hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Why the Royal Marines are in Danger

Alphen, Netherlands. 9 November. Funny day yesterday. Last night I gave evidence to the Canadian Parliament’s National Defence Commission on Canada in NATO. There I was, all steamed up to debate the future of the Alliance with senior Canadian parliamentarians. Yet, all they really seemed bother about was NATO as mechanism to promote more women to top military jobs. Simple; just treat men and women equally and select the best. Earlier in the day my new paper Future War NATO ( had really started to bounce around, and I even found time to berate an old friend, Steve Erlanger of the New York Times. Steve, who is truly one of the great journalists, had written what I thought was a rather sulky piece in which he trumpeted the current German line that Brexit is an act of ‘controlled suicide’ by the British.  Given the political mess in London he may be right, but the article was not up to Steve’s usual high standards. To make his case he had only interviewed Brussels-based EU-philes (and no-one else) and asked them what they thought of Britain and Brexit. Der!  

However, this blog is motivated by none-of-the-above. Rather, it was the appearance on a flagship BBC radio news programme of another old friend, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, the commander of US forces in Europe.  Ben warned the British against planned further cuts to the British armed forces, and made a particular plea to London not to cut further the Royal Marines, and the two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.
Regular readers will recall that a couple of weeks ago I warned that any such cuts would put the future existence of one of the most respected fighting forces the world -over at risk. The piece also warned that the US Marines Corps would (not for the first time) have to cover for another act of strategic illiteracy in London and the British sea-blindness (!!!) it is fostering.  Apologists for the May Government (is it still a government or just a shambles in office?) happily told me I was wrong.  No, they said, the then Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon to the fore, henceforth the Royal Marines would be launched by helicopter from the new heavy British aircraft-carrier(s).  This is bullxit and here is why.

In 2009 I undertook a major study for the then Head of the Royal Netherlands Navy into so-called riverine or brown water operations.  At the time I was head of a department of military operational art and science at the Netherlands Defence Academy and I was supported in my efforts by a wonderful team of experienced Dutch officers and experts.  The problem I was asked to address was this: how to land a force from the sea to secure a bridgehead at a level of cost and risk that political masters would deem acceptable.
At the heart of the research was the concept of Ship to Objective Manoeuvre or STOM.  Put simply, STOM is the distance an amphibious force must travel between the ship that launches it and the objective it is charged with securing.  In practice that means anchoring large, expensive, naval grey floaty things close to the shore, or littoral as it is known in the trade, so that not only the force can get ashore quickly, but also the heavy kit vital to the effective conduct of operations.

As part of the research my team looked at a whole host of options that might reduce the cost/risk per ship per operation.  We held a conference in Den Helder, the main Dutch fleet base, with leading officers from marines across the Alliance, including the Royal Marines and the US Marine Corps.  We even invited two Dutch salvage companies, Mammoet and Smit Tak, to help identify solutions, and to see if the civilian and military sectors could work in harness, which they proved to great effect. The final report, Effects in the All Water Battlespace: Riverine Operations, is sitting in front of me in my desk as I write, and I am proud of it and the team who worked on it.

Here’s the thing.  To make STOM work it is necessary to launch marines and their kit from a bespoke amphibious assault ship relatively close to shore.  It is pure military fantasy to suggest that a British politician, few of whom demonstrate any political or strategic backbone these days, would order the new £3bn, 1500 crew, 70,000 ton aircraft-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to be effectively parked close to a hostile shore-line from which anti-ship missiles could well issue forth to launch Royal Marines for which it was not designed.  It is also pure military fantasy to suggest that ‘Big Lizzie’ could launch Royal Marines in any strength from far out at sea in helicopters.

It is this basic contradiction of military reality that torpedoes the Carrier-enabled Power Projection strategy or CEPP which is driving this nonsense. Or, to put it another way, it is impossible to launch effective carrier-strike and effective maritime-amphibious operations on any scale from one ship, however big, at an acceptable level of risk to either the ship or the force.  The job of carrier-strike is to provide force protection for a deployed force by standing offshore, not what in military-strategic terms is inshore.

The Dutch have a word for stupid (in fact they have several all of which have at one time or another been applied to me) ‘stom’.  If the British do proceed with the planned cuts to the Royal Marines, a force that also supplies some 50% of Britain’s defence-critical Special Operations Forces, it will be ‘stom’.  Indeed, such a decision would to all intents and purposes end the ability of the British to conduct STOM. Given that is what marines are for, it would also mean the effective end of the Royal Marines as an amphibious force.

Canada? Ottawa must wake up to Canada’s changing role in a changing, dangerous world in which the Americans might not always be there to hold their hands.  Indeed, all the comforting values-based, strategic political correctness upon which the strategy-lite, power-lite Canadian defence policy is based, it belongs to a prior age not this one.  During the hearing I kept hearing how much Canada is respected in NATO.  Yes, Canada is respected, but mainly for the past, not for the present, and barely figures at all when discussing NATO’s future.  Given Canada’s historic role that is not only a real shame, but a disservice to a truly great country.

Julian Lindley-French  

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