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On 6th June, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Luke Pollard opened a Westminster Hall Parliamentary debate on the base-porting of Type 26 frigates. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future of Devonport and the MoD is under pressure to make an early decision on the basing arrangements for the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates.

In an earlier article, we looked at the overall issues that Devonport faces. Worries over the future of the amphibious ships, a reduction in Royal Marine numbers and the end of submarine basing increases the pressure for frigates to be homeported in Plymouth.

Earlier this year it was announced the base-porting of the Type 23 frigates would be rationalised so that the 8 ships fitted with the towed array sonar tail will all be Devonport-based. The 5 that have a crew gym in the space where the towed array should be, and referred to as general purpose, will be Portsmouth-based. Making Devonport the centre of ASW excellence makes sense and would point to the 8 specialist Type 26 ASW ships replacing the Type 23s in Devonport.

Portsmouth’s future is very much more certain as the home to two large aircraft carriers, the 6 Type 45 destroyers and the 5 new OPVs. On the debit side, HMS Protector moved from Portsmouth to be a Devonport-based ship in 2016 (but as she spends several years away at a time this is of limited benefit to Plymouth). The rationalisation of the Type 23s will also see Devonport gain one frigate at Portsmouth’s expense. There remains an unpleasant possibility that this balance could be upset by the Modernising Defence Review, if the RN is forced to axe a couple of Type 23s in order to keep other assets.

There is no doubt that the Plymouth has suffered a big reduction in the size of its defence estate and in personnel numbers over the last 20 years, on an even greater scale than Portsmouth. The 5 GP Type 23s that will soon all be Portsmouth-based will go out of service first and are the first Type 31s are supposed to be available ahead of the first Type 26s. Basing the Type 31s in Portsmouth seems like the obvious choice and would approximately preserve the status quo. The projected fleet operating doctrine suggests that one or more of the Type 31s are likely to be permanently forward-deployed more often than the Type 26 so would spend much less time in their home port.

Luke Pollard was joined by other MPs from the Plymouth area; Gary Streeter, Johnny Mercer and Kevin Foster. There is strong cross-party support making the case for Devonport’s future. Valid points were made about the suitability of Devonport with good access to the Atlantic and decades of investment in infrastructure and facilities. As well as the civilian jobs, many naval personnel (and ex-naval personnel) and their families live in the Plymouth area, contributing to the economy and social fabric of a region that suffers from being distant from the economic driver of the South East.

The debate raised issues specific to Plymouth but the needs of the navy should be paramount and balanced with the view from Portsmouth. Luke Pollard argues the case for the Navy with greater clarity and understanding than the majority of MPs but over-stated his case by demanding “We need a commitment to make all the Type 26s and the Type 31s Devonport based as well”. While he may be entitled to fight for his constituents, the decisions must be made in the context of the needs of the whole surface fleet. Former Portsmouth City Council Leader, Donna Jones has made similar sweeping demands in the past calling for all 13 frigates to be based in the city. It was rather surprising that no Portsmouth MPs managed to attend the debate while a few Scottish and DUP MPs with an interest in defence were present.

The support conundrum

The Type 26 is very much a BAE Systems’ product and they are likely to win the contract to support the ships in service. BAES have a considerable presence in Portsmouth where they support the surface fleet there and it would suit them to have the Type 26 in Portsmouth. Babcock own the dockyard at Devonport (as opposed to the Naval Base area which is MoD-owned) and are rivals to BAES in many areas of the UK defence business. Should the Type 26s be based in Devonport, either the support contract would have to go to Babcock or BAES would need to establish its own facilities in the Dockyard. The Type 31 competition currently hangs in the balance but it is quite possible that these frigates could be Babcock products which would dovetail nicely with their support facilities in Plymouth. It may appear that Type 26 is a natural fit for Devonport with the Type 31 home-ported in Portsmouth but the arrangements for supporting these vessels in service may add complications.

The minister responds

Guto Bebb, Minister for Defence Procurement, was on hand to answer some of the questions raised. Most surprisingly, he said something his boss the Defence Secretary has resolutely refused to say until now. Responding to another question about the future of the LPDs, rather irritably he said: “The honourable gentleman should be aware that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are safe until 2033 and 2034 – that’s the decommissioning dates for both vessels.” If this was not a major gaffe then he has pre-empted the results of the MDP and confirmed these ships are safe from cuts. Such a statement was so unexpected that it has not yet been widely reported in the media – perhaps some are reluctant to believe it.

Guto was fulsome in his praise for the passion of the Plymouth MPs and, very encouragingly has promised that a decision on the future of the Type 26 basing will be made before the end of 2018. This should at least help Plymouth make plans for its future economy. It should be remembered that the needlessly extended Type 26 construction programme will not see HMS Glasgow in the water until 2025 and be arriving in her homeport for the first time in late 2026.

Sadly the Minister also repeated the falsehood that everyone hoped had passed out of use when Michael Fallon and Harriet Baldwin moved on. “We have a growing Royal Navy for the first time in decades” he claimed. By any measure, this is patently not true. He is right to point to a major new equipment plan and that the defence budget is rising by 0.5% above inflation. Unfortunately, the equipment plan is around £20Bn short and defence inflation runs well above the main inflation rate. Despite new construction, the number of vessels in the RN service is declining and there are considerable gaps in equipment and capabilities.

Luke Pollard should be commended for securing this debate and doing much to highlight the plight of the navy. All things considered, it would be something of a surprise if the Type 26 frigates are not Devonport-based. Any other decision would probably seal the fate of the naval base, a disaster for the RN and the resulting fall-out would be political dynamite.

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