Will Sea Blind Coalition Close Britain’s Gateway to the World?

by Francis Beaufort
WARSHIPS IFR Political Correspondent

Daring Class (Type 45) destroyer HMS Daring alongside at Devonport

The Daring Class (Type 45) destroyer HMS Daring alongside at Devonport, with the assault carrier HMS Ocean looming behind her. Photo: Nick Newns.

The fate of Devonport Naval Base is a litmus test for the future of the Royal Navy and for the fate of Britain, an indication of how it sees itself in the world, indeed whether it is now inward looking rather than an island nation that regards an enduring naval presence on the globe’s oceans as key to its secure future.

HMS Drake is the name of the shore establishment that lies at the heart of Devonport, while across the Tamar we find HMS Raleigh is the title of the ratings training establishment. The amazing sailors those two places are named after were fearless explorers, piratical adventurers, proud and courageous Englishmen who dealt out punishment to their country’s enemies with no hesitation. Above all they established a national outlook that had its gaze firmly fixed on the far horizon, with Plymouth - host city of Devonport Naval Base and its associated dockyard, the last such Fleet Base in the United Kingdom and the largest in Western Europe - as the gateway to the world.

However, just as Britain withdrew from an empire that was, above all, defined and safeguarded by the Royal Navy, so it seems under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the UK is now contemplating closing its gateway to the world. During the conduct of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) various claims have emerged that suggest Devonport is to be hit hard, not least the suggestion that the Secretary of State for Defence himself has proposed closing Devonport. The fact that Devonport is the last dockyard in the UK permitted to conduct full refits of nuclear submarines seems to matter little, but there again the coalition may yet decide to scrap the Trident nuclear submarines that the dockyard keeps in service.

The Devonport-based amphibious warfare ships are said to be on the chopping block, as well as the Royal Marines - most of whom are based in Plymouth or close by - handed over to the army, which is unlikely to show enthusiasm for fielding much more than a battalion-level commitment to amphibious warfare. The previous Labour government had already decided to switch the Astute Class submarine homeport to HM Naval Base Clyde (Faslane) anyway, while the remaining Duke Class (Type 23) frigates are earmarked to move to Portsmouth. However, a plan was in place, as under Labour there was no proposal to scrap Trident, kill the amphibious ships or give the Royal Marines to the army.

That any national government would act in such a cavalier fashion when it comes to England’s last surviving naval dockyard and its superb neighbouring naval base all sounds rather incredible, but the speed with which the SDSR is being conducted and the fact that rather than being led by Foreign Policy and defence needs it is clearly cost-driven, tends to give credence to such mad ideas. With the political leadership, business leaders and a national media concentrated in London, it seems that the navy itself, with its new corporate headquarters at Whale Island in Portsmouth, might also retract within the UK, its surviving surface ships based in the confines of the South East of England.

What was once a nation with horizons as broad as the world, an empire upon which the sun never set, appears to be hunkering down in a small corner of Little England. It is somewhat at odds with the nature of the world today, which is more open, more inter-connected than ever before.

There is no problem that cannot hit home, whether it is an Iranian decision to shut the Straits of Hormuz - through which much of UK’s oil and gas supply has to pass aboard super-tankers or LNG carriers - or a conflict in the Indian Ocean shuts the Malacca Straits through which the majority of consumer goods in British shops must be carried aboard giant cargo vessels. A terrorist attack was recently launched against a Japanese-flagged oil tanker passing through Hormuz. Pirates in the Gulf of Aden daily target cargo vessels heading for a passage through the Suez Canal. As the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud illustrated, even a relatively minor natural event can cause worldwide chaos, with millions of Britons stranded abroad.

What would happen in the event of a major conflict between rising maritime powers India and China in the Indian Ocean? How would the UK bring its people home or protect its trade without a navy? As Vice Admiral Jeremy Blackham and Professor Gwyn Prins have pointed out the worldwide web relies upon optical cables that run along the seabed, which could be targeted by terrorists or state actors. Should North Korea give up on sinking warships, it might well use its mini submarines to sabotage the internet, something that could well destroy a large part of the global economy.

Due to its fundamental role in a global navy Devonport therefore lies at the heart of the British national security, even if a people now woefully sea blind do not understand it. Scotland would never allow Rosyth Dockyard or HM Naval Base Clyde to be shut, while Portsmouth’s chief value seems to some to be its proximity to London and the fact that both HMS Victory and the shiny new Type 45 destroyers and aircraft carriers will be within sight of the corporate headquarters. It is hard to think of any operationally logical justification for reinforcing Portsmouth at the expense of Plymouth. Or is the defence industry presence in Hampshire now so powerful, and fundamental to training and future warship construction that the RN cannot break free from that part of England?

A previous Conservative government downgraded Portsmouth from a naval dockyard to a fleet support facility, built a spy-satellite-proof Frigate Refit Centre at Devonport, and also switched conventional submarine base porting to Plymouth. It also awarded the £5 billion Trident refit contract to Devonport rather than Rosyth. The flow of investment was towards Devonport, to reinforce its position as the UK’s most important fleet base, but that was before 13 years of Labour mismanagement of defence saw the navy used primarily as a means to provide ship construction and refit work to buy Scottish votes and see off the SNP. Now the UK has a coalition government infested with former army officers and Liberals who are by instinct against Britain having a major naval role in the world.

Last time a Conservative government proposed wholesale destruction of the Royal Navy, the Argentineans invaded the Falklands. Without Devonport’s amphibious assault ships and Royal Marines the UK will have no means to restore any of the UK’s many overseas territories to its sovereignty, nor will it be able to rescue its citizens from war zones, while counter-piracy operations will suffer, too, as well as the ability to deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief being undermined.

Without Trident, or replacement SSBNs, how will the UK play its part in deterring a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran, or can that job, on behalf of Europe, be left to the French? Should the aircraft carriers - which many feel should be based in Plymouth rather than Portsmouth, the former being the traditional home of the RN’s big carriers - not be built, relegating Britain’s fleet to a position less powerful than even Italy’s and Brazil’s, should the UK retain its seat on the UN Security Council? India, which is busy creating a powerful fleet based around new aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines, will quite rightly be a candidate for occupying the UK’s United Nations seat. Those then are the consequences of shutting Devonport, but do the UK’s political classes, who motor past Plymouth headed for their holidays in Cornwall’s posher resorts, ever spare a thought for the huge importance of that massive naval-industrial complex on the Tamar?

Sadly, it is highly likely that David Cameron and his Cabinet, and especially George Osborne, regard Devon as only useful for delicious cream teas. Articles published elsewhere in the October 2020 edition of WARSHIPS IFR also aim to explain why Devonport means so much and why discarding it would be sheer folly. We also look at the dangerous decline of the Royal Navy’s critical mass in terms of warship numbers and capability reductions. • An edited form of this article was published with the permission of the Editor of WARSHIPS IFR in Plymouth’s Herald daily newspaper, which is running an energetic campaign to fight potential severe cuts, or even closure, of Devonport Naval Base and HM Dockyard Devonport.

To support the Herald’s campaign visit: http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/news/Campaign-aims-fight-cuts-naval-base/article-2665414-detail/article.html

The Sheffield Class (Type 42, Batch 3) destroyer HMS Manchester in Plymouth Sound, with the Swiftsure Class attack submarine HMS Sceptre in the background.

The Sheffield Class (Type 42, Batch 3) destroyer HMS Manchester in Plymouth Sound, with the Swiftsure Class attack submarine HMS Sceptre in the background. Photo: Nigel Andrews.

  • For more commentaries and news analysis SUBSCRIBE to WARSHIPS IFR today!