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Just before the 2017 summer recess the Government launched a review of national security capabilities, led by the National Security Advisor.[1] The review is understood to include the defence capabilities of the armed forces. It is unclear when the review will be published or in what format.

In October various media began to report rumours the Ministry of Defence is considering reducing the armed forces’ amphibious capability.

Amphibious capability at its most basic means the ability to land military forces from the sea. In the UK armed forces, the Royal Marines are the specialists in amphibious warfare using a variety of vessels supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.[2] Specialist support to the Royal Marines is provided by the Commando Helicopter Force, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and 24 Commando Royal Engineers.[3]

There have been reports the MOD intends to reduce the number of Royal Marines. The former Commander of Joint Forces Command told the Defence Committee it was “madness” to “cull some of the finest infantry in the world”.[4] The Defence Secretary refused to rule out cuts to the Royal Marines when asked directly by the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence.[5]

The Royal Navy has three amphibious assault ships: HMS Ocean, a dedicated helicopter carrier, will leave service next year. HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark can deliver troops via helicopter and/or specialist landing craft from the landing dock in the belly of the ship. Albion and Bulwark are expected to remain in service until 2033 and 2034 respectively.[6] However only one is currently available for operations. HMS Bulwark is in port in a state of ‘low readiness’ and is not expected to return to service until 2021. Media have reported rumours Bulwark and Albion may be retired early as part of the capabilities review.

UK Maritime Power doctrine states the role of Bulwark and Albion:

The Royal Navy’s specialist amphibious shipping can tactically offload, sustain and recover the landing force without recourse to harbours or airfields, in hostile, or potentially hostile environments. They provide the launch platforms for assaults and raids by landing craft and helicopters. The amphibious shipping[7] has the necessary command and control facilities for up to a brigade size operation, and are capable of landing a company group surface assault, heavy equipment (such as armour) and landing force vehicles and equipment.

In addition the three Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary can deliver troops from sea via landing craft, although on a lesser scale to Albion and Bulwark.[8] The new aircraft carriers will be able to deliver troops from sea via helicopters but they do not have the same capability to place troops ashore using landing craft in the same manner.[9]

Lord West, former First Sea Lord, has warned that if rumours are true – to cut 1,000 marines and sell Bulwark and Albion – “this would mean the end of a UK amphibious capability and effectively end the Royal Marines.”

[1] Commons Library briefing paper The defence capability review: equipment, provides a short introduction to the front-line of the armed forces.

[2] The Royal Marines also use a range of specialist vehicles including amphibious vehicles.

[3] This is not an exhaustive list, other elements of the armed forces also support amphibious operations.

[4] General Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander Joint Forces Command, Joint Defence Committee, National Security Capability Review, HC 556, oral evidence, 14 November 2017, q9.

[5] HC Deb 23 October 2017 c6; see section 4 PQs.

[6] These dates were reaffirmed by the Government most recently in PQ106959, 16 October 2017

[7] Currently provided by HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark landing platform dock (LPD) ships

[8] Lieutenant General Mark Poffley,  Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Military Capability, defence committee, Work of the Department 2017, HC 406, oral evidence, 25 October 2017 q61 (in section 3 of this Debate Pack)

[9] Lieutenant General Mark Poffley,  Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Military Capability, defence committee, Work of the Department 2017, HC 406, oral evidence, 25 October 2017 q57 (in section 3 of this Debate Pack)

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