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UK Amphibious Capability Debate

21st November 2017

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on UK amphibious capability.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate—the second debate of hers that I have replied to in a week, which truly demonstrates her passion for and dedication to our armed forces. She is not only a member of the Defence Committee, but chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant and deputy chair for the Royal Navy of the all-party group for the armed forces, which you chair, Mr Gray.

The 11 Back Benchers who spoke in the debate unanimously supported the UK’s amphibious capability in the 21st century. As so many right hon. and hon. Members said, our amphibious capability is a vital component of our nation’s power projection capabilities. The Royal Navy’s LPD-class ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark provide afloat command and control facilities and capabilities needed to deploy and sustain the lead commando group ashore by air and sea. They can embark one large helicopter or up to three medium helicopters on the flight deck and carry the equipment required to support aircraft operations. In addition, Lyme Bay, Mounts Bay and Cardigan Bay, the Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, provide the capacity and capability to deploy our expeditionary strike forces. I am sure all hon. Members present thank the crew of RFA Mounts Bay for their incredible work over the summer and autumn, having been pre-positioned for hurricane season in the Caribbean. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

The UK’s amphibious capability will be further enhanced by our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. As we stated in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, we will enhance a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier to support our amphibious capability.

Colleagues have asked about HMS Ocean. Just to clarify matters again for the record, SDSR 15 allocated £60 million to optimise the QEC carriers, to meet the demands of the landing platform helicopter role, including the communication systems for amphibious operations, improving services on carriers for the Royal Marines, providing ammunition storage and expanding helicopter operating capacity. The initial operating capability for the helos is in summer 2018. This commitment demonstrates the importance that the Government place on the future of our amphibious forces and the vital role that they will play in the defence of our nation.

An essential part of that future is, as we have heard, our elite amphibious commando force, the Royal Marines, and Members have rightly paid tribute to them. The Royal Marines are held at very high readiness, trained for worldwide rapid response and often operate in difficult or dangerous circumstances. So far, they have given us 353 years of unbroken service, in support of the UK’s national interests and often in the defence of others.

Members should note that, as of 1 October 2017, the Royal Marines’ full-time trained strength is approximately 6,520, which is 99.3% of its 6,570 liability. We will continue to have the appropriate number of frontline Royal Marines to achieve all taskings, and we will ensure that the Royal Marines are properly trained and equipped to perform a wide range of crucial tasks that we ask them to undertake.​

This debate has no doubt been prompted by speculation in the media on the future of the amphibious ships. As Members will be aware, the Government have initiated work on a national security capability review, which is being conducted to ensure the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible for the threats that we face in the 21st century. This work is being led by the National Security Adviser, with individual strands being taken forward by cross-departmental teams, and the Ministry of Defence is contributing to this review and considering how we can best spend what is a rising defence budget, in order to support it.

We are indeed committed to increasing the £36 billion defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. Indeed, we are one of only six NATO allies who are currently meeting the guideline to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence, and we are also one of only 13—

Wayne David

Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin

I am very conscious of time here, but I will give way very briefly.

Wayne David

I thank the Minister for giving way. She has talked about speculation, but will she confirm or deny the press reports that the new Secretary of State for Defence has asked the Treasury for more money?

Harriett Baldwin

I can confirm that there have been press reports. [Laughter.] I can also confirm that we are one of only 13 NATO countries that meet the guideline to spend 20% of our defence budget on major equipment and research and development. I can also confirm that the Ministry of Defence will spend £178 billion on equipment and associated support between 2016 and 2026.

Dr Lewis

Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin

Members are eating into my time, but I will give way to the Chair of the Defence Committee.

Dr Lewis

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but she does seem to have moved into discussing general expenditure issues and away from the specific topic. Does she remember writing to me on 25 January this year to say:

“There are no current plans to decommission the ships”—

that is, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark—

“early, and I can reassure you that their out of service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively…HMS Bulwark continues to prove a vital asset to the Royal Navy…HMS Albion…is programmed to replace HMS Bulwark as the high-readiness ship this year”?

Does that remain the position?

Harriett Baldwin

I can indeed confirm that I not only wrote those words but recall writing them.

Dr Lewis

Does that remain the position?

Harriett Baldwin

I have already made it very clear on the record what today’s position is. [Interruption.]

We can all see that the global security context is challenging. So, Members would expect us to ensure that, as we spend our growing budget, we focus expenditure ​on those capabilities that are most effective at keeping us and our allies safe, and at deterring or defeating our adversaries or potential adversaries.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way briefly?

Harriett Baldwin

Members are very much eating into my time, Mr Gray, but I give way.

Carol Monaghan

I thank the Minister very much for giving way. Of course, the resources that keep us safe are unable to do so just now, because there simply are not enough of them. We now regularly see Russian submarines and warships in our waters, and we have nothing that we can throw at them to keep them out.

Harriett Baldwin

Well, Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start with that intervention, because the hon. Member and I disagree so profoundly on what we need to spend money on to ensure the security of this nation. Frankly, she might want to ask the former leader of her party why he wants to take a gig on Russia Today. [Interruption.] That is my response, because that is how we send out a strong message in terms of the strength of this country.

Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start in terms of the Scottish National party’s priorities, but I will say a few words about ours. [Interruption.]

James Gray (in the Chair)

Order. If I may, I will nudge the Minister gently back towards UK amphibious capability.

Harriett Baldwin

Indeed. In our national security capability review, we seek to understand how to spend that growing budget in the most intelligent way, by further modernising our armed forces against the traditional and non-traditional threats that we now face. In that context, it is only right that all areas of business across defence—

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr Gray. We have had a very good debate this morning. A lot of questions have been asked by Members across the Chamber. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I thought it was the role of the Minister when replying to a debate actually to reply to it and not just read out a prepared statement.

James Gray (in the Chair)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. Of course it is not a point of order; the Minister may indeed say what she likes when replying to the debate. However, if she replies inadequately, that is of course a matter for the record.

Harriett Baldwin

Mr Gray, in considering how I respond to this debate, I am very conscious of the lack of time available to me, but I will respond to a few of the points that were raised in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) both spoke about the important role of HM Naval Base Devonport and the particular importance of the south-west of England, which continue to be so vital for the Royal Navy. Also, I ​was very pleased to learn that the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) had served on HMS Albion.

I want to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to speak at the end of the debate, so I will conclude by saying that the national security capability review is ongoing work. I can say that no decisions have been put to Ministers and, at this stage, any discussion of the options is pure speculation. I emphasise that, while the review continues, the naval service continues to meet all of its operational commitments. I further affirm to hon. Members that, in order to protect the UK’s interests at home and abroad, the Government remain committed to the future funding, support and capability of our armed forces.

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