Our naval base is something to be proud of, says commanding officer
Sometimes you need to state the obvious. Devonport Naval Base is very important to Plymouth and Plymouth is very important to Devonport Naval Base, says Commodore Graeme Little.
That's despite the Royal Navy being at a "low ebb", the naval base commander adds.
The days when the Sound was a parking lot for Royal Navy hardware are long gone. Take a trip around the naval base now and you will see a couple of assault ships here, a frigate there, maybe a visiting destroyer.
Seven Type 23 frigates will continue to be based in Plymouth after ministers lifted the threat of a move to Portsmouth last year. But the clock is ticking on them. Their replacement, the Type 26s, are due to enter service after 2020 and we don't know how many, if any, will be based at Devonport.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Wednesday, May 22 2013
The extent of the blow when the remaining three hunter-killer Trafalgar class submarines move from Devonport to Faslane in Scotland in 2017 has now been revealed: 630 naval jobs will go with the boats. Surely this isn't a tidal ebb, but more like a river draining a once broad and deep Devonport lake?
So what's the future? The nuclear refit and disposal work and a base for the Royal Marines and the amphibious element that goes with them?
In that big battle of the Navy bases, it seems Portsmouth won and Devonport lost. But I couldn't be more wrong, according to the man in charge at Devonport.
Cdre Little says: "The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is committed to two south coast naval bases. This is the only place in the UK where deep overhaul of submarines can take place.
"When the MoD was having the debate about the future a big ring-fence was drawn around the nuclear bit. But we have other developments which demonstrate (the Royal Navy's) commitment to Devonport."
He points to the influx of Royal Marines at the north end of the base. The £30 million Devonport Landing Craft Co-location Project brings in the landing craft and training facilities from Turnchapel and Poole, Dorset.
With the three capital ships – helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and amphibious assault vessels Bulwark and Albion – Devonport is the centre for amphibious support and ships amounting to "a fantastic commitment" by the Royal Navy. "It is very difficult to see how that could be done elsewhere," Cdre Little adds.
Flag Officer Sea Training (Fost), the Royal Navy's internationally renowned programme, brings a stream of RN, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and foreign navy ships, he says.
Helicopter facilities at HMS Raleigh, Torpoint, are being used to support Fost and the MoD is looking at options for a long-term helicopter landing solution in the area.
Cdre Little says: "This is the only place where Fost can be done, adjacent to the exercise areas off the south coast."
There is also the agreement with industrial partner Babcock that Devonport will continue to be a centre for the deep maintenance of surface ships with its frigate refit complex.
That was underlined this week with the announcement of more details of the refit for HMS Ocean. The £65 million programme at Devonport will secure 300 jobs.
"Overlay the fact that HMS Drake is a barracks with a significant population of servicemen and women, and there is a very compelling case for an enduring commitment and footprint in the South West."
He adds that the "low ebb" comment referred to reputation.
"The Royal Navy is at a low ebb because it has not been in the mind's eye – Afghanistan and Iraq, rightly so, have played a much bigger role in terms of priorities. Although there has been a significant reduction in the size of the workforce at the yard and base, its engineering skills and reputation, are important to the Royal Navy and Plymouth."
But won't Devonport always play second fiddle to Portsmouth because the Hampshire base has the Royal Navy's HQ and is so much closer to London?
"Drawing us back into the debate is unhelpful," he says. "It is not a case of us and them. The fundamental dynamic is that the Royal Navy is still large enough to warrant two south coast bases.
"You can't fit it into one south coast base and operate effectively and have the capacity to do the deep maintenance."
He added: "The Navy of the future is a real focus for the MoD."
So, not "us and them", then. That will surprise those who were fiercely critical of Plymouth's publicly low-key, behind-the-scenes campaign during the naval base review. Some have argued that the city got it wrong. Had we fought louder and in the open, Devonport might have been the only south coast base. Instead Portsmouth survived and Devonport is losing more ships.
"It does not help playing out our case in the press," he responds. "It causes unnecessary tension.
"Devonport is in the ascendancy. I saw a headline 'Battle on for Type 26' – no, it is not. I am not suggesting we sit on our hands and we miss a trick. But the public debate will not make the case. The case will be made on the capability and capacity of Devonport."
So what is Devonport's case?
Cdre White says: "We have a proven track record with the infrastructure and the success we have with the deep maintenance of Type 23s, with the frigate refit complex, is a huge plus."
