The Royal Marines Corps. What is it good for?

This quite long article from the UK blog – Thin Pinstriped Line – has some very interesting perspectives on the workings of the UK bureaucracy in relation to the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Corps. It is reproduced with permission of “Sir Humphrey”. It is the pen names of a former MOD, former Reservist Officer, proud to have served across Defence. He does not work for, and have no professional connection to MOD or UK Armed Forces. All views expressed are purely my own and do not reflect those of HMG.

THE Times reports (20 September) that the RN is considering scrapping 1000 Royal Marine posts as part of a wider options package to save money. The report suggests that the RN could save up to £100m per year, which would go a long way to addressing the financial black hole sitting at the heart of the MOD.

For all the talk of a rising defence budget, it remains clear that the devaluation of the pound, coupled with rising equipment costs clearly shows that that there isn’t enough money to do everything that the 2015 SDSR set out to deliver. For all the spin of ‘backed by a rising defence budget’, when you speak to friends in the military or MOD, these lines are met with hoots of derision. Their view is simple – the budget situation is bordering on catastrophic and only major reform, or a major injection of funds will solve the problem.

From a Treasury perspective, the case for MOD to have extra cash is weak. The Department enjoys considerable latitude in how it chooses to spend its cash, with significant delegated authority (far more than most departments), and what is regarded in Whitehall as a very generous comprehensive spending review settlement. There is definitely more money coming in, but friends have suggested it is coming in at the wrong point in the five year spending cycle and in the wrong amounts. Getting the Department financially to the point where it can meet its in year budget, and ensuring it is on a stable long term footing is the challenge.

It is hard to see the Treasury being amenable to demands for more money – there is precious little spare money, and no political appetite for higher taxes to fund defence. There is also a sense of weariness that the Armed Forces excel at ‘special pleading’ in demanding ever greater sums of cash, without showing the ruthlessness required to cut costs at every opportunity to find the money themselves. Speak candidly to Treasury officials with experience of working with the MOD and they are torn between enormous admiration and respect for the military and its ‘can do’ attitude, and enormous frustration at trying to put sacred cows on the menu, let alone eat them to save cash.

Given the lack of willingness to find extra funds, the only other option open to the Department to meet its financial challenges is to make real and painful cuts. This is currently being wrapped up in the auspices of a mini national security review, sneaked out under the radar on the last day of the Parliamentary session. It seems inevitable that cuts will follow from this, but likely packaged under a series of headline grabbing announcements of ‘cash for X’ with much smaller footnotes describing how A,B,C and D are all being scrapped, delayed, deferred or descoped too.

By Land

The news that the RN is considering offering up the Royal Marines indicates several things. Firstly, it’s a sign that the traditional battles in MOD during spending rounds have reached the point of leaking the ‘sacred cow’ options (such as scrapping the Red Arrows, disband the Parachute Regiment etc), in order to try and fight a rearguard action. All the Services have these options, it was a bit of a running joke with some of the authors friends that the ‘Close BRNC Dartmouth’ option paper seemed to have been staffed about 50 years ago and was just dusted off as required. There is also the possibly urban myth that the reason the Upholder class were scrapped was due to a planning round where the diesel submarine capability was offered up as a sacred cow, with the submarine force planners assuming no one would be foolish enough to take it…

The usual form is to leak or brief selected options which are hugely emotional and tap into the psyche of MPs and commentators, and then get them to fight a campaign to save X at all costs. This usually leads to lobbying, letters and pressure on Ministers, and if lucky direction that the Option won’t be taken forward after all. The problem is that this doesn’t make the financial pressure go away – and its usually only by taking tough calls like scrapping a capability outright that you can save the chunks of money required.

Why Royal, Why Now?
The challenge for the Royal Marines right now is that they look particularly vulnerable targets, with a highly specialised core role that is increasingly unlikely to be used in anger. The RM and the RN have long had a slightly odd, and at times, uneasy relationship. It is often forgotten these days that the role of amphibious warfare isn’t something that really took off until WW2, and that the RM have only been leading on it for about 70 years. Until that point they were arguably merely light infantry embarked on ships and the odd landing party.

