I managed to catch a rare sight today when HMS Bulwark came into Portsmouth Dockyard. Conveniently when I was able to dash out of work in my lunch hour! Known as Landing Platform Docks, Bulwark and her sister ship HMS Albion are replacements for the HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.
Their primary role is to embark, transport and deploy troops, their vehicles and equipment. To do this she carries 8 Landing Craft – with a resident Squadron of Royal Marines to operate them – which can be loaded through the dock at the stern of the ship or off of a side door and ramp. They can operate Helicopters up to the size of the Chinook, although there are no Hangar facilities onboard.
Albion and Bulwark, as well as carrying troops, can act as the Flagship for an Amphibious Task Group, containing the Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean and several ships from the Bay Class of Auxilliary Landing Ships. They can carry 305 troops for long periods, and 710 in an emergency. The whole ship has been specifically designed around the needs of the embarked military force.
Weighing 18,500 tons, they are a significant improvement on Fearless and Intrepid. Although their top speed, 18 knots, is pretty low.
Albion was commissioned in 2003, and Bulwark in 2004. Both are based in Plymouth, along with HMS Ocean. This probably makes sense as the Commando Brigade is based in the West Country. Therefore it is not very often that one of these ships comes into Portsmouth.
Earlier this year HMS Bulwark headed a UK task group taking part in Amphibious exercises and ‘flying the flag’ operations in the Far East. She’s looking pretty rusty – her predecessor used to be nicknamed ‘Rusty B’ so obviously she is living up to the nickname!
The introduction of Albion, Bulwark and Ocean represents a commitment to the UK’s amphibious capability. For years up until the Falklands war the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the Royal Marines, and preferred to spend time and money on aircraft carriers and submarines. The Falklands War changed all that, and along with 16 Air Assault Brigade the amphibious ships and the Commando Brigade comprise the UK’s readily deployable forces, ready and able to deploy into any enviroment from the Arctic to the Tropics.
It is difficult to envisage what kind of environment such a force would be used in – although securing a destabilised country, such as Sierra Leonne, could be one. The Falklands showed that amphibious operations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, and as the Royal Navy is getting shorter and shorter of Destroyers and Frigates armed with anti-aircraft missiles to act as escorts it might be difficult to deploy our amphibious forces against anything more than medium opposition.
But in an unpredictable world a capable Amphibious Task Force is a sound insurance policy.