Royal Navy to Lose Amphibious Capabilities

HMS Ocean sails into the sunset

Royal Navy to Lose Amphibious Capabilities

Possible cuts will leave Britain incapable of the offensive.

Under the cover of darkness on May 21, 1982, British forces landed on the beaches of San Carlos in the Falklands. The 2 Para, 40 Commandos, and the 3 Para and the 41 Commandos conducted an unopposed amphibious assault, assisted by special forces, in a campaign to retake the capital city of Stanley. By the time the sun rose, the rest of the 3rd Commando Brigade was onshore to repulse the Argentinian counterattack.

The operation was an overwhelming success. The landings at San Carlos marked the beginning of the 3rd Commandos, parachute regiment, and special forces fighting a brutal campaign in the middle of winter against a numerically superior enemy. However, a great deal of the success is owed to the two British carriers, hms Invincible and hms Hermes, that provided constant combat air patrols with their Harrier jets, and the sophisticated support of the different amphibious vehicles.

The British could not have won the Falklands War without using their amphibious capabilities. The Thatcher government received a great deal of praise for the war, and it was a moment that made Britain believe in itself again as a major power. Ironically, all of that would have been impossible if the Conservative government’s plan of cutting the aircraft carriers and amphibious fleet had come about earlier. The Falklands War saved the Royal Navy.

Remarkably, the current Conservative government is planning similar cuts, by retiring the Royal Navy’s last aircraft carrier, the hms Ocean.

The hms Ocean is the flagship of the fleet and the only air projection-capable vessel the Royal Navy has left. The ship is not even 20 years old, but it is being considered to be sold off to Brazil in a bargain deal. Tyler Rogoway explained the Ocean’s abilities:

hms Ocean is a capable ship. She displaces 21,500 tons, was commissioned in 1998, and was just refit a few years ago. She can carry around 18 helicopters—but usually totes around less than a dozen—of various types, including large Chinook transports to Apache attack helicopters.

Since the canning of the UK’s Harrier force, along with its carriers hms Illustrious and hms Ark Royal, hms Ocean has been the sole air warfare power projection vessel in the Royal Navy’s inventory—with Royal Army Air Corps Apache Longbows providing the ship’s over-the-horizon striking power. And this capability has been used successfully in combat before.

Although the UK’s Apache force largely wrote the book on deploying the AH-64/AH Mk 1 to sea, hms Ocean is meant to have a highly flexible air wing that can feature a composite of various cross-service, and even cross-national, helicopters depending on the mission. The ship is also built to execute amphibious assaults. In addition to her baseline crew of nearly 300, with another 200 attached to her air wing, up to 800 Royal Marines can be embarked at one time, along with 40 of their vehicles. The ship also carries four 51.5-foot landing craft (lcvps) and has extensive command and control capabilities.

Getting rid of the Ocean means that the Royal Navy would lose its ability to make offensive strikes at enemy vessels beyond the line of sight. This would be an extreme disadvantage for the Navy, since with modern weaponry whoever strikes first will cause catastrophic damage. Since it already got rid of its Harrier force, the only alternative is the expensive F-35B, which is years away from being viable for combat. The Harriers played a large role in defeating the Argentinians in 1982 and in providing air support for the British Army. Without a carrier, any British task force would have to rely on an ally for air support.

The greatest loss would be the amphibious capability. The Falklands War and the landings at San Carlos form the template for what any British task force would look like in the future. Without the carriers lcvps, no landings could be made. The Army would be without the weapon that has proved decisive in all wars for the past 100 years. However, this is not the first time a cash-strapped democratic nation has wanted to shed off useful but expensive amphibious capability. In Amphibious Warfare, Ian Speller and Christopher Tuck write:

Predicting the future is inevitably very difficult. Previous predictions about the future of amphibious warfare have often been flawed. Before both world wars, serious observers claimed that opposed landings would not be possible. They were wrong. In 1949, Gen. Omar Bradley, a veteran of Normandy, stated that he did not believe that major landings would be possible in the nuclear year. Within less than a year the 1st U.S. Marine Division successfully conducted a major opposed landing at Inchon. In 1981 the British minister of defense, John Nott, conducted a major defense review on the basis that the Royal Navy did not require specialist amphibious ships and that the aircraft carrier hms Invincible should be sold. One year later these same ships proved vital in the successful campaign to recover the Falkland Islands.

It seems governments are bent on repeating the same tragic history. Not only would Normandy and Inchon, among the most famous battles in all history, have been impossible if experts had their way, the Ministry of Defense refuses to learn from a war that occurred only 35 years ago. All of the most essential elements for the British to win a war are being stripped away, despite the grim warning from history. Even the Royal Marines in the Commando Brigades may be reduced. Con Coughlin wrote for the Telegraph:

Given the vital role both the Marines and their landing craft played in securing victory, it seems remarkable that the Royal Navy should be actively considering similar cuts.

Sir Michael Fallon, the defense secretary, has declined to comment on reports that the Navy is planning to reduce the Marines’ strength from 7,000 to 5,000, thereby removing the front-line role of one of its three commando units. The Navy is also said to be giving serious consideration to decommissioning a number of landing craft vital for maintaining our ability to mount amphibious landings.

If this really is the case, then the government, just like its Conservative predecessor, could be about to make a grave miscalculation. North Africa, the Baltics, the Gulf, Southeast Asia—these are just some of the potential hot spots where it is entirely conceivable that British forces might be required to make amphibious landings at some point in the future.

The reason Navy chiefs find themselves in this invidious position is the intense pressure they are under to cut costs to meet the government’s spending targets.

Today, Spain is aggressively pursuing ownership of Gibraltar, and Argentina is pressing for control of the Falklands again—these are just two areas where a British amphibious task force may have to intervene. Britain may even be compelled to send a task force to combat Iran or North Korea in the near future. If the proposed cuts go through, Britain would be unable to assemble any meaningful response to threats around the world for a period of time. This would leave a massive hole in British strategy and reduce them to further reliance on foreign powers.

The British do have two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers under construction, which will form the new Queen Elizabeth class. These will not be operational until the 2020s and will likely be outfitted with F-35 Lightnings. These new carriers will greatly increase the capabilities of the Royal Navy, but one must wonder how the government can afford two carriers three times the size of the hms Ocean and a full fleet of F-35s. If the hms Ocean is sold to Brazil, or the highest bidder, it will be just another instance of a short-sighted decision to save money, leaving the UK vulnerable.

Thirty-five years ago, a British task force sailed 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic to defend British territory against invasion. It was a decisive victory. However, even in 1982, Britain’s capability to do so was under threat. Even with a prime minister like Margaret Thatcher, who believed in the use of military force, the Royal Navy and British Army faced cuts that left it neutered. Today, the Ministry of Defense is proposing to make the same mistake. The lack of offensive capability will make British overseas assets and citizens vulnerable. It will be a prime time for opportunistic nations to take the offensive.

The proud traditions and history of the Royal Navy are being sacrificed for a debt-ridden economy. Britain, the welfare state, is quickly swallowing its armed forces budget, leaving it vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous world. If Britain loses its amphibious capability, it will only be another example of the long and painful decline of Great Britain. To learn more about the prophesied fall of the once mighty British Empire, read our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.