Uncertain future for UK's amphibious forces

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Media captionCaptain Chris Waite explains the operation of one key area of HMS Albion

Amphibious forces have played a major role in British military operations for centuries. Now there are fears the Royal Navy could lose much of that capability, as the National Security Council meets to review the country's defence strategy.

On a cloudless day on calm seas off the western coast of Scotland, HMS Albion is an imposing sight.

She was last seen rescuing stranded civilians and troops trying to return home from Afghanistan during the volcanic ash crisis.

Now, the landing ship is returning from an exercise in Scotland with young Royal Marine commandos aboard.

They are carrying out amphibious assault training that is as realistic as possible, to ready them for what may lie ahead when they're finally deployed on operations.

2nd Lieutenant Josh McCreton joined the Royal Marines because "they punch above their weight".

Today, he is looking a little weary after he and his comrades have been kept up all night on Exercise Wet Raider, leaving the ship under cover of darkness and returning exhausted just as dawn breaks.

"It's been very good, very challenging training," he says. "At times, you wonder whether you really want to do this, but that's the way it works.

"It is arduous in environments like here in the Hebrides or in Wales. But because it's hard it brings out the right skills."

He is looking forward to being deployed, even if that means being sent to Afghanistan where Royal Marines have provided much of the fighting force in Helmand over the past four years.

Essential role

The Commandant General of the Royal Marines and Commander Amphibious Forces, Major General Buster Howes, is fiercely proud of their work there, paying tribute as 40 Commando returned to the UK on Wednesday.

Twenty-one in their battle-group were killed, among them 14 Royal Marines.

"We have had amphibious forces for several centuries. Nelson had them on the Victory at Trafalgar, and Royal Marines have figured in every British sea and land campaign engagement," he says.

"They are sea soldiers, an instrument which the Royal Navy and Royal Marines can project from the sea and the land."

Although the Royal Marines have been used more on land than at sea in recent years, Major General Howes insists their amphibious role and capabilities remain essential.

"They were used in that role in 1982 in the Falklands, which was soon after a review which concluded they would never be needed again in that guise.

"And they, along with the Parachute brigade and the Gurkhas and others, recaptured the Falkland Islands."

High stakes

However, some fear that if the National Security Council decides that the purchase of both of the UK's proposed two new aircraft carriers should go ahead, the Royal Navy could lose much of its amphibious capability - because something will have to give.

"It is obviously a concern that the Navy would lose their other escort ships, some of the workhorses of their fleet, to pay for or compensate for the fact those carriers are going through, and that obviously would mean a reduction in the Navy's footprint in the world," according to independent defence analyst Jason Alderwick.

The stakes for the Royal Navy, the RAF and the Army are high. As the National Security Council considers the options for the strategic defence and security review, Defence Secretary Liam Fox again emphasised at the Conservative party conference that the MoD had been left with a £38bn overspend to deal with.

It will almost certainly have to make cuts on top of that, with the RAF and the Royal Navy likely to bear the brunt of them for now, as the needs of the front line in Afghanistan have been made the government's priority in this review.

So - in order to keep the aircraft carriers - the Royal Navy may lose some of its surface fleet, including a portion of its amphibious capability, even though it has proved its worth over the past decades from the Falklands to Sierra Leone, Iraq and in numerous humanitarian missions, leaving some questioning if the Navy has not gambled too much on the two carriers at the expense of its other assets.

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