By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
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.
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.
This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.