TWO new hospital ships could be bought with British foreign aid cash to deal with natural disasters and support the Royal Navy on military operations, it has been revealed.
International development secretary Penny Mordaunt has outlined her plan to inject tens of millions of pounds into building the two new ships.
Revealed to The News by Ms Mordaunt in September but confirmed earlier this week, the Portsmouth North MP hopes the vessels would help to free up the Royal Navy when dealing with humanitarian disasters.
However, the Tory MP added the vessels could also provide the Senior Service with extra punch on military operations if needed.
The revelation has been welcomed by retired naval top brass.
Vice Admiral Bob Cooling said the move was good news and could be key in relieving the strain from the navy when responding to humanitarian disasters.
The ex-commanding officer of the former HMS Illustrious – which itself was sent to Philippines in 2013 to help communities ravaged by the deadly Typhoon Haiyan – said:’This is a fantastic announcement.
‘It’s excellent to see what interdepartmental Whitehall co-operation is all about and I think it should be welcomed.
‘These two new ships will always be useful in humanitarian disasters. If we have to respond to another typhoon in the Philippines then we have got hundreds of beds available to deploy, complete with world-class medical care.’
Britain has a foreign aid budget worth £14bn.
However, critics often take potshots at how the money is used, with cash having previously gone to nations wealthy enough to afford their own space programme, like India and China.
Ms Mordaunt hopes the new move, which she has been attempting to negotiate for months in secretive talks in Whitehall, could help put some of these concerns to bed.
As well as dealing with natural disasters and supporting the military on operations, the vessels could also host trade missions.
The scheme would be the most ambitious use of the aid budget in helping Britain’s overstretched armed forces.
In a letter to defence secretary Gavin Williamson, former armed forces minister Ms Mordaunt said the ships could take the place in crises around the globe of navy vessels, acting in a similar way to Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships like RFA Mounts Bay, which has been stationed in the Caribbean during the hurricane season.
She added: ‘We should also explore how this could support our military capabilities [and] take pressure off a stretched fleet.’
Britain’s former top sailor Lord Admiral Alan West backed the news – but had his reservations.
‘I would never say we don’t want more ships but I’m not sure this is the best way to add to the Royal Navy,’ the Labour peer and retired First Sea Lord said. ‘The devil will be in the detail.’