“Per Mare, Per Terram”
Alphen, Netherlands. 26 October. At a time when the deterrent power of capable expeditionary military power grows by the day the British government is again planning to cut long-term strategic capability to plug a short-term cash hole. Earlier this month Rear-Admiral A. J. Burton RN reportedly resigned his commission in protest at further planned cuts to the Royal Marines. Confirmed (further) cuts to the ‘Royals’ already include the loss of 200 Marines, vital training in the US and Norway, as well as battlefield training in Canada and Kenya. Planned cuts include the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s only two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, plus the loss of a further 1000 Royal Marines from a force that is only 7,500 strong plus 500 reserves. The US Marine Corps is some 182,000 strong, with 35,000 reserves. London (as usual) says that talk of such cuts is mere speculation. They always do…until they are confirmed, probably during a Christmas or summer parliamentary break to minimise political embarrassment. Still, this latest sorry British defence saga begs a question: does Britain still need the Royal Marines?
As I write up the last sentences of the massive GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report, which is due to be launched in November, the news that London is even considering cutting the Royals (again) fills me with despond. If realised such a cut would not only be the latest act of strategic illiteracy for which London has a now well-earned reputation, it would also be strategic lunacy. One of the report’s findings is that high-quality, expeditionary forces, such as the Royal Marines, have a deterrent and defence multiplier effect for NATO out of all proportion to their size, even if size, in the words of a once famous French car commercial, does indeed matter.
Naturally, the Ministry of Defence tries to smother such ‘speculation’ with the usual minister-protecting, politics-before-strategy civil service nonsense. The Government, we are told, is conducting a National Security Capability Review, not (of course) as a way of finding further cost-savings to plug a £30bn short-term cash flow hole, but to consider in the round how best to configure Britain’s future force for new forms of threat, such as hybrid and cyber warfare. This is also nonsense. It is not the job of Britain’s armed forces to deal with the bulk of hybrid and cyber threats. The mounting of such a defence requires a cross-government, whole-of-government effort. Such threats are simply being used by the Grand Budgeteers at HM Treasury to justify further cuts to elements of Britain’s vital expeditionary military capability in the ideological pursuit of balanced books by an arbitrary date at any strategic price.
Don’t worry, we are told, the Royals will in future be launched by helicopter from Britain’s two new aircraft carriers. More nonsense. A week ago, a recently-retired very senior Royal Navy officer and friend, someone who really knows about maritime/amphibious operations, contacted me. He said this: “The Royal Marines’ future is under severe threat. No amphibs (amphibious assault ships) means no sea-lift/effects from the sea; arguing that QNLZ (the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth) will launch helos with Royal is nonsense. No amphibs means no Royals in the Caribbean dealing with future HRDA (humanitarian disaster) demands. I’m surprised no-one has picked up the threads of the threat to the RMs…” A few years ago I was an Observer on Exercise Joint Warrior and I witnessed first-hand just what 3 Commando Brigade afforded Britain – discreet strategic influence and effect. In other words, the ability to deliver a powerful fighting force at short-notice to trouble-spots the world-over, and, if needs be, act as lead force during a more sustained campaign such as the ‘Major Joint Operation-plus’ at the heart of current NATO planning.
So, does Britain still need the Royal Marines? First, if one bothers to read Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, which is fast becoming one of the great works of British fiction, after over a decade of land-centric operations Britain’s defence strategy was to shift to a ‘joint’ expeditionary capability with a focus on the maritime/amphibious and land operations supported from the sea. After all, some 80% of the world’s population live less than 100 kms from the sea. Second, the whole justification of the two new 70,000 ton aircraft carriers was precisely such a strategy. However, carrier-enabled power projection (CEPP) only works IF carrier-strike works in conjunction with the maritime/amphibious capability, NOT at the expense of it. Third, implicit in SDSR 2015 was the creation of a joint expeditionary force of such high quality that it could also act as a coalition command hub. The Royals are thus vital not only to the realisation of such a strategy, but provide a very significant part of Britain’s strategic and force command influence over allies.
Further cuts to the Royals would also weaken a key influence tool, which London can ill afford to lose right now. In 2013 I had the honour of attending the fortieth anniversary of the UK Netherlands Amphibious Landing Force on board the HNLMS Rotterdam. In June of this year UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon signed a new agreement with the Dutch for closer defence co-operation, to which the Royals are vital. Further cuts to the Royal Marines will not only weaken that agreement, but place the future of both the Royals and the Korps Mariniers, the Royal Netherlands Marines Corps, in grave jeopardy.
Indeed, what I fear for the Royal Marines is something that I saw happening a decade ago to the Korps Mariniers, when I was a professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy. The Korps Mariniers is a superb fighting force. It is also a close partner of the Royal Marines. Indeed, the two forces are so close that the British and Dutch Marines are effectively inseparable. However, without the capability to deliver effects from the sea, or to control the Littoral, the Royals and the Korps will become little different from any other light infantry force. So, why not cut the Royals to avoid cutting the Army further?
The Royals also bring reputation to bear, which is a vital part of influence and effects across the conflict spectrum. A year or so ago I stood at the spot in Gibraltar where in August 1704 the Korps Mariniers and the Royal Marines landed. This Anglo-Dutch operation was a classic of its strategic kind. Indeed, this small force generated strategic effect out of all proportion to its size, blocked the French Navy, and gave Britain control of the gateway to the Mediterranean…which it still has. Britain needs more Royals not less of them!
Planned cuts to the Royals also begs a further question. Does London think Britain needs a strategic navy at all? The Royal Navy these days is a bijoux navy, a couple of soon-to-have flashy but under-equipped heavy carriers here, some ageing frigates there, and a few showcase nuclear-attack submarines, who knows if and when. Which brings me to the real issue implicit in this latest round of defence/influence destroying cuts: even though Britain, on paper at least, is a top five world economic and military power, too much of Britain’s elite Establishment no longer believes in Britain as a power. That lack of elite self-belief oozes through the Brexit negotiations, and threatens to weaken NATO at a crucial moment.
Is this the end of the Royal Marines? No. However, if these planned cuts do indeed go through it could well mark the beginning of the end of a world-class, world famous force that has served Britain since 1664. Which begs one final question: if marines are now deemed by London to be irrelevant why is it then that the Chinese, Russians and other powers are spending so much money creating the very kind of force Britain is proposing to cut…again?
Per Mare, Per Terram? Britain does, indeed, need the Royal Marines, and given what they can do, the flexibility and the capability with which they do ‘it’. London either chooses not to understand such ‘Grand Strategy for Dummies’, or simply does not care. One more thing: Britain is an island.