter…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlVMindW6j8

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  • Rodger

    The UK….:’)

  • Gary Sellars

    Why does a shitty little island-nation feel the need to have amphibious invasion capabilities? Who do they intend to attack? Or are they just determined to remain feckless auxiliaries of the Muricans?

    • Ivan Freely

      The Brits have 14 oversea territories to defend.

    • AM Hants

      Island – might be in the clue.

    • dutchnational

      No, after Brexit UK is going to build a new empire.

  • chris chuba

    But I thought that all of Western Europe was paralyzed in fear over the imminent invasion by Russia. Wouldn’t an amphibious unit be ideal for rapid deployment to confront this dire threat ?!?!?!?!?!?

    I had a guy from Denmark play the ‘Neville Chamberlain’ card on me because I suggested it was unnecessary to deploy troops in the baltics on Russia’s border, I find it ironic that these modern day Winston Churchill’s barely spend 1% of their GDP on defense.