But if Devonport got none of the Type 26s, and was left as a home only for the Royal Marines and their support vessels, and as a dockyard for the refit of ships and submarines, what would that say about its future as a Royal Navy base?
"I am not sure I can comment. Everything I have with me today suggests that this is a vibrant, long-term base," says Cdre Little
Will that future include the dismantling of decommissioned nuclear submarines and the removal and storage of their waste? Ten of the Royal Navy's 27 decommissioned nuclear submarines are stored at Devonport. That number could grow as two of the five T-class hunter-killers are due to come out of service before the move to Faslane.
"We have had the public consultation and the decision will be taken early next year," the commodore says.
The question of whether a city of 256,000 is the right place for nuclear work to be done is greeted with a look of puzzlement. This Royal Navy engineer is not shrouded by a "veil of uncertainty and mystery" about nuclear energy, which he says covers the public.
"The regulatory framework within which we operate our nuclear submarines means there is absolutely no risk whatsoever locally and regionally," he says. "That is one of our challenges. How do we celebrate our success of operating a class of submarines and deep overhauling two classes in such proximity to a city with the absolute certainty and guarantees that you are imposing no risk?
"How do we make a big thing of our nuclear engineering when there are an awful lot of people who will not support you, no matter how compelling your argument?
"There are techniques and procedures that we do that are world-leading. There is a lot we do that we do not celebrate enough. I think that is a very Plymouth sort of thing.
"Success breeds success. We should be showing that this is a really good place to work and this is a Royal Navy to be proud of."
He has the same enthusiasm for the senior service today as he had when he joined aged 18 in 1984 when, in numbers of ships, the Royal Navy was roughly twice the size it is today. He was awarded a first-class degree and then a master's at the now closed Royal Navy Engineering College at Manadon.
"I had no Navy background," he says. "I chose the Navy because I have a passion for engineering and the Royal Navy offered me a very attractive career."
He was made an OBE in 2004 following a study he made on the future affordability and capacity and requirements of the Royal Navy. His most recent seagoing job was as chief engineer on the carrier HMS Illustrious in 2007.
His service has taken in the Caribbean, the Falklands and the Arabian Gulf, plus parts of Africa, India and Pakistan. Of those, his favourite is an unspoiled island, but certainly not a tropical paradise.
"My bucket list place is South Georgia (part of the Falklands territory) for the wildlife and the ruggedness. It is not well visited and the isolation is extreme. It is extraordinary."
Away from the naval base he enjoys the outdoors, walking and sailing, "particularly the South Georgia-esque landscape off the South West".
He is married to Helen, a teaching assistant in Ivybridge, and they have a son, James, who is at school in Bath.
High up on his "to-do" list is to help celebrate the links between Plymouth and its naval base.
"A priority is to open up parts of the base next year to the general public, to expose the mystery and show them what we do," says Cdre Little.
Discussions are ongoing with the city council and no date has been fixed, but the aim is to make the occasion an annual event and for the inaugural one to be linked to the 50th anniversary of the award of the Freedom of the City to the Navy. And the spirit of openness could extend permanently to the South Yard.
"We are going to establish a group across Plymouth key stakeholders, including the university and the city council, led by us, looking how best to utilise South Yard, with the eventual view of withdrawing and leaving a number of town berths. My predecessors and previous councils have never got from aspiration to achievement but things have now moved on."
He adds: "We are looking to sustain a heritage collection and make it more available to Plymouth. A visitor could spend the weekend in Plymouth, see an anchor or two and a wonderful memorial, but have no idea that the Royal Navy is still here."
What heritage is currently available to the public, including the decommissioned nuclear submarine HMS Courageous, is managed by volunteers and the commodore admits his budget is tight.
While he is keen to show off the hardware of past and present, he is adamant that the most important assets are the people who work there – and those who support them.
He wants to build on the work started under his predecessor, such as the Caring for Carers initiative.
"As an employer I am very aware that some employees suffer dementia and many care for sufferers. Many care for people with cancer or other diseases. This is all voluntary and we want to do all we can to support them.
"Support in the community is crucial, whether it be the Military Wives Choir and HMS Heroes (young advocates for service families) – they all play important roles. Particularly when our people go away on deployment, their families are supported by the community.
"We recognise that our people are able to do what they do only because there is a support network for families."