Political row breaks out over plan to retire navy’s flagship

Helicopter carrier HMS Ocean during Exercise Baltops 2015
Helicopter carrier HMS Ocean during Exercise Baltops 2015
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Retiring the Royal Navy’s flagship ‘makes no strategic sense at all’ and is being done because the military is currently ‘badly underfunded’, according to a former defence chief.

Lord Boyce, an independent crossbencher who served as chief of the defence staff from 2001 to 2003, said the cash squeeze was forcing the services to have to make cuts of 10 per cent, which was having an impact on both training and the lives of personnel.

He joined in criticism of plans to decommission HMS Ocean in 2018. The Devonport-based helicopter carrier and assault ship only underwent a £65m upgrade in 2014.

Concerns had already been raised in the House of Lords over the move by former head of the Navy and Labour peer, Lord West of Spithead.

Lord West argued it represented ‘yet again another cut’ to the Senior Service.

Given the current ‘highly dangerous’ state of the world, the peer urged the government to put HMS Ocean in reserve until the two new aircraft carriers became operational.

However, defence minister Earl Howe rejected claims of naval cutbacks and argued the service was ‘very much on the up’.

But Lord Boyce did not find the minister’s response ‘particularly convincing’.

He said: ‘Would the minister agree that paying off Ocean makes no strategic sense at all?

‘And it has been done because actually defence – despite what the minister has just said – is at the moment badly underfunded.

‘And in the RAF’s case it is badly under-resourced in people, as well.’

Lord Boyce was also critical of the ‘mistake to impose unrealistically low thresholds’ on the manpower ceiling in the services.

He added: ‘The current underfunding of defence resources, which is requiring the services to make cuts of the order of 10 per cent, is having a very bad effect on training and quality of life of our soldiers, sailors and airmen.’

Lord Howe said: ‘There are always difficult choices to be made within a fixed budget. That applies to any government department.’

However, he said the Royal Navy was to see an increase in the number of personnel.

The minister said: ‘Of course there are manning pinch points. We acknowledge that.

‘The Royal Navy is addressing that.

‘But we have to live within the means that we have and to address the capabilities that we need, and I believe the navy is doing that.’

Earlier, Lord West had tackled the minister over the decommissioning of HMS Ocean and its implications for military capability.

He said: ‘What worries me is that this is yet again another cut to our navy.

‘There seems to be cut after cut.

‘Here we have a ship that has just had £65m spent on it in a refit to run until 2025; it is suddenly being laid up in 2018.’

He said it was the ‘most chaotic world’ he had known in 50 years on the active list and called for the vessel to be kept ‘in a reserve status’.

But Lord Howe said: ‘I am afraid I don’t share his perception of the Royal Navy as suffering cuts. If anything it is very much on the up.’

The minister pointed to the two planned new aircraft carriers that ‘will provide immensely greater capability than we have at the moment’.