DEFENCE bosses have put forward proposals to take two ships out of service less than 20 years after they were launched in Barrow as part of a major cost-cutting exercise.

Two specialist landing ships - HMS Albion and Bulwark - would be taken out of service under the proposals.

The plan - part of a package of cost-cutting measures - has caused alarm among senior Royal Marine officers.

HMS Albion's keel was laid down at the Barrow shipyard on 23 May in 1998 and launched by Princess Anne on March 9, 2001.

HMS Albion, an 18,500 tonne amphibious assault ship, has a dock which works like a roll-on-roll-off ferry platform from which it can send out landing craft filled with troops and equipment.

Earlier this year, the ship returned to operational duties following a major refit.

The MoD told the BBC that no decisions have been made yet and that discussion of options was "pure speculation".

It is understood the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, formulated the move as part of a package designed to balance the books and free up sailors for the service's two new aircraft carriers.

Critics say the proposal would deprive the Royal Marines of its core mission.

Among other cuts envisaged are a reduction of 1,000 to the strength of the Royal Marines and the early retirement of two mine-hunting vessels and one survey vessel.

A senior Royal Marine officer blamed the introduction of the new carriers for exacerbating the senior service's financial and manning problems.

He told the BBC: "This is the worst procurement decision of the past half century - that's what the Royal Marines are being sacrificed for."

The proposed cuts are part of a raft of "adjustments" being considered by all three services - the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force - as the Ministry of Defence struggles to balance its books.

The Royal Air Force could slow down orders of its new F35 fighter, and the Army could lose dozens of helicopters as part of their efforts towards the same goal.

Under the 1997 defence review, a group of ships was created to improve the UK's ability to land its commando brigade, even in the face of opposition.

The helicopter carrier Ocean, two specialist landing ships - Albion and Bulwark - and four logistic support ships were to be acquired to allow the 5,000 strong force to continue performing operations such as the 1982 Falklands landing, or the one on the Faw peninsula during the 2003 Iraq conflict.

With the retirement of HMS Ocean already announced, and the new plans to lose the two landing ships, the Royal Marines' ability to use landing or hovercraft to get ashore would be drastically curtailed.

In recent years, as an economy measure, the Royal Navy has only been crewing Albion or Bulwark alternately - they are big ships, each requiring a complement of 325.