The post war use of the RM saw them work across a variety of tasks such as Northern Ireland, and the withdrawal from Empire. From the 1960s onwards was a force optimised to go to Norway and halt any putative Russian advances, and then die bravely when things went badly wrong. The RN did not invest heavily in specialist amphibious shipping beyond a pair of LPDs (FEARLESS class) in the early 1960s, which were mostly used for training cadets or in reserve and absorbing into the RFA some tank landing ships to put troops ashore. A pair of carriers were converted into the LPH role (ALBION and BULWARK), but ALBION paid off quickly, and BULWARK spent much of her later life in reserve.

By 1981 the RM represented some 10% of the Naval Service and was subject to hard questions on its role, noting that much of their amphibious work could be done through using RORO shipping chartered in a hurry. The RM were facing swingeing cuts when they were saved by the Falklands War, a period which led to a renaissance in the amphibious force and made the RM politically untouchable. Over the next twenty years there was heavy investment in new shipping (a total of 6 LPDs and 6 RORO ferries were acquired) and the Corps escaped almost unharmed from Defence Reviews. Used operationally in Sierra Leone and the Gulf War, the RM was seen as a light infantry force able to deliver a Commando Brigade ashore with supporting enablers to allow them to fight and operate with allies or link up with wider UK elements. More widely the RM continued to provide security for the nuclear deterrent, boarding teams and other specialist roles as part of a wider package of capability.

The key point where things began to change was arguably OP HERRICK. At this point the Corps transitioned from being an organisation which fought from the sea onto the land, to one that spent many years focusing on being a land based warfighting force. The depth of commitment to HERRICK meant that the Corps lost a lot of its links to the wider RN; speaking to friends who served in the RM, many remark that during the HERRICK years the RM did very little with the RN at sea. This would have been fine for a short operation, but for a multi-year commitment it meant that an entire generation of Officers and NCOs were growing up who excelled at conventional land warfare, but who had lost touch with their maritime roots.

By Sea

At the same time, there was a growing sense in some parts of the RN that the RM was arguably a money pit that cost the RN a significant amount of time, money and platforms, but which delivered very little for the RN itself. Tellingly, during the worst years of the piracy issues in Somalia, the RN had to rely heavily on RNR ratings to form ships protection teams, not RM in part reportedly because the RM was so focused on Afghanistan. At a time when the RN was taking heavy cuts to ships and other platforms as part of budget reductions to help deliver success in Afghanistan, there was perhaps some resentment that the Corps delivered little, yet absorbed a huge amount of the Naval Service budget. What is the point of having an amphibious fleet, and maritime amphibious helicopter capability, if your amphibious troops are stuck in a cycle of deploying only to a landlocked country?

The 2010 SDSR marked the point where the RM began to see a real shift in approach, due to the reduction in how much amphibious shipping was available, and the ability to deploy a conventional landing force ashore. No longer would the UK seek to put the entirety of 3 CDO Bde ashore, but instead smaller landing forces would be deployed instead (thus enabling the paying off into reserve of one of the LPDs, and selling of an LSD(A)).

The RM managed to escape significant cuts in the 2015 SDSR, but by now had become proportionately a very large part of the Naval Service. In years gone by the Corps had averaged 8-10% of total Naval Service strength, but by 2015 this was closer to 25%. Given the widespread and savage manpower cuts to the rest of the Naval Service, questions were reportedly asked as to why the RM were so politically untouchable.

The Situation Today
In the current security environment that the UK faces, it is hard to see a need for a major amphibious lift capability to conduct opposed operations. This may sound like heresy to say, but if you consider that any major beach landing would be fraught with risk, and require major military support and logistical access to a port and airhead quickly to succeed, it is hard to see the circumstances where the UK and US would want to conduct such an operation. The political circumstances are such, that it is difficult to see the UK willingly wishing to indulge in a full scale amphibious assault against a hostile nation with a brigade sized force anytime in the future.

There are plenty of situations where the ability to transport equipment and people is vital – for instance conducting a NEO, or moving troops and supplies into a friendly country ahead of a wider land conflict. There are also circumstances where an ‘amphibious raid’ capability is equally important – the ability to quickly send a small number of troops ashore via helicopter or fast landing craft to conduct a specific mission, or diversionary raid is extremely useful.

Do these circumstances though require the Royal Marines to stay as they are, or could they be restructured? If the decision were made to move away from a large scale landing force into one that focused on smaller niche roles, then the benefits could be considerable.

Firstly it would enable the RN to look at savings on running of the two LPDs. These ships are immensely expensive primarily due to their HQ functions which support the planning of large and complex amphibious operations. A change in emphasis could reduce the need to have these ships active, allowing them to do other tasks, or be held at readiness and free up manpower. It would also allow the scaling down of the HQ organisations that support amphibious operations – plenty of people moan that the RN has too many 1*s and above – here is the chance to downgrade or scrap the planning staffs that support the larger operations and reduce the senior officer headcount.

Sea Soldiers in the Desert…

For the RM, the chance to re-embark at sea and focus on maritime counter piracy and security could be an opportunity to rebrand and reinvent the organisation, giving it a new lease of life. There is a real and pressing need to marinize the RM again, getting them used to being at sea, not permanently working ashore. At the same time it would free up a lot of highly trained infantry soldiers who could train to deliver boarding teams, and maritime counter piracy duties. This is a deeply complex role that requires a lot of training and support to get right, and is only going to grow in importance over the next few years.

Investing in niche roles such as this, or protection of nuclear weapons, and coupling this with a smaller ability to land raiding parties not brigades has the benefit of making the Corps far more valuable to keep in the long term. Right now it is arguably a light infantry brigade which has some other secondary duties tagged on the side. This is fine, but there are plenty of light infantry brigades out there, and probably too many soldiers in the Army as it is. If the RM were to refocus onto being sea going soldiers again, and deliver a small range of capabilities very well, then this makes them far harder to scrap entirely.

For the RM itself it also perhaps gives a chance to consider what it is they exist for, and how they can rebuild relationships with the RN. Speak to RM’s candidly, and you quickly pick up a deep sense of persecution and vulnerability. They feel unloved by the RN, and that they are held to a different expectation of standards of conduct. Issues such as the wearing of dresses, or the lads having very messy nights out point to a culture which is increasingly different to that of the wider Naval Service.

But speak to the RN and you sense a similar frustration with the RM, a sort of paternalistic groan at the exploits of junior marines who manage to do something which does real diplomatic damage to bilateral relations, or who are often perceived as social hand grenades. There is also a sense at times that the RM absorb money and people that could be better spent keeping other ships at sea, or on more escorts, more OPVs and more sailors to man them.

This sense of diverging paths stems from arguably too many years of the RM not working alongside matelots at sea, and becoming increasingly focused on just the land part of the littoral. A move to being back at sea, to working with sailors and showing the benefits of having embarked marines on a ship could be what is needed to rebuild this relationship.

HMS OCEAN

Where do we go from here?
It is too soon to know whether there is any likelihood of this option being taken. Downgrading the RM landing capability would be a considerable policy statement of future UK aspirations – it would essentially say that the UK is out of the major landing game, and could have significant repercussions for longer term equipment planning, such as future amphibious shipping plans.

Is the need to conduct major offensives, or to move highly skilled people quickly to disaster relief? Do you need the supporting enablers that 3 Cdo Bde has, liked the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Logistics Corps that right now are proving their value in supporting OP RUMAN in the West Indies? Can this be delivered by other means?

Given the current parlous state of finances to not do this means that the RN has to ask what else does it want to stop doing instead? It is difficult to see what can be stopped without having significant effect on either delivering Carrier Strike or the Deterrent, and in supporting ongoing operations. To find an extra £100m a year in savings without changing the RM would need major structural, manpower and operational changes, which would be challenging to deliver.

Ultimately the Naval Service needs to consider what effect does it wish to have on land, the extent to which being able to land the RM on land to be able to fight matters and whether it is better to step down from that level of capability, but instead fund specialist roles like maritime counter terrorism instead that could be of far more importance than a theoretical landing capability.

There is no right answer to this debate. It highlights how difficult it is for planners in the MOD to know what to do – they have to balance off the need to meet national policy goals, support military force levels and provide capabilities, all while guessing and second guessing what may, or may not, be needed in the future.

The history of the RM and the Parachute Regiment since 1945 seems to be that both are seen as light infantry forces capable of ‘kicking the door in’ but neither has really been used in this way for decades. Whether the cost of maintaining this capability is worth it, or whether it is better to refocus elsewhere is difficult to know. There is no right answer now, only time will prove whether the planners of today have the foresight to prevent their successors 30 years down the line from going ‘well we used to be able to do this, but we scrapped it 30 years ago to do that instead which it turns out we’ve never used’.